There is an image that has been haunting me in my sleep for the past many months now. It is an image from the first wave of bombing raids carried out by US warplanes in the town of Basra in southern Iraq.
In this image there is a tired, broken Iraqi father who is lifting up the limp body of his dead 10 year old daughter from the rubble of his bombed out home. If one could freeze all the tragedy possible, anywhere, within one human lifetime- this would be the image to capture it. A distraught father with his dead daughter.
Now what do health, media or globalization have to do with this image and the incident it represents?
Before I get to that, I want to make a confession. For quite some time now I have had a problem in understanding even the simplest of terms – very common words like health, media and globalization for example.
Maybe this is because, as a journalist for nearly two decades, I have been reading too many newspapers that lie and watching too many television talk shows that distort all reality. Or yet again, it may be because of that image of the Iraqi father and his dead daughter that has been haunting me, forcing me to search for meaning beyond mere words. Whatever the reason for my confusion, let me try to understand and clarify the these three terms one by one, in the context of the times we live in.
First, let us take the word â€˜healthâ€™. For years together, as a journalist and as a citizen with some minimum education I always thought health was all about biology, medicine, doctors, hospitals. Makes sense, doesnâ€™t it? Ill health is caused by disease. Bacteria or viruses cause disease. And all these problems in turn can be treated with medicine prescribed by doctors in their hospitals.
All that was till I had the good fortune of attending the first Peopleâ€™s Health Assembly in Dhaka, Bangladesh in the winter of 2000 as a journalist helping out with their media work. It was there while listening to the hundreds of health activists from around the globe, reading the papers they presented and talking to many of them that I realized a few very simple things.
First of all your, my or anyoneâ€™s health is not a mere function of our individual behavior alone but also the behavior of entire societies. It is a direct function of the politics, economics, ecology and culture of the world we live in.
Before anyone gets me wrong let me make it clear that I do believe that individual behavior is still a very important determinant of individual health. One cannot absolve individuals of responsibility and blame every misfortune that befalls the individual on society at large
And yet can anyone tell me what precisely was the problem with the individual behavior of that young Iraqi girl that she had to die at such a tender age and the way she did?
It is quite obvious that young girl there had to die because neither she, nor her father, were really a match for the firepower of the worldâ€™s only remaining superpower. But maybe she had to die because someone very powerful, very far away, at a very safe distance thought she could one day grow up, become a mother and give birth to a â€˜terroristâ€™. Could it be also possible that she had to die because she as an Iraqi citizen was sitting on top of the worldâ€™s second largest reserves of oil and there are too many petroleum junkies around the world who need this indispensable narcotic of modern civilization?
These are the kind of questions that come to my mind when I see an image like that from Basra. War, it is clear, is the biggest threat to public health anywhere. And make no mistake, the times we live in is all about war and conflict- with really no end in sight soon.
But where do war and conflict really come from? Is it just about the faults of human nature or the differences between religions or nationalism and fundamentalisms of different kinds? These are all surely ingredients that catalyze conflict in different parts of the world, but I would like to point to that one perpetual source of violence throughout human history- the quest for control and consumption of resources.
These could be natural resources- food, forests or fossil fuel as in the case of the US occupation of Iraq. Yet again, the conflict could be for control and domination of human resources. In the old days monarchs used to repeatedly rally their people to war for capturing slaves from their neighboring countries. In the modern age the role of the â€˜monarchâ€™ has been neatly taken over by â€˜multinationalâ€™ corporations. And the term â€˜slavesâ€™ has been replaced by â€˜cheap labourâ€™ from the Third World.
And it is this process by which feudal control over global resources has been replaced by corporate control that brings us to that much publicised word â€˜globalisationâ€™. I have always felt that there really canâ€™t be a fuzzier word possible in the dictionary than this term â€˜globalisationâ€™.
