HEALTH FOR THE POOR IS A FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHT
By Thabo Mbeki
ANC Today 2-8 March 2001
In the seven years since our liberation, perhaps
the most contentious issues to which our country
has been exposed have related to health.
These have arisen out of the legislation enabling
us to acquire affordable drugs and medicine and the
questions we posed on HlV/AIDS.
The fact that health assumes such prominence in
the public discourse confirms the objective
importance of the issue of health in our continuing
struggle for a better life for all.
In terms of the programme of action of our
government, we are all called upon to join in united
action to mount an all-round response to the
problems of health that face especially the millions of
poor people in our country.
That response requires that we attend to a
number of things. Central to these is the fight against
It includes such matters as ensuring that our
people have access to nutritious food, clean water,
modern sanitation and a clean and healthy
These are important elements of primary health
care. However, that primary health care also includes
access to basic medical services, including
affordable drugs and medicines.
The government must work to address all these
needs in an integrated manner. Among other things,
this will require that we increase the numbers of
people with appropriate types and levels of training
deployed to work among the people at the grassroots
level, such as community health workers.
One of the tasks of these workers would be to
conduct an educational campaign among the people
dealing with a whole variety of questions, such as the
importance of using clean water to avoid various
illnesses as well as the need to use condoms, to
deal with the serious problem of sexually transmitted
Once again, popular organisations, including the
ANC and the Leagues, will have to mobilise their
members to act in support of these community
workers in the interest of the masses of the people.
These organisations will also have to join in the
campaign to eradicate the theft of drugs, medicines
and equipment from our public health institutions.
In addition to everything we have said, the issue
of affordable drugs and medicines also remains
central to our efforts to achieve the objective of health
In this context, we must express our sincere
appreciation to the US pharmaceutical company,
Pfizer, which has decided to make one of its drugs
available to our people for two years, free of charge.
In addition to this, the company will also provide
funds both to train medical workers to dispense this
drug and to purchase the equipment enabling these
workers to carry out the necessary medical tests on
The acquisition of the drug alone, at no cost, will
enable the public health service to save R350 million
All this constitutes a practical example of what
can be done jointly by the public and private sectors
to address the life and death question of improving
the health of those who are poor.
We recognise the fact that there is an inherent
contradiction between the pursuit of the goal of
health for the poor, to which our government is firmly
committed, and the pursuit of profit, which is the goal
of every commercial venture.
Among others, the truth of this proposition is
illustrated by the fact that grossly inadequate
resources are committed to the development of drugs
and medicines to fight diseases of poverty and
Accordingly, a permanent struggle between the
masses of the people and the pharmaceutical
companies cannot be avoided unless everybody
concerned, including the developed countries,
accepts that it is possible to address both the needs
of the poor and the imperatives of normal commercial
Given the now universal recognition of the
challenge of the global eradication of poverty, the
need to bridge the divides between the rich and the
poor, between the North and the South, and the
importance of health to the urgent challenge of
economic development, it should be possible to
come to a common position that health for the poor
is a fundamental human right.
The effort must continue for the attainment of this
position and, consequently, the development of
sustained health campaigns radically to improve the
health of the majority of the people in our country and
the rest of the world.
It is unfortunate that this matter of human rights,
human dignity and life itself, should have ended up in
our courts, as though it would ever constitute an act
of justice if we were to adopt laws that make it
difficult for us to achieve the objective of health for
Nevertheless, as before, we will respect whatever
decision is ultimately handed down by our judiciary.