No health without human rights.
Way back in the mid-1990's I was lucky enough to find myself in an American literature class taught by the best teacher I ever had, Dr. Deborah Barnes. One spring day Dr. Barnes blew my mind wide open with a simple question:
Why do we pay for water?
All our young minds started spinning out all the reasons for charging people for the most necessary of human necessities. For every reason, Dr. Barnes (or should I say Socrates?) threw back at us: Why?
We came up with a dozen factually correct answers. They were all good reasons, but not the one she wanted us to see. We grew confused and agitated by her questions. Dr. Barnes eventually took pity on us and explained to us that society (people) decided to set up a system that required the water users to pay. It didn’t have to be that way. It could be any other way we decided it to be.
Society (people) decide.
It’s not an inherent condition of existence that water should cost anyone money (or anything else). We all get air for free. For now.
The realization that the society we live in was created and designed by human beings fundamentally shifted my point of view about social norms, laws, political systems, gender roles, you name it! Maybe it sounds a bit silly or simple now, but to me at the age of 20, this was a radical idea. I was never the same again. As they say, there are some things you can’t un-see. I couldn’t un-see this deep essential truth: If we create the society we live in, then we also create inequality and injustice. Woah. Now that’s deep.
Inequality is the root of much human suffering and disease.
Just think for a moment about some of the social determinants of health: racism/segregation, gender inequality, poverty, water/air quality, educational attainment, etc. In every case those in the privilege class/es have access to resources, choices, and opportunities that the less privileged do not. This isn’t an accident or a coincidence.
Human beings created inequality.
Human beings can erase inequality.
We (you, me and the rest of the do-gooders) must decide to organize our societies in equitable ways. That’s the only way to achieve our goals of ending extreme poverty and AIDS, and all the other “save the humans” stuff we have dedicated our lives to doing. We must advocate and fight for policies and laws that promote and protect each of our individual rights to employment, equal protection under the law, education, healthcare, reproductive choice, marriage and family, and freedoms of belief, thought and expression (to name just several of our essential human rights).
Some of the work has already been done. Some smart people designed a framework for making these crazy human equality dreams come true — The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration is over 70 years old and guess what? We still don’t live by it. Not really.
We have the impossible job of creating a world that works to protect and secure these basic human rights for all people regardless of where they are born, or the body they were born into, or how much wealth they have. True human equality.
Now I know that true human equality isn’t going to make all the malaria or cancer just disappear from the Earth. I understand that disease and injury will still happen. I understand that some people will still choose to take advantage of other people. I get it. People will still be jerks sometimes and terrible things will still happen to good people. I’m not naive. Ok, maybe a little bit.
But I also know that if we all lived in a society that protected all of our individual human rights, then we would be in a lot better position to tackle the impossible challenges like cancer and global climate change. I’m asking all of us to be willing to do the hard work of speaking truth to power, standing up for the powerless, advocating for laws that protect and promote human rights. It ain’t going to be easy. But I know we can do it.