Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Trusting in God-men

A fine article on health-care and religion on the Countercurrents website.

Millions of rural people in India succumb to deaths due to diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, kala azar and Japanese Encephalitis that could have been avoided with basic medication or treatment. Most of these preventable deaths in villages are due to infections of communicable, parasitic and respiratory diseases. Deaths in villages from conditions like nutritional deficiencies or perinatal deaths are also avoidable if they could have accessed some kind of affordable, basic health care at the right time. Around 40% of the rural morbidity in India is thanks to water born infectious diseases. These diseases are (1) of the gastrointestinal tract - such as diarrhoea, amoebiasis, typhoid fever, infectious hepatitis, worm infestations and poliomyelitis, (2) carried in the air through coughing, sneezing or even breathing -such as measles, tuberculosis, whooping cough and pneumonia, or (3) the difficult ones - like malaria, filariasis and kala-azar. About 100 million people get diarrhoea and cholera every year. There are 12 million tuberculosis cases currently in India with 1.2 million cases added every year. Around 37, 000 cases of measles are reported every year. About 2.3 million episodes and over 1000 malarial deaths occur every year in India. An estimated 45 million people are carriers of microfilaria. Around 1.2 million cases of leprosy exist in India with 500, 000 cases being added every year. More than 85% of rural children are undernourished and around 150, 000 of them die every year.

Many primary causes of ill health are based on factors such as poverty, deprivation and environmental abuse. The health support systems of the poor are clean water, air, forests and land. Threat to these resources is the root cause of their ill health.

Most who flock to the god-men for miracle cures in India are from the groups of poor women, dalits and backward communities. They work as small farmers, agricultural labourers and artisans. They struggle hard at their work places under adverse weather conditions to produce food and other commodities for their urban counterparts. When they get sick, they have no one else to turn to except their God and these god-men who claim to have miracle cures for their ailments. They look for solutions in quacks, sorcerers and god-men. India has many such individuals, families and trusts (which are managed like modern corporations) who claim to have miracle cures for all kind of ailments. They often have a very huge fan following in the rural heartland of India. They are omnipresent and they travel to many places to conduct mass healing sessions in emotionally charged gatherings. These god-men like the shamans of yester years play multiple roles as a magician, medicine person, miracle-worker, healer, priest, mystic and master of all spiritual energies and enjoy the company of powerful business tycoons and politicians.

Such healing individuals who claim shamanic powers are not limited to Hinduism only, they present in all other religions including Islam and Christianity. Thousands of people from Kerala rush to ‘divine healing centres’ set up around the clout of healing Christian priests who are believed to have the ability to perform miracles, exorcise demons and heal afflictions.

It does not matter even if the evidence of healing offered by these God-men does not stand up to scientific scrutiny. Their followers continue to believe in the testimony of those who got healed, though their healing is only a subjective experience. Critics of faith healers are usually dealt with personal attacks and they are blamed of not having enough faith. They gather support from members of their mother religion by crying ‘attack on their holy faith by nonbelieving outsiders’. They survive as medical science too does not have answers to all the questions about health, diseases and the multiple ways through which healing takes place.

In theory, the government provides some kind of health services - a three tier structure of health care consisting of Community Health Centres, Primary Health Centres and Subcentres is set up for the rural areas. But whatever limited services exist in the rural areas are either nonfunctional, dysfunctional, or are with extremely ‘poor quality’. Most often the service providers, especially doctors are not present in the rural facilities. India has just six doctors and nine hospital beds for every 10,000 of its people, compared to 14 doctors and 30 hospital beds in China. About 75% of health infrastructure, medical manpower, and other health resources are concentrated in urban areas where 28% of the populations live in villages. A recent survey of 15,000 households across 12 states noted that about half the people in India and over three-fifths of those who live in rural areas have to travel beyond 5 km to reach a healthcare centre. The survey further points out that the availability of healthcare services is skewed towards urban centers with these residents, who make up only 28% of the country's population, enjoying access to 66% of India's available hospital beds, while the remaining 72%, who live in rural areas, have access to just one-third of the bed.

Villages in the heartland of India are inhabited by poor landless laborers, small holders, and artisans. They spent their money mostly on food and some money on clothing and housing. Considering their ‘subsistence existence’, spending money on health care is indeed a luxury to them. Most of them could not afford to buy health care from the urban centers just because they are poor. Therefore in case of extreme illnesses, the rural masses turn to the private providers for which they have to borrow money from the money lenders. Many studies  have shown that medical treatment is the most important cause of rural indebtedness, next only to dowry in the rural India. Those who are indebted and those who are unable to afford a loan finally turn to quacks, sorcerers and god-men. Not only in remote rural and tribal areas but also in urban slums, the phenomenon of god-men is rampant and these god-men meet a felt need of these ailing masses.

The problem of poor access to health care by the masses is well documented by researchers umpteen times. The policy and program measures to deal with this issue are also known to experts. What we lack is the political will and guts to implement certain drastic measures. Today we are left with two options in front of us. We can either continue to leave the health care of the masses to shamans, sorcerers and godmen; and when they rally behind their miracle cures, we can blame them for their ignorance and superstitious habits and plan media campaigns to educate them! Or we can take bold steps to ensure universal access to health care.

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