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Reporting from Argentina on a global push for health and environmental justice

Introduction by Croakey: Professor Fran Baum AO, a Professor of Health Equity at The Stretton Institute, The University of Adelaide, was one of four Australians to participate in the 5th People’s Health Assembly in Argentina earlier this month.

Below, she reports on some key discussions and outcomes – including a statement advocating for primary healthcare and resistance to privatisation and corporatisation of healthcare, as well as for environmental and health justice.

Baum also outlines plans to increase the activities of the People’s Health Movement in Australia.

The power of such gatherings includes bringing “an injection of solidarity, excitement and hope that a better world in which health for all is realised can be possible”, she writes.


Fran Baum writes:

More than 600 health activists from 61 countries gathered in Mar del Plata, Argentina for the 5th People’s Health Assembly. The Assembly was inspiring and lifted the spirits of all of us there.

The PHA5 is not normal conference – it is the place where the People’s Health Movement (PHM) analyses the global political economy of health, presents activist strategies, and plans for the future.

At the end of the Assembly, the Mar del Plata Call to Action was unanimously adopted by the whole Assembly and read by the younger members of PHM.

The analytical starting point for the Assembly was a very progressive background paper (whose development was led by Australia’s David Legge).

The Assembly opened with an Indigenous ceremony which celebrated the importance of Mother Earth to the health of everyone. The ceremony made us all feel welcome and reminded us of the importance of Indigenous wisdom and the need to protect planet earth’s ecosystems which are under such threat.

Opening ceremony. Photo supplied by author

Solidarity

Solidarity with Palestine was the focus of the first plenary. We had hoped to be joined by comrades from Palestine but they were denied visas. They did Zoom in to the session.

Dr Mustafa Barghouti, a long term PHM member and Head of the Palestinian National Initiative, spoke passionately about the health impacts of 75 years of occupation and the impact of the Gaza war on health services.

The details are now well known – over 500 health workers killed, health facilities bombed, malnutrition widespread with children dying of starvation – all contributing to the genocide.

We also heard from Shatha Odeh, who was illegally imprisoned for over a year by the Israeli occupying force in the West Bank.

Most importantly, the Assembly showed its solidarity with Palestine with many chants of “Free, Free Palestine” and hearing presentations from Palestinians throughout the proceedings.

Monday’s plenary was on “Promoting ancestral and popular knowledges and practices: towards biocentric policies based on the sense of belonging”. This session focused on Indigenous knowledges and health.

Pat Anderson AO, an Alyawarre woman who is known nationally and internationally as a powerful advocate for the rights, health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, spoke about the defeated referendum on the Voice to Parliament and the promise of the Uluru Statement.

For many delegates it was the first time they had heard details of the situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Pat Anderson AO, on a conference march. Photo supplied

 

Gender justice

Tuesday’s plenary was on “Gender Justice in Health: Intersectional Feminist Praxis for Health Justice”.

Many examples of violence against women were described, including a powerful testimony from a mother about her daughter, Lucia Perez, who had been murdered by narco-gangs – a widespread problem in the Americas.

Multiple examples of the denial of women’s and girls’ control over their bodies were provided and the complementary sub-plenary on sexual and reproductive health rights provided further examples with Australia’s Dr Connie Musolino kicking off the session with a forensic analysis of  the commercialisation of reproductive health services  and how they can exploit women.

We also heard from a 95-year-old Argentinian human rights lawyer, Nellie Minyersky, who spoke passionately about the fight for abortion rights in Argentina, the threat they were now under and the need for renewed activism to preserve them. We all wished we are as lucid and active when we are 95!

Sharad Onta from Nepal spoke about the struggles for gender justice in Nepal.

Dr Connie Musolino. Photo supplied.
Nellie Minyersky and other activists for abortion access. Photo supplied

From corporatisation to ecosystems

In Wednesday’s plenary on ‘Towards the Transformation of the Health System: the Political Economy of the Struggle for Health’, speakers stressed the ways in which capitalism has undermined the human right to health services and turned health into a commodity through the corporatisation of health systems and downgrading of public systems in many countries across the world.

One example cited by Abhay Shukla was that in India foreign investment in the hospital sector increased over a hundred-fold in a decade from INR 0.3 billion in 2001-02 to INR 39.95 billion in 2013-14.

I spoke about the extent to which capitalism is alienating, causing significant health impacts and also encouraging some alienated people to turn to right-wing populist leaders such as the recently elected Argentinian president Javier Milei, who is cutting the public sector to the bone.

An analysis of the gross inequities thrown up by COVID-19 and inequitable access to vaccines and other technologies in all Southern countries was highlighted as a stark reminder of global health inequities.

Thursday’s plenary ‘Ecosystem Health: Food energy climate: Civilisation crisis and the collective struggle for Buen Vivir’ went beyond documenting the multi-ecological, food, water and climate crisis to imagining what a better world might be like.

The concept of Buen Vivir was used to provide a vision of a society not based on capitalist extractivism but rather on people’s and the planet’s needs and health met through a collective social endeavour, rather than an individualist competitive contest.

Each afternoon there were multiple workshops to choose. I facilitated a workshop organised by Global Health 50/50 on ‘Generating political demands for accountability for gender justice in global health’.

We heard about the work of Global Health 50/50, which monitors the lack of gender equity in global health organisations. From the floor there was much discussion of the struggles of women at the grassroots and how gender justice is denied across Africa, in Asia and the Caribbean.

Resistance and regulation

At a further workshop sponsored by the BMJ on its National Health Service Commission entitled ‘Why can’t all countries have an NHS?’, we heard from one of the BMJ editors, Richard Hurley, about how the BMJ Commission is making recommendations for what is likely to be an incoming UK Labour Government.

Then Mario Rovere spoke about Argentina and Cuba, and T.Sundarsraman about India, with each stressing the march of private health services.

Professor Jennie Popay from the UK spoke about the importance of community and patient involvement in national health services; if there had been more of this in the UK NHS, it would have been harder for the conservative government to run down the NHS, she suggested.

One of the most impactful sub-plenaries was on ‘Financialisation, privatisation and corporate capture of health systems’. Quite frankly, this discussion frightened me.

Nicolette Dentico started off with a forensic analysis of the processes of financialisation that are undermining public health systems. She described how the financial sector has grown hugely since the 1980s and is investing in so many sectors that directly affect our health, including health services, insurance, waters, intellectual property, bio-surveillance, overseas development aid and establishing multiple public private partnerships.

Abhay Shukla (India) gave us a gli