Are we healthier today?

‘Health is wealth’, they say and today it is truer than ever; Healthcare is a multi-billion dollar industry. Hey, a price tag can be attached to water, forests and wildlife, why not commodify health?

Factors driving the growth of the health industry

In India, the healthcare industry is expected to grow at 16-17% in the coming years; a similar trend will be seen across the world. Homo sapiens is an ageing species ( not what Mother Nature had in mind for any creature haha). Consequently, we are develop age related illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, arthritis etc. and we are at greater risk of contracting and dying from infectious diseases. The highest mortality rate due to COVID-19 was in the age group of 65 plus. Besides, the idea of ‘the good life’ is all about having a bucket list of super-expensive things, fancy dinners and endless shopping. For which, a lot of money has to be spent. For which, we have to put in hours of strenuous work in front of laptops and the like, stuffing ourselves with junk. Unhealthy lifestyles feed the health industry while other fads feed the rest of the MNCs.

Modern medicine is reaching the rural and tribal masses in an unprecedented manner, thanks to the efforts of both governments and the private health sector. In India, access to health and health awareness has increased steadily over the years (as also the reach of the corporate hospital, but more of that in the next post!). The innovation in the industry itself, enabling it to diagnose and treat a greater number of ailments in larger cohorts of people, is feeding its growth. Not to be forgotten, the commercialization of healthcare, where profit

is the motive and encouraging consumption of more services is the goal, is driving up costs and spending.

So, are we healthier now?

To answer this question, we need to figure out the meaning of health. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. Going by this definition, has our physical, mental and social well-being improved?

The maximum number of years that human beings can live up to has not changed significantly; some members of the older generations lived upt0 100-110 years. But the number of those has increased drastically over the past few decades. But longer lives means lesser physical well-being as you are more prone to diseases and the body loses its vitality. As already mentioned, stressful, sedentary lifestyles complemented by unhealthy eating habits is making its contribution to our physical ‘ill-being’.

The present generation faces newer challenges: air, water and soil pollution; injection of chemicals and hormones into food; adulteration of food products; emerging diseases like COVID-19. Air pollution causes 4.2 million premature deaths annually, and morbidity in more number of people. Water pollution is spreading disease and cancer, particularly in developing countries, which act as dumping grounds for hazardous wastes produced in developed countries.

And our mental ‘ill-being’ too. Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder, first described in the 1970s by a British psychiatrist Gerald Russell; its prevalence has been rising steadily ever since. It is characterized by binge eating followed by purging by vomiting or use of laxatives, in an effort to lose weight. 90% of those affected are women, typically from developed countries. The causes can be traced back to image consciousness, societal and peer pressure and brainwashing by the media on ideas of beauty, class, opinions, relationships; almost every aspect of our lives. Science, technology and intellectual progress has made our lives easier and gives us more choice; but it has made our lives a lot less simpler. And perhaps unhappier.

McDonaldization of society is a term used to describe how our lives have become remarkable similar to a fast-food joint. All processes are mechanized and optimized so that maximum output is achieved. No energy is wasted in actions which don’t achieve a specified purpose. Rules are well-defined and hierarchies of staff are established. Speed and efficiency are the goals. The food served is completely same, all assembled from the buns and patties which look and taste the same. There is no thoughtfulness or emotion behind preparing or serving the food; people are merely customers, nothing more, who flit in and out, stopping for a moment, transacting business, and moving on with their busy lives. This phenomenon is termed ‘rationalisation’.

Aren’t we living the same way? We go to school so that we get a job. We get a job so that we have a decent standard of living. We always take the car to go out, because walking or cycling takes up too much time. We don’t talk to our loved ones as it does not serve any tangible purpose. Acquaintances come and go; relationships have become transactional, having well-defined rules and hierarchies. Most of our actions are mechanical, without any thought or emotion behind them. We all look and behave the same. Jeans pants and T-shirts have become ubiquitous, everyone is ‘nice’ to everyone. What does this say about our social well-being? Rationality and reason tell us how to behave with fellow humans, rather than traditions, values and emotions.

We are also losing out on the security and warmth that communities can provide. The community has been replaced by the State and the market. for example, earlier, the community would care for their elders. Now, they are dependent on pensions from the government and health insurance from the market. Being a part of a close-knit group gives humans, affection, protection, help in times of need and a feeling of belonging. In other words, it ensures social well-being. But, globalization, capitalism and modernization are uprooting that way of life in a big way, across the world.

To answer the question, we are not necessarily healthier today. It is evident that modern medicine only focuses on treating diseases and infirmities. The ‘wellness’ industry has emerged to deal with this lacuna (monetize every opportunity possible -_- ). Spa treatments and yoga sessions may help to an extent, but looking inward and understanding our body and mind is the best therapy for a hale and healthy life.

Author: Mahima Prasad

Doctor, dog enthusiast, UPSC aspirant

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