Can you imagine having to dispose of an asset or investment simply to pay a medical bill? It might be a piece of land, or money that you have set aside to pay for your children’s next term at school. I am writing as one of the privileged few in the world to have the shelter and security of an entirely free (“at point of charge”) National Health Service – something that the vast majority of the world’s population can only dream of.
In developed nations, health has dramatically improved in parallel with rising standards of living. It’s helpful to see how far we’ve come in a very short period of time. UK census data from 1900 estimated a man’s life expectancy at a mere 46 years – a little less than the most recent figure I could find for current male life expectancy in Somalia. It puts the tabloid newspaper headlines about Britain and Ireland’s “third world health service” into perspective, doesn’t it?
But don’t be complacent – inequity is alive and well even in our prosperous society. A 2010 British Medical Journal study gave the sobering figure that in 2006/2007, people from deprived areas of the UK were twice as likely to die prematurely as those from the most affluent. The grim conclusion was that inequalities in health in Britain today were greater now than those seen in the Depression of the 1930s. If that’s Britain, the inequalities in wealth globally are appalling. A 2006 UN study estimated that a tiny 1% of the world’s population owned 40% of the world’s wealth, with the UK by then ranking 3rd in per capita wealth (admittedly we may have slipped a little since). The gap between the haves and have-nots; both in terms of health and wealth, appears only to be widening.
How should I respond as a Christian? Firstly, I think that it will help if I become less complacent. I lived and worked for over 4 years in a developing country and I have seen how clearly poverty and ill-health are linked. I’ve treated patients who have not only lost their livelihood because of illness, but who have got into debt to pay for expensive (and frequently unnecessary) tests and treatment. However, 3 years of comfortable living back home have softened the impact for me. Our world’s skewed distribution of wealth, opportunities and resources are immoral, wicked and sinful and I need to be on my knees far more in intercession for my neighbours. I also need to be much more grateful to God for his blessings and not take them for granted. Secondly, I need to become much more generous. Thirdly, I can exercise my powers and influence as a voter, as a health professional, or simply as a consumer, to advocate for change in how wealth is distributed – be it in my local area or globally. And fourthly, I need to place a limit on my aspirations to wealth by learning the secret of “godliness with contentment” and by not coveting my neighbour’s house, garden accessories or off-road vehicle.
Dr Tim Lewis has almost finished GP training in Newry. He is married to Julie and they have 3 small boys. He worked in Anandaban Hospital, Nepal with the Leprosy Mission from 2003 – 2007.