Right to Health

Ritika Goel is a Canadian family physician with a Master of Public Health and a health justice activist. The posts on this blog pertain to health systems, migrant justice, politics, human rights, global health and social justice. They stem from the belief that every person has the right to health.
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Michael Bloomberg: The Public Health Mayor
Just a few days ago, I had the rare opportunity to meet Michael Bloomberg. Yes, the Michael Bloomberg. The Mayor of New York City. The namesake of my school, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. A large financial supporter of said school (over 800 million dollars and counting). Incidentally also the 12th richest person in the United States with a net worth of 19.5 billion dollars in 2011, this money made predominantly on Wall Street. Perhaps many don’t know that Bloomberg is famous in public health circles. Aside from the contributions to Hopkins, Bloomberg has also contributed to the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and many other public health agencies and initiatives. He extended the smoking ban in New York City, instituted a ban on transfats and is credited with extending the lifespan of New Yorkers by three whole years, all of which are laudable initiatives.

On April 12th, as Bloomberg visited Hopkins to institute a new professorship in his name, these great accomplishments were repeated many times over as I sat and listened in the audience.

Potential Inconsistencies
Given all these accolades, I asked myself, “Is this the same Mayor who ordered the chaotic nighttime arrest and dismantling of a peaceful gathering of people trying to draw attention to the issue of income inequality?” As Bloomberg discussed tobacco companies preying on the poor and uneducated in low-income countries, I wondered if he would feel the same way about large financial institutions on Wall Street selling faulty mortgages to the unsuspecting? As his ban on transfats was discussed, I thought about the role of poverty and lack of financial and geographical access to healthy food. I wondered whether the Mayor being described as ‘the most enlightened public official’ by the president of my university was addressing this root cause.

The Conversation
I chose to ask these questions of the Mayor in person at the reception to follow the event. At a time when books like The Spirit Level and organizing by the Occupy Movement have brought issues of income inequality and their impact on health to the fore, surely ‘the most enlightened public official’ would be aware of and seek to address this root cause of ill health? I approached the Mayor and asked about his thoughts on income inequality. In the short exchange we had, he mentioned:
1. The fact that the American family today is doing ‘just as well’ as it was 30 years ago.
2. That the ‘Buffett Rule’ (referring to a tax plan to reduce inequality between the 1% and the 99%) was “total bullshit”.
3. That wealth redistribution had been tried in the USSR. 

Supporting Public Health, Only When It Is Convenient
I was dumbfounded and yet this response also confirmed my suspicions. In a matter of minutes, Bloomberg had managed to minimize the fact that income inequality was even an issue while bashing proposed policies to alleviate the situation and fear-mongering about communist takeovers. This told me that Mayor Bloomberg was not even interested in discussing income inequality, let alone addressing it. It would appear that Mayor Bloomberg only supports public health as far as it is convenient. He supports public health as long as it does not threaten the greater social and political power structures in the US. He supports public health as long as it does not mean acknowledging his own contribution, through Wall Street, in creating and maintaining the ill health of his constituents.

Occupy Wall Street is seeking to challenge those very power structures and asking why income inequality exists in this country. As much as Bloomberg portrays himself as a public health guru, he could not allow such a gathering to raise these important questions in such an effective and public manner. Instead, he ordered police who arrived in riot gear at 1am to clear the park, ironically citing public health as the reason people had to be removed. In so doing, Bloomberg proved that the public health he is interested in supporting is merely that which largely maintains the status quo. Public health professionals owe it to the field to be critical in their thinking about the root causes of ill health and not only how we can address them, but also whether we should be showering accolades on any one person who would seek to support the cause at hand, only when it is convenient. 

Suggested Links:
Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1% - Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel prize winning economist http://www.vanityfair.com/society/features/2011/05/top-one-percent-201105 

Trailer for upcoming documentary of The Spirit Level

Update: One week after the post, 822 visitors in 33 countries. Continually amazed at the power of the internet! Thanks for all the support!