“The Poor” and the value of health care

“The Poor” and the value of health care

When Dr. Butchart, a missionary sent by the predecessor to Global Ministries, opened his clinic in Hefei, China in the late 1890’s his greatest challenge was trying to…

When Dr. Butchart, a missionary sent by the predecessor to Global Ministries, opened his clinic in Hefei, China in the late 1890’s his greatest challenge was trying to prove to people that his methods worked, even though they were based off of a complete different understanding of the body. He felt that if they understood how his treatments worked they would see the value of what he was offering.

In his diary he recounts a frustrating interaction he had had with a young woman to underscore this point. She had walked days to reach him, so he knew it had to be important but all he could understand was that there was something wrong with her eyes. Each time he inspected her eyes, he found nothing wrong, but the young woman wouldn’t leave. Finally, through what must have been an incredible feat of cross-cultural sign language, he figured out that it wasn’t her eyes that were the problem, but her mother’s. Dr. Butchart instructed her to bring her mother in the next morning, only to find out that the mother was still back in the village. In his diary Dr. Butchart laments that he could have done so much more if only she had understood medicine.

I am afraid that there are still many organizations 120 years later that approach medicine in developing countries with this same attitude – that “the poor” are a group that simply don’t appreciate their health. After all, if healthcare really were a priority wouldn’t every Congolese family sleep under mosquito nets? Wouldn’t every Indian mother have her children vaccinated? The research shows that these “simple” efforts can have a real impact on the health of a community. These organizations though are ignoring the reality of living in economic poverty.

As discussed in detail in the fascinating book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, it is not that the poor undervalue their health; it is that poverty forces individuals to make choices few of us ever have to contemplate. Imagine your family lives in a country where malaria is common, every day you may be bitten several times by mosquitoes but you have never had malaria. You know others who have had malaria, and the clinic in the town nearby can treat it, but it is expensive. You can either pay out of your limited daily wages for preventative measures, which don’t have any signs that they have kept you safe, or you can hope your good luck continues so that you have enough money to send a child to school, or provide larger meals for your family, or repair the hole in your roof that leaks every time it rains (all of which have more tangible results).

Some might even argue that this is just a lack of education – clearly the risk of an expensive illness is worth the cost of prevention. We should remember though that in the United States many people between the age of 20 and 30 have made the same difficult choice as those in developing countries by forgoing health insurance to stretch their limited monthly budgets.

As Global Ministries partner Educación Popular en Salud reminds us, in far too many countries health care has become a commodity that can be bought and sold instead of being a basic right. This thinking combined with the American emphasis on capitalism creates a dangerous paradigm – the rich live longer than the poor because they have earned it. I am pleased to be reminded of Global Ministries’ commitment to Justice, as we walk with partners who affirm that God’s abundant life is for all people, regardless of their income or the difficult decisions that a lack of resources may force some to make.