As our NHS turns 70, we must defend healthcare as a universal human right

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At a #NoTTIP demonstration, two protestors roleplay a businessman holding an NHS nurse as a marionette. Photo: War on Want
After 70 years of loyal and lifesaving service, the NHS deserves to be celebrated. But unless we can defend healthcare as a universal human right, we will always be fighting to preserve the NHS for future generations.

With all the nostalgia around the NHS turning 70, it’s easy to forget that before 1948 stretched generations of apathy towards sickness and death amongst the poor. Back then, seeing a doctor would cost you half a week’s wages. Working class people were literally worked to death and left to die painfully of preventable diseases in squalid slums and workhouses – a decision rooted in the cold, hard logic of economic exploitation that legitimised brutal colonialism abroad and extreme poverty at home.

It was the formation of the World Health Organisation in 1946 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 that established access to healthcare as a fundamental human right. As Afua Hirsch put it earlier this week: “Socioeconomic rights, guaranteeing a minimum level of welfare and access to resources, were a core part of the 1948 vision. Far from dismissing these as a nice idea, as we tend to now, Britain was making them a reality… It was acknowledged then that freedom without the economic means to live a dignified life is no freedom at all.”

Our NHS was born from the ashes of the Second World War, not because the economy was booming (it was in ruins) but because ordinary people fought for it. It was founded on two fundamental principles: to be free at the point of care and universally accessible. It has been a beacon of hope for the world, demonstrating that universal, publicly funded healthcare is not only precious, but possible.

With everything that the NHS has given us, you would expect the UK to be the world’s leading advocate for universal healthcare, here at home and around the world. Sadly, this is no longer the case.

Centuries of slavery, colonialism and the extraction of natural resources has left much of the global South deep in debt and dependent on foreign capital. International financial institutions dominated by Western governments and corporations have taken advantage of this imbalance to gain considerable control over poor countries’ economies, including in the area of healthcare, whilst creating a vicious cycle of dependency on foreign aid.

For decades, successive UK governments have undermined the ability of other countries to build and fund their own health services. The UK undermines the efforts of poor countries’ to build a decent tax base by supporting tax havens and enabling British companies to shift profits out of those countries. It promotes and enforces privatisation through trade and investment agreements, threatening our NHS too. It promotes private finance initiatives (PFI) for healthcare projects around the world, despite knowing that PFI has made our NHS more unsustainable. It fails to rein in big pharmaceutical companies that charge too much for drugs. And despite all this, it continues to blame the governments of poor countries for not investing enough in their healthcare systems, ignoring our own significant role in diminishing their potential health budgets.

In recent years, the government has also used the financial crisis to justify austerity cuts on healthcare here at home, too. Starved of spending, our NHS has spiralled into crisis. Privatisation is chipping away at the core principle of ‘free at the point of delivery’ – and the NHS isn’t universally accessible anymore, either.

The government’s Hostile Environment policies have turned doctors and nurses into border guards, leaving people who may not have the correct immigration papers afraid to access care for fear of being detained and deported. And more broadly, we find a ‘postcode lottery’ in which the quality of care varies drastically in different parts of the country, with poor areas receiving the worst care.

But despite all these challenges – and perhaps even because of them – today is a day to celebrate the NHS workers who are there for us every day, from doctors and nurses to community carers and auxiliary staff. Many of them are migrant workers. Many of them are carers themselves. Many of them are underpaid and overstretched. But they devote their lives to ours and that is truly extraordinary. Our goal today is to go one step further than saving our NHS: we can help globalise it, because the world would be a better, healthier place if every country had an NHS. There is only one way to celebrate our NHS and that is to fight for it.