Echoing King’s Dream on Healthcare

By Sandy Garçon, Manager, External Relations and Communications, PSI

This January 15th, we’ll celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As we reflect on King’s invaluable contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States—and its global reverberations—let’s also take to heart an equally challenging, yet lesser-known, campaign of his last years, the fight against health inequality.

It was a little less than three years after the iconic March on Washington when King turned his pulpit towards healthcare:

“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.” Martin Luther King, Jr. – Second National Convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights – Chicago, March 25, 1966

King was speaking on the staunch healthcare disparities that disproportionately affected people of color and lower income populations in the United States, which he saw as a “thermometer of inequality and oppression.”

Over half a century later, this “injustice” continues to persist on a global scale.

Despite considerable improvements in access to key life-saving products and services—including vaccines, access to modern family planning, HIV and malaria prevention and treatment—progress remains uneven. Moreover, inequalities in health services are seen not just between, but also within countries.

According to the World Health Organization, at least half of the population worldwide still does not have access to essential health services. For many of the world’s poorest people, making out-of-pocket payments to cover health needs may mean making choices between food, schooling or other basic necessities. In the worst cases, the cost of health expenses can push a poor family to financial ruin. About 100 million people are being thrust into extreme poverty simply because they must pay for healthcare.

It has been 52 years since King denounced the inhumanity of an unjust health system. Echoing his call to action against health inequality is the global push for universal health coverage (UHC). Simply put, UHC means ensuring that every person, everywhere, has access to essential and quality healthcare they need without causing undue financial hardship.

Good health is not only instrumental to personal well-being, it is fundamentally essential to the exercise and enjoyment of all other civil, political and economic rights. Just as importantly, positive health outcomes are crucial for well functioning societies. “If a population does not have a decent level of health, it is very difficult to ensure economic prosperity, political participation, collective security and so forth.”[1]

Momentum for UHC is growing, but we mustn’t delay turning this into a reality. As King once said, “A right delayed is a right denied.”

This MLK holiday is a reminder that there’s still work to be done to bring life-saving services closer to the poorest and most vulnerable people. The barriers are considerable and it will be a complex and sometimes messy journey. But like King, we shouldn’t be afraid to push forward, to challenge the way things are, and have the audacity to dream of a different world.

Let’s continue to push to guarantee the right to health for everyone, everywhere. Ending extreme poverty in our lifetime depends on it.

[1] Gostin, Lawrence. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2011;89:78-78. doi: 10.2471/BLT.10.082388