By Eliana Fleifel, Communications Specialist
February 26, 2021
What is health and well-being?
After attending five powerful sessions on health and well being with BCCIC at International Development Week (IDW) 2021, I learned that answering this question isn’t quite as straightforward as I once thought. There are actually multiple layers to unpack – layers that need to be investigated individually and collectively.
BCCIC’s IDW 2021 events began with a discussion on community and holistic health with panelists Navi Gill, Fernanda Wanderley, and Nada El Masry, moderated by Lyana Patrick. Navi Gill spoke to her experience as an Ayurveda practitioner and community advocate, Fernanda Wanderley shared her research on the concept of ‘Buen Vivir’ from social movements in Latin America, and Nada El Masry explained the intersecting and varied forms of support that refugees and newcomers require in order to live full and healthy lives. This session invited us to recognize how diverse our well-being needs are and how community is an essential part of care for many. Intersecting factors such as age, religion, culture, income, education, disability, gender, and more all influence the type of care we need, how we practice self care, and the services we seek both within and outside of our communities.
I learned that holistic understandings of health and well-being emphasize the importance of building systems and societies that honour diverse and social experiences of health. We must ensure everyone has the resources that allow them to safeguard their own health and access the culturally-appropriate services and facilities they need. I think in this sense, supporting various holistic and cultural health needs is really about ‘leaving no one behind.’ As long as our health care systems continue to be dominated by certain languages, certain forms of medical practice, barriers to access, and fail to account for the social and economic dimensions of well-being, we run the risk of leaving many behind.
The session that followed on the same day, facilitated by Tesicca Truong, walked attendees through emotional awareness exercises that helped us uncover our individual health needs. From her, I learned that when we become cognizant of our emotions and what we need to feel happy and healthy, we can actively engage in actions and strategies that serve our needs and promote our personal well-being. Many, hopefully all of us, are actually practicing a number of these strategies already in an effort to cope with difficult emotions and high work volumes brought on by a global pandemic. These may include taking walks in nature, enjoying a restful night’s sleep, journaling, having a good cry, meditating and praying, painting, or (my personal favourite) baking. If we allow ourselves to process our emotions and apply these strategies, we can open a gateway to health and well-being and learn how to serve ourselves and others. Tesicca ended her session by highlighting the important relationship between individual well-being and community care – something that is important to keep in mind as social change agents.
The IDW events that followed with Camille Dumond, Manpreet Dhillon and Cicely Blain uncovered the systemic layers at play when considering health and well-being. In their presentations, they shared that power is the essence upon which every system we interact with today was built, with healthcare being no exception. I learned here that imbalances of power, created over years of colonialism and from manifestations of global and local rank, have sown the seeds of privilege, injustice, and inequity. It’s this single point that helped me understand how we’ve come to develop a narrow, non-inclusive, and fragile healthcare system that only serves the needs of certain groups and influences how we all experience health, care, and well being.
In the session on leadership and power, facilitator Camille shared that we can understand imbalances of power by reflecting on our rank. Participants got the opportunity to engage with others and consider the areas where they had high global, local, psychological, and spiritual rank. That reflection exercise revealed the sum of power we each have relative to others, and it highlighted how systems of power elevate some and demean or exclude others. There was a lively discussion at the end of the session about the relationships between funders, practitioners, and local communities in the international development sector, and I left that session with the realization that we as international development agents and practitioners have to grapple with power dynamics, sharing power, and giving up power to enact meaningful change.
Manpreet Dhillon and Cicely Belle Blain focused on what we can do to actually balance power and practice anti-racism and inclusion in our organizations and daily lives. At the organizational level, Manpreet’s presentation taught me that fostering diversity, equity and inclusion makes employees feel an essential sense of belonging that in turn promotes well-being. Aligning individual and organizational needs also creates an environment of work that feels safe, inclusive, productive, and healthy. Cicely’s session on anti-racism added to this discussion by diving into the individual and collective decisions every day that we can make to be anti-racist and undo our biases. Doing this work will challenge us to reevaluate the narratives we were taught as children, but in doing so, it will elevate our capacity to serve racial justice and most importantly, raise future generations and future leaders that apply anti-racism.