24 September 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Health Opportunities and Human Rights

Author: dunawaya

As a teenager I volunteered with a government subsidized food pantry and second-hand store in Jackson, Mississippi.  A thin, older man shuffled into the warehouse wearing tattered clothes and shoes with holes that exposed his sockless feet.  I believed him to be homeless but felt it rude to ask as he gave me a toothless grin and a slip of paper.  The slip of paper was more of a golden ticket as it was his allotted government allowance of exactly what he could have that year:  two pairs of more-than-gently worn shoes, a package of socks, two pairs of used slacks, and three used collared shirts.  Having been raised to respect my elders, I was uncomfortable, as a mere 15-year-old girl, telling a 65-year-old he could have so little when he clearly needed more.  I was embarrassed to offer him used clothes that smelled like the warehouse in which they were kept and found it odd the man did not seem to notice my discomfort.  Every “Yes, Miss” and “Thank you, Miss” opened my eyes to his genuine gratitude for my help and everything he was afforded, no matter its condition.  My stomach knotted as I thought of my loving family in our manicured three-story house with a kitchen full of food and closets full of clothes.  The old man was pleasant and soft-spoken with kind eyes and a warm soul.  In my young mind, I began to question why did I have more than him?  Where was his loving family?  Surely, he did not choose to live that way.  I thought, what happened in his life that led him to where he is today?

Seven years later, I found myself volunteering in the poorest areas of Tijuana, Mexico as a veterinary technician.  We tried to keep in our seats as our van full of doctors, technicians, and donated medical supplies made its way down a narrow, neglected road.  As we pulled into a potholed, dirt drive I made note of the abandoned, burned cars, tires, and assorted scrap metals in the overgrown yard of our clinic for the day.  Inside, the building was dank – just four walls lined with shelves of unknown chemicals in large assorted, dusty glass bottles.  The concrete floor might as well have been dirt.  Despite its appearance, however, the building was a very successful perfume factory that manufactured and distributed its products to the US and Europe.  I spent the day examining and anesthetizing pets for surgery while educating local residents on zoonotic disease and how to protect themselves and their families from the parasites and diseases their pets may have been harboring.  The conditions I worked in were less than ideal but the shacks from which the families emerged were deplorable.  Members from the community explained to me they were forced to keep their homes and businesses, like the perfume factory, in these conditions because any sign of success or wealth would catch the eye of their police, the Federales.  Having been detained at gunpoint, questioned and “taxed” by them myself I could sympathize with the community’s fears.  I still vividly remember standing in San Diego, in one of the world’s most progressive nations, looking across to Tijuana, my eyes crossing an imaginary line into an impoverished country, plagued by oppression.  This oppression predisposes populations to unnecessary health risks.  The factory was not owned by someone who lived in Tijuana.  The owner lived in a wealthier area of Mexico and profited off the cheap labor where the factory was located.  Living without running water, air conditioning or heat, in structurally unsound houses, and working in unsafe, unregulated factories, while children play in the streets with stray animals exposes Tijuana’s communities to disease, injury and environmental hazards.  It was an unfortunate realization that these otherwise happy and friendly people were unable to invest in and enjoy modern amenities that would ultimately improve their health on account of a tyrannical police force.  In essence, these people had been robbed of their power to lead healthy lives.

While at the time I did not know the term to describe the phenomenon I was seeing, I know it now to be social determinants of health.  We all have a right to be healthy but politics, social policies and economics all influence our lives whether we realize it or not.  Ideally, we like to think the man in Mississippi was born with the same opportunities as I was – after all, we are both American.  However, this is often not the case.  And ideally, a government should promote and protect the health and well-being of their people.  Instead, the political violence and exploitation experienced by the communities in Tijuana prevents them from making healthy decisions they would otherwise have the freedom to make.

These experiences, among many others, and the inherent health disparities they expose has led me to pursue a Master’s in Public Health.  Health disparities are intimately intertwined with human rights, and whether in Mississippi or Tijuana, we are all ultimately affected.  Missouri is certainly no exception and I am pleased to work with MOHEC to raise awareness of these inequalities and help create a better, healthier place to live, work and play.

About the Author:

Libby Hicks is a MOHEC graduate assistant and Master of Public Health student at the University of Missouri.

The opinions and views expressed in this blog and/or comments are those of the author(s) and do not reflect any position of the Center or the University.

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