Bridging the gap

“Countries that can afford vaccines save themselves first and, when the worst has passed, transfer their leftovers to the poor, using the W.H.O. as a clearinghouse.” –The New York Times

On February 1st, The New York Times published an article entitled Progress Is Slow on Moving Surplus Swine Flu Vaccine to Countries That Need It. The article focused on the issue of excess swine flu vaccines from North American and European countries that purchased millions of doses as a response to the H1N1 scare. According to the article, in the US alone, only about 62 million out of the 251 million doses ordered were actually given out. While the rest of the rich countries are trying to get rid of their surplus vaccines, the poor countries have not even received any so far. With all these excess, the rich countries turn to the other side to either sell them or “donate” them to the poorer areas that are still inflicted by the H1N1 virus. Reading the article was deeply frustrating and maddening to certain extent. But I think that this article opens up specific issues that are important matters to look into: 1) existing health inequalities around the world, 2) relationship between poverty and mortality, and 3) the role of the West regarding these matters.

The disparity between the available care being given to developed countries and developing countries are out of proportion. Developed countries have always had the resources to be able to provide their population with the proper health care services while for the countries who barely reach a certain amount of GNP (Gross National Income), the gap between available care and the magnitude of need is too big to provide immediate solution to. I think part of the problem lies not only in the corrupt nature of the governments in these developing countries, but also in the level of priority being given to improving health. To most countries, it’s a choice whether to give their people more food or medicine. Which will better sustain their population? Because of the existing health inequality and wealth disparity across the world, it is easy to understand why poor countries rely on rich countries for assistance in the face of  unfortunate circumstances. Without Western aid, mortality is inevitable for most of these countries.

Whether or not the West is actually doing good to the developing countries is a matter of perspective. In the case of the H1N1 vaccines, I see it more as a desperate need to dispose  more than an attempt to reach out to those actually inflected . By selling / lending / donating those vaccines, Western countries will possibly escape public contempt against the awful amount of vaccines wasted due to misjudgment and unreliable data. The intention is highly questionable. Furthermore, are these vaccines still as effective? This issue forces me to assert that the Western idea of aid to the developing world involves more for their gain than for those whom they are trying to give aid to.

When western aid is mentioned, I think more of it as a modern version of White Man’s Burden in which the West believes in their moral duty to provide help to developing countries. We are under this belief that we have to save the rest of the world.  But if we look at things in a whole different angle, we will realize that the problem lies on this idea itself.  I think what I am trying to say is that we need to start thinking and evaluating whether this system of aid still works. There is nothing wrong in providing help to those who need it, but it is especially necessary that we understand the context of the problem we’re trying to solve. Although NGOs are emerging in different parts of the world, they all have different ideas on how to attack problems such as health and poverty. We have always looked at it as, “this is what we think they need, then we give this to them.” I doubt such strategy is going to solve anything.

The lack in health care cannot only be answered by providing free or cheap medicines, but also through providing better public health education and infrastructure that will support the country overall. We have to remember that a big part of the health disparity is due to the lack of monetary resources and economic instability. If that’s the case, we just don’t hand them millions of dollars as a response. They need a better source of income; thus, empowering the population to start small businesses  that will stimulate economic growth in the  micro level. Poor countries don’t need our leftovers. Poor countries need to be empowered so they can start building a foundation for themselves to actually bridge the health inequality gap on their own. Unless we think of aid this way, developing countries will remain in the same poverty-mortality cycle – inevitable to the next generations.

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