After all, we all know that the globe, the planet Earth exists and has been around for a long time (it will hopefully be around a little longer !). People across the oceans, forests, mountains and entire continents have always traveled around the planet- in search of better habitats, resources, experience or just for their own enjoyment. All of human kind, as any anthropologist will tell you, migrated out of Africa-, which was truly the motherland of our entire species.
And yet there are those who today claim that they are going to â€˜globaliseâ€™ the â€˜globeâ€™. That would be like making an apple more of an apple or adding to Mona Lisaâ€™s smile to make her look more attractive.
There is a reason for this lack of clarity behind the word â€˜globalisationâ€™. The word obfuscates the fact that we are not really one â€˜globeâ€™ at all and that there are many planets within this one planet Earth that all of us are supposed to inhabit.
There is the glittering golden planet of the bold and the beautiful, the rich and the powerful, the masters of our universe. The small minority who control most of the wealth on planet Earth, who make the policies that run the economic, political and military systems of our world â€“ and who decide the fate, life and death of the millions.
There is also a silver planet run by those who will do anything to serve their masters on the golden planet and aspire to join them at some point of time. These are dubious managers, generals, advertising and public relations professionals who spend all the time polishing and protecting the gold of their Godfathers.
And finally there is the planet of iron, rusting away, inhabited by a majority of the worldâ€™s population. The people who work, who consume the least, and with whose sweat and blood the other two planets thrive and survive. And these are the very people- the people who make the globe spin on its axis- to whom the virtues of â€˜globalisationâ€™ are being preached to by those from the planets of gold and silver.
In order to â€˜globaliseâ€™ they are told to give up their land, water, forest and minerals to the global corporations. They are told to leave their fate and that of their families to the mysterious market, which is manipulated by global bankers and investors. They are told to tighten their belts- (which are often around their necks)- and promised that globalisation will bring them a â€˜shiningâ€™ future.
Well, we have all seen what this â€˜shiningâ€™ future looks like for our planetâ€™s workers. It means â€˜shiningâ€™ the shoes of the rich in the hope that one day that pair of shoes will be their own. That day will never come for the workers of the world through globalisation- for what is sold to them as a dream is in reality the darkest nightmare.
All I can see in globalization is the continuation of colonization by other means but for the same purpose- the looting of local resources, the destruction of indigenous livelihoods, the bankrupting of entire national economies, the loss of sovereignty of the developing world. And every time the people of the world try to improve their lives, even by following the rules of the marketplace, the globalisers find new ways to increase their own wealth and keep the vast majority in poverty. A poverty, which by itself is the mother of all health problems.
At this point I would like to say something, which is important for all movements of social justice to consider. And that is the fact that while extreme poverty is harmful to the health of people this is equally true of extreme prosperity. Today we see the rich, not only in the developed countries but also in developing ones, killing themselves with their obscene wealth. Think of all the things that the rich have to do to keep themselves on top of our societies. The moral stress they undergo while exploiting the poor, the psychological stress they get worrying about preserving their wealth and the physical stresses of consuming more than what is humanly possible- all these together kills them everyday. So it is my belief that it is the duty of the social movements around the world not only to fight for justice for the poor but also consciously save the rich by taking away their wealth. (The rich will resist of course, but we have to do what is in their best interests!)
Coming back to â€˜globalisationâ€™- it is often claimed by the mainstream media that the anti-globalization movement only criticizes and does not provide any alternatives? Is there an alternative and what does that look like?
That was the second thing I learnt from the Peopleâ€™s Health Assembly in Dhaka and from the global network of health activist groups – the Peopleâ€™s Health Movement in general. That it is possible to have a clear and simple alternative to the approach of globalisation- that is workable, viable and in the interests of the majority of the people on this planet.
The alternative proposed by the Peopleâ€™s Health Movement is that the health and well-being of the individual should be at center of all policy making everywhere. The logic is very clear. Health should be at the center of everything human societies do precisely because everything that human societies do affects the health of all its members. And mind you, here we are talking about not just the physical condition of the individual human being but also their economic, social and spiritual health.
