Stephen Lewis: Health is a human right

Katie Glueck

Health is an inalienable human right, said Canadian diplomat and activist Stephen Lewis on Thursday night.

Lewis spoke to a full audience in the Owen L. Coon Auditorium for more than an hour, arguing that health and human rights are inextricably intertwined.

His address kicked off the third annual Global Health Summit, a program sponsored by GlobeMed, a national organization founded and headquartered at Northwestern. More than 140 student delegates from 17 universities across the country attended the program, said Peter Luckow, a summit coordinator from the national office.

The three-day meeting features more than 30 speakers who will lead lectures, keynotes, panel discussions and workshops, the Weinberg senior said.

“We’re deeply honored to have Stephen Lewis here (to start the Summit),” Luckow said. “He’s one of the leading global health figures in world and is also one of the leading human rights advocates. He’s done a tremendous job advocating for and advancing human rights in the realm of health.”

Lewis, the co-director of the advocacy organization AIDS-Free World, is also the former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa to Kofi Annan. He adressed the summit’s theme, “From Idea to Implementation: Securing Health as a Human Right” by arguing that eight critical global problems could be resolved if health was considered a human right.

Lewis detailed each of the UN’s Millenium Development Goals: hunger, infant mortality, maternal mortality, education, gender equality, combating communicable diseases, environmental sustainability and building a partnership between the developing and the developed worlds. Lewis illustrated his points by describing encounters he has had with women and children in Africa.

“It’s always the same scene,” he said of families affected by AIDS. “A spectral, emaciated figure, usually a woman, lying on the ground. Five, six, seven-year-old children race around the village for an aspirin, a cool cloth. And they stand in the huts watching their mothers die.”

But grassroots efforts offer hope, he said.

“It’s at the community-based level where life-and-death battles occur and where you can make an invaluable contribution,” Lewis said. “In Africa, there is unbelievable courage and resilience at the grassroots level. There’s so much human decency. It’s magnificent to witness.”

But not everyone in the audience thought health care was the first step to improving quality of life.

Nuno Palma, an NU graduate student in economics, challenged Lewis during a question-and-answer session.

“History is against you, sir,” he said. “Countries that developed during the 20th century, like China and India, took people out of poverty in a piecemeal way. They developed on their own. There’s no evidence other countries need Western help.”

Later, Palma said the problem with underdeveloped countries is mostly economic.

“(Lewis) is confusing correlation with causation,” he said. “Rich countries have health care and women’s rights, but you have to be rich first. Then (rights) follow.”

Ultimately, the main goal of the summit is to inspire participants to take action, said Jon Shaffer, president of NU’s GlobeMed chapter.

“I hope people come away from this talk a bit angry, especially at the wealthy world’s response to the (AIDS) pandemic,” the McCormick senior said. “I hope it will generate a discussion about what we as students can do to build a world that’s a little bit more just.”

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