Health sector will bear brunt of global crises, says top UN health official

A health worker examines an infant at a busy clinic in South Asia

20 March 2009 – Today's global crises, whether the economic downturn or climate change, are the result of bad policies and it is the health sector that will bear the brunt of their consequences, the top United Nations health official has warned.

“The world is in a mess, and much of this mess is of our own making,” Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), said in an address on Wednesday to the 23rd Forum on Global Issues in Berlin, Germany.

“Events such as the financial crisis and climate change are not quirks of the marketplace, or quirks of nature. They are not inevitable events in the up-and-down cycle of human history.

“Instead, they are markers of massive failure in the international systems that govern the way nations and their populations interact. They are markers of failure at a time of unprecedented interdependence among societies, capital markets, economies, and trade.

“In short, they are the result of bad policies. We have made this mess, and mistakes today are highly contagious,” she stated.

The WHO chief stressed that it is the health sector that will bear the heaviest burden of the global financial crisis, for example.

She cited great concern among countries that health may worsen as unemployment rises and spending on health drops. There is equal worry about mental illness and anxiety, as well as a possible jump in the use of tobacco, alcohol and other harmful substances.

Poor nutrition is another major concern. “When times are hard, processed foods, high in fats and sugar and low in essential nutrients, become the cheapest way to fill a hungry stomach. These foods contribute to obesity and to diet-related chronic diseases, and they starve young children of essential nutrients,” she noted.

Ms. Chan argued that economic decisions within a country will not automatically protect the poor or guarantee universal access to basic health care.

“Globalization will not self-regulate in ways that favour fair distribution of benefits. Corporations will not automatically look after social concerns as well as profits. International trade agreements will not, by themselves, guarantee food security, or job security, or health security, or access to affordable medicines.

“All of these outcomes require deliberate policy decisions,” she stressed.

In addition, she pointed out that climate change impacts some of the most fundamental determinants of health, such as air, food and water, and will most likely result in increased malnutrition and disease, among other things.

And while climate change is, by its nature, a global phenomenon, its consequences will not be evenly distributed, she said, noting that scientists agree that developing countries will be the first and hardest hit.

“Anything we can do now to reduce existing burdens of disease will increase national and international capacity to cope with the new stresses that come with climate change,” said Ms. Chan.

She also noted that up to now, the polar bear has been the poster child for climate change. “We need to use every politically correct and scientifically sound trick in the book to convince the world that humanity really is the most important species endangered by climate change.”


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