Era of crises threatening global health calls for new frontiers in health politics

Posted on Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The world economy is entering an era of interacting crises involving food security, finance and climate change, ultimately affecting population health within and across national borders.

The article Multiple crises and global health: New and necessary frontiers of health politics, published in the journal Global Public Health, by uOttawa professor Ted Schrecker[1] describes these crises, their implications on global public health and what researchers and health practitioners must do in the face of these challenges.

Professor Schrecker states, “To engage effectively in the new politics of global health required by this era of multiple crises, health researchers and practitioners must be willing to get involved in debates about economic and environmental policies and their consequences. Without necessarily becoming experts in these fields, they must redefine their professional roles to include the ability to speak clearly and authoritatively about the consequences for population health and health equity.”

Rising food prices in 2007–2008 led to short-term increases in cases of under-nutrition in many low income countries, a situation that will likely lead to more serious long-term consequences. After a decline in 2008, food price indices began to steadily climb once again. By August 2011, one widely used index was higher than at its peak in 2008. Large-scale acquisitions of agricultural land in low- and middle-income countries by foreign investors and food-importing governments present a further threat to food security in the future.

The financial crisis that spread across the world in 2008 magnified the effects of increases in food prices in low-income countries and poses a threat to the already inadequate development assistance related to health. Many OECD economies have also suffered a great deal, with an unemployment rate upwards of 23% (50% for youth) in Spain, an invisible army of 14 million US households facing foreclosure and one in four US children receiving the federal food vouchers. The full extent of longer-term consequences has not yet been determined.

Climate change unfolds over a longer time scale, but some effects may already be upon us. A 2009 report in The Lancet described global warming as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century” because of impacts such as the expanded range of disease-transmitting organisms like the mosquitoes that carry malaria, increased incentives for migration and decreased crop yields.

Profound issues of social justice arise because the people primarily and most severely affected by food insecurity, financial volatility and climate change are poor and otherwise marginalized individuals who had no role in creating these crises, and have no control over their outcomes. 

Avoiding future crises and limiting the resulting negative health impacts will require international cooperation to create supranational mechanisms of regulation and accountability. This means confronting powerful industries like world-scale investment banks, agribusinesses and oil companies, as well as facing down influential constituencies within the borders of food-importing countries and those that contribute most to global warming.

[1] Clinical Scientist, Bruyère Research Institute; Adjunct Professor of Epidemiology and Community Medicine, and Principal Scientist, Institute of Population Health, University of Ottawa.

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