Health as a basic right vs personal responsibility this World Health Day

Health is not just about the absence of disease, it encompasses what you eat, how much you exercise and your sleep habits. Picture: Kaylee Garrett/Unsplash

Health is not just about the absence of disease, it encompasses what you eat, how much you exercise and your sleep habits. Picture: Kaylee Garrett/Unsplash

Published Apr 5, 2024


World Health Day, celebrated on April 7, is a global health awareness day under the sponsorship of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other related organisations.

This year, the theme "My health, my right" spotlights the fundamental principle that everyone deserves access to the highest standard of health, irrespective of their race, religion, political belief or economic or social conditions.

Recent global events, including the Covid-19 pandemic, highlight the importance of health equity in today's global health challenges.

The significance of this year's theme cannot be overstated, especially in a world where disparities in health-care access and quality are still rampant. It serves as a powerful reminder that health is not a privilege but a basic human right.

While having access to medical care is regarded as a fundamental right, South Africa faces challenges beyond providing free health care to achieve a state of overall well-being necessary for its economic progress.

Having access to medical care is regarded as a fundamental right. Picture: Ashkan Forouzani/Unsplash

Factors such as what people eat, how much they exercise, and whether they use harmful substances significantly impact their health.

Recent trends show a small drop in the overall number of deaths in South Africa, but illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and cancer are causing more deaths than before.

Diabetes, in particular, has seen a sharp increase. A decade ago, about 4.5% of South Africans were living with diabetes.

By 2019, this number had jumped to 12.7%. Out of the nearly 4.6 million adults between 20 and 79 years old with diabetes, over half weren't even aware they had the condition.

This World Health Day, Prof. Renata Schoeman of Stellenbosch Business School pointed out a concerning issue.

She believes that while it's important to view health as a basic human right and to make health care accessible to everyone, this approach might also have a downside.

According to her, focusing too much on these aspects might end up making individuals feel less responsible for maintaining their own health. Prof. Schoeman shared this insight, suggesting a need to rethink how we encourage personal health responsibility.

“We confuse health care with health – having access to care is not a promise of health. Everyone has the responsibility for their health and cannot view a health-care system as the answer to a healthier society.”

Prof. Schoeman suggests we should all think of health not just as something we're entitled to but as something valuable to us personally and to society. She believes this mindset change would make people more motivated to look after their health.

She points out that when people have a say in their health care and their rights are respected, not only do health outcomes improve, but health-care systems also run more smoothly.

However, she is concerned that even with free health-care options like the proposed National Health Insurance (NHI), people will still make poor choices.

“It doesn’t help to have free health care, such as the proposed NHI, but people make poor lifestyle choices – in terms of healthy eating, exercise and substance abuse, for example – and don’t take responsibility for their own health,” she argues.

“Health goes beyond the absence of disease and is influenced by genetics along with social and economic factors such as poverty, unemployment, housing, education, nutrition and the surrounding environment, as well as the choices made by individuals.”

Prof. Schoeman highlights that simply funding health care through the NHI isn't enough.

She stresses the importance of tackling health issues before they arise, categorising preventive measures into three main types: primary prevention, to avoid the occurrence of diseases or injuries; secondary prevention, to mitigate the effects of existing diseases; and tertiary prevention, to minimise the impact of long-term diseases or disabilities.

Schoeman also points out the effectiveness of discouraging unhealthy habits through "sin taxes" and promoting healthy behaviours by offering perks like discounts and rewards for exercising and buying healthy food.

“Ensuring access to health care is a social and government responsibility, but this needs to go along with the promotion of health, which goes beyond the health system to entrenching health as a shared social value, and this is the task of all those involved in shaping and influencing values – families, schools, the media and the legal system,” Prof Schoeman said.

“Citizens, on the other hand, need to take care of themselves, not only physically but mentally too. Undiagnosed mental health can negatively affect your physical health leading to substance abuse, obesity and eating disorders.”

Prof Schoeman suggests that everyone takes responsibility for their health through: regular exercise (at least 30 minutes a day); following a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in processed sugars and fats; not smoking and avoiding the use of drugs; limiting alcohol; prioritising sleep (at least seven hours a night); limiting screen time; and seeking help for physical and mental health issues as soon as they arise.