public health

On public health inequality: The greatest challenge we face

Five pills rattle from a plastic prescription vial into my grandfather’s cupped palms. He beckons me to his side for help. This is a feeling that I know too well—over the last few years, his health has been declining due to his kidney failure. I’m glad that we are there to take care of him as his body copes with this condition, but billions around the world don’t have the luxury of accessible treatments. Public healthcare—a human right—is denied to a large portion of the world’s population, and this significantly hinders progress in global public health.

In the twenty-first century, healthcare access is far from universal. Although we frequently hear the statistic that 9% of U.S. citizens are uninsured, the reality is that this widespread problem extends far beyond our borders. In Afghanistan, for example, more than half of childhood deaths are attributable to causes including vaccine-preventable diseases, respiratory infections, and diarrhea. Around the world, the lack of accessibility to healthcare has rendered the marvels of medicine invisible to 2 billion people.

Perhaps most surprising is that this disquieting reality is no accident, and the people that should be held responsible in fact wield the most power.

Welcome to the world of big pharma. Ideally, this world would be characterized by pharmaceuticals striving to bring the best healthcare to everyone: by engaging in research to create effective treatments affordable for everybody; by expanding outreach into underserved regions of the  world; and by holding other pharmaceutical corporations accountable for their actions through healthy free-market competition.

However, today’s disquieting reality shows that this has failed to happen.

First is the problem of monopolization. Healthy competition is necessary to motivate drug research and development, maintain stable prices over time, and ensure high-quality products. However, rising pharma monopolies are in control of a vast range of drugs, thereby having a powerful influence on the market. In turn, this authority allows them to increase drug prices as they please, at the expense of customers who don’t have other choices. To see this in action, one needs to look no further than Valeant Pharmaceuticals, who in 2015 did just that. By purchasing smaller drug companies that had monopolies over their drugs and marking up their prices exponentially, Valeant was able to exploit the customers who depended on those pills to survive. Although Valeant was a single company, its actions are representative of the majority of pharmaceuticals: corporations exploiting the dark side of capitalism.

When I read about this on The New Yorker, hearing of this corporate scandal sparked a worrisome thought in my mind—to some healthcare providers, our lives are reduced to a dollar sum, and whenever possible, they will take the dollar over the life.

Even more concerningly, this profit-oriented corporate model has prevented problems from being addressed developing countries. As a report from the Access to Medicine Foundation cites, 91 of 139 urgently needed vaccines and drugs in developing countries have yet to be developed, whereas most treatments needed in the developed world are addressed immediately. As the regions that suffer most from diseases are under the poverty line, most people can’t pay the exorbitant costs of new drugs. Hence, pharmaceuticals may not profit if they help them, so they stand by in the face of chaos. Thus, it’s clear that using big pharma as a public health approach has failed.

The people affected by this are all around us—they are our neighbors and friends, our grandparents and cousins, and our brothers and sisters. They call upon us to help them in this era. It’s appalling that lives are exploited like this in the twenty-first century. It’s time for a change to occur, but how should it take place?

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Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders advocating for public healthcare. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For a policy shift to occur, a mindset shift must happen first. We must recognize that healthcare is not a commodity to be marked up and sold at the expense of the public, but is instead a human right all should enjoy. Democratic presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are intent on exposing the corruption behind big pharma. Certainly, spreading awareness on a large scale is a necessary prerequisite for change to occur. Although common people like you and I may not have this influence, the very least we can do is to inform our families and friends of the problem and what’s at stake.

Once a mindset shift takes place, legislation will inevitably follow. But when writing our laws, we must think not only of lifting up ourselves, but also helping those in poverty-stricken, underserved regions lift up themselves as well. Too long have big pharma served the needs of the developed world while turning a blind eye to those in even greater need. If we one day legislate the idea of equality in our laws, our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world will thank us for giving them the healthcare that they deserve.

Thus, the road to an ideal worldwide healthcare system may be winding and arduous, but through the combined voices of those speaking out, we may one day achieve the change we all deserve.

Further reading:

  1. Cox, Joseph. “Surprise! Big Pharma Don’t Want Developing Countries Having Access to Cheap Medicine.” Vice, 18 Oct. 2013, www.vice.com/da/article/8g344x/american-lobbyists-are-fighting-to-halt-the-availability-of-affordable-medicine-to-the-3rd-world.
  2. Grayson, Brandon. “Developing Countries’ Medical Needs Unfulfilled by Big Pharma – Validated Independent News.” Project Censored, 5 Apr. 2019, www.projectcensored.org/developing-countries-medical-needs-unfulfilled-by-big-pharma/?doing_wp_cron=1566684150.2732050418853759765625.
  3. McGreal, Chris. “Capitalism Gone Wrong: How Big Pharma Created America’s Opioid Carnage.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 July 2019, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jul/24/opioids-crisis-big-pharma-drugs-carnage.

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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