The New Imperialists
I have finally completed my first semester. I am officially halfway done with my MPH degree and I am ecstatic. Uni really takes its toll and I can honestly say that if this program were any longer than a year, I would quit.
At this point in time, I feel that I can look back an evaluate what I think of my degree and of public health, in general. Although my work experience has been in the public health sector, my academic interests -- as you all know by now -- lie within the realms of anthropology and gender & sexuality. Fortunately, I have been able to infuse my previous academic [and personal] interests into many of my current assignments.
As I sat in my final class for the semester, listening to another endless debate about health equity, I couldn't help but wonder: Are public health practitioners really so altruistic? Is public health -- especially international and minority focused -- really another form of imperialism that we have all learned to despise?
My musings are borne out of my own belief system and observations I've made since beginning my degree. I am entirely in favour of practices and promotions that alert people to the dangers of cancer, unsafe sex, and non-communicable diseases. However, it is at many of my colleagues' insistence that I feel uncomfortable crafting public messages that warn about the dangers of smoking, overeating, and using illicit substances. Although I recognise that these are detrimental habits, I don't especially feel comfortable being the one to go into a community and proclaim, "I know what's best for you!"
The full extent of my apprehension towards public health came recently during a debate with a colleague over nutrition. Having been in the country over the weekend, my colleague and I noted the number of overweight people in our midst. I, however, felt that there were many extenuating circumstances -- like socio-economic status, for one -- that contribute to one's so-called obesity and expressed my feelings that judging a group of rural or poor-urban people for being unfit was "classist." She vehemently disagreed and said that "these people" should simply grow their own food and/or buy organic. How people of a low socio-economic status were supposed to do either of these things was not answered when asked to be explained.
Although I do still enjoy the principles of public health, overall, I look around the classroom and find myself wondering, "Are we really just a bunch of white people trying to educate the local savages? How are we any different than the European colonists who are responsible for so much of the inequality the currently exists in the world?" And while many of my colleagues are supposed to be like-minded and progressive, they are also the first to condemn smokers, non-vegetarians, and those who are slightly overweight.
I might not be disheartened enough to seek a career change, but I am certainly starting to question my desire to carry on in this particular field.