Every time a government anywhere formulates policy on anything trade, finance, defence, agriculture- it should do so only after asking the simple question- how will this policy affect the health of individual citizens in that country ?
That is an important point, mainly because this simple question is never asked and what we in the Peopleâ€™s Health Movement are suggesting is still an unfulfilled dream. The fact is that the health of the people today is not even at the periphery of concerns that drives policy makers who run our globe. What is at the center of their concerns is money and profits.
And in fact what we see in our time is a complete distortion and misuse of the basic concepts of medicine by the global elites.
A few years ago when I first heard the term â€˜surgical strikesâ€™ used to describe the bombing of Kosovo in Yugoslavia I did not think very much about it. But surgical is a medical term and surgery is a procedure that is meant to save lives. So why is the US army using this term to describe a process that is meant to kill people?
This misuse of medical terms has only increased under the so-called War on Terror launched by the United States since September 11. So now we have US leaders calling for the â€˜wiping outâ€™ of terrorists, US army commanders talk of â€˜detecting and destroyingâ€™ terrorists. People dubbed as â€˜terrorists´ are compared to snakes, deadly bacteria and microbes and the promise is made to â€˜cleanse´ the world of terrorism as if it was a disease or an epidemic of some kind.
Make no mistake about it- in the eyes of the imperialists all those who resist imperialism are really nothing more than microbes. And this is where the global media plays a crucial role in the de-humanisation of all those who resist and preparing the ground for massacres and genocide by the imperialists.
So what exactly is the â€˜media´ all about? As many of you would already have noticed much of the global media is used by powerful vested interests to promote their point of view, distort realities and fool ordinary people into accepting their sorry fate as the best possible deal they can ever get. In other words the global media is nothing but a sophisticated lying machine.
However, I have noticed a strange new trend in recent times. The role of the global media as a mouthpiece of the establishment has actually diminished. This is not because the media has become more truthful in its reporting of realities but because the establishment no longer needs to make a pretence and is willing to launch an open and brazen attack on the rights of the people everywhere. The masters of the golden planet have already fired the media from its pitiful role as a messenger- and now â€˜Communicateâ€™ directly with the people of the world.
I will give you an example of what I am trying to say. A couple of years ago, I like many of you, heard the US President George W. Bush claim on television that he is going to send a strong â€˜messageâ€™ to terrorists everywhere in the world. Soon after that US armed forces invaded Afghanistan and took over that country, killing thousands of innocent people in the process.
Again, earlier this year I heard Little Bush say that he is going to send a strong â€˜messageâ€™ to dictators who produce WMDs. Soon after that the US air force started pounding Iraq with bombs of every description, and have now occupied the country, once again killing thousands of civilians as well as poorly armed soldiers.
From this I can conclude only one thing that communicating a â€˜messageâ€™ does not mean sending an email or a letter or newspaper report or a television picture anymore. In the dictionary of US imperialism communication has always been about sending bullets, bombs and missiles to make their point to those who dare to defy them. And that is truer today than ever before.
That is why I believe that the smokescreen of the global media has been dispensed with and the real messages in our times come from the armed forces of the imperialist powers. While their words have become fuzzier, their bullets have become sharper and that is where the impact of their propaganda comes from. This is the ugly reality we have to wake up to.
The oppressed people of the world cannot have a dialogue with Imperialism through mere words and images- however poetic and powerful these may be. That dialogue may have been possible in normal times, but the sad fact is that we live in abnormal times. The time has come for all of us to communicate in the only language that elites everywhere understand- that of mass movement and mass resistance. The sooner we stand up and resist the closer we will be to creating a better world.
Satya Sagar is a journalist based in Thailand. This article is based on a presentation made at a forum on the humanist and medical vision of Eugenio Espejo and Ernesto Che Guevara in Cuenca, Ecuador, 13-17 October 2003. The author can be contacted at [email protected]