Liberation Medicine: Health From a Social Context


Presented by Aun Lor, MPH

Advisor and Founding Member of the International Student Association for Health and Human Rights


I want to share some astonishing facts from the United Nation Human Development Report, because it has a lot to do with our topic of discussion today. It has to do with the world distribution of resources, with who is controlling the world's wealth It has to do with the disparity, determination, and distribution of health and ill health of the world's population. The UN reported that:

  • The richest fifth of the world's people consumes 86% of all goods and services, while the poorest fifth consumes just 1.3%
  • The three richest people in the world have assets that exceed the combined gross domestic product of the 48 least developed countries
  • The world's 225 richest individuals, of whom 60 are Americans with a total assets of billion, have a combined wealth of over $1 trillion-- equal to the annual income of the poorest 47 percent of the entire world's population
  • Three-fifths of the world 4.4 billion people lack access to safe sewers
  • One-third has no access to clean water
  • One-fourth do not have adequate housing
  • One-fifth have no access to modern health services of any kind


Liberation Medicine, like liberation theology, views health from a social context. Liberation Theology focuses attention on the poor, because their poor health can be directly link to their social and environmental situations. Likewise, Liberation Medicine called for preferential treatment for the poor and disenfranchised In his article Medicine and Social Justice, Paul Farmer made an important point about health, He stated that "Diseases themselves make a preferential option for the poor. The poor are sicker than the non-poor. They are at heightened risk of dying prematurely." The rich in poor countries do not suffer the same premature death as the poor. They die later from similar causes as those in wealthy countries. Diseases such as TB and AIDS have disproportionally impacted the poor.


Ethically and morally, the mission of medicine and public health as well is therefore to give preference to the poor because they suffer the most. This is not the case in the real world. Most health care systems in the world discriminate against the poor, further compromising sing their health and subjugating them to a life of poverty, and condemning their children to the same fate. Sometimes the approaches to healthcare, with all the good intentions in the world, do not actually get into the roots of the problem. An understatement frequently expressed in health is that too often "we treat the disease and not the person." In his book Health as Liberation, Alastair Campbell describes how health is a liberation, not simply as a "freedom from," pain, illness, etc., but as a "freedom to" "create, inhabit a space, to simply live, and share the world around us." We have to look at health from a broader perspective than just treating diseases. We need to look at the roots of the problem. We need to tackle the issues of poverty, human rights, and social justice.