What Can We Learn from the History of Health? New Podcast

It is often said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

So what, if anything, can we learn from the history of health? In this brand new season of the Global Health Matters podcast, host Garry Aslanyan takes a step back in time to look at why “history matters” and to discuss the value and merits of understanding global health history and the evolution of global health, particularly concerning the establishment of the World Health Organization (WHO), which this year celebrates its 75th anniversary.

“All institutions have long histories,” guest Sanjoy Bhattacharya, head of the School of History and Professor of Medical and Global Health History at the University of Leeds in the UK, told Aslanyan.” And those long histories have determined negotiations between complex partnerships, complex organisations, and how we operate today is deeply determined by those long-term negotiations, which is historical. So history matters.”

Speaking on the history of global health in terms of colonialism and colonial powers, Professor of Global Development Studies and Global Health at the University of Toronto in Canada, Anne-Emanuelle Birn, said, “In the 19th century, the arena that has evolved or erupted, transformed into global health history, began in a very particular context, that of imperialism, particularly European, but also North American imperialism and the growth of the colonial enterprise.

“Health and medicine played a very important role, so one of the earliest precursors to global health history, or global health, was colonial medicine.”

By the middle of the 20th century, after two world wars ravaged the world, there was renewed hope which saw the formation of several new international cooperation organization, such as the United Nations. In this arena, the World Health Organization was founded in April 1948, aiming to work worldwide to promote health and coordinate responses to health emergencies.

“You have this transition, and it really takes off after the founding of the World Health Organization, this idea of international health, health between countries, through sometimes collective decision-making but also very much influenced by the world order, in that case, the Cold War,” Birn said.

“For me, WHO is not just Geneva,” Bhattacharya said. “if you look at a bottom-up history of WHO, where you center the regional offices, I would submit that you actually get a much more decolonised and democratic history of international and global health than you would if you looked at Geneva and say that everything that is happening in global or international health is happening because of things that are happening in Geneva.”

Taking a look at a very recent example of COVID-19, Birn points out that as much as coordinated international efforts can combat the quick spread of disease and introduce appropriate measures, at the same time, every country is in its own unique situation based on cultural and social factors.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an expectation in certain quarters that history would help to address, resolve, shed light on the course of the pandemic,” Birn said. “There’s no way historical perspectives can resolve social, political, and other forms of tensions that the response to COVID-19 continues to engender, arguably. History can’t predict or liberate, and every pandemic has occurred in particular social, political, and cultural configurations. So there’s no recipe, right? The expectation was that history would provide a recipe.”

“There are multiple historical narratives about any aspect of global pandemics,” Bhattacharya added. “So if you’re saying was COVID influenced by any historical narratives, then the problem then became that there wasn’t one historical narrative.”

Looking into the past can sometimes provide the lessons or answers we seek, but as Bhattacharya pointed out, it is essential to know which or whose history one is learning. “History matters, but we must always ask which history matters because there are multiple histories.”

This is part I of a two-part series. 

Image Credits: Global Health Matters Podcast via TDR.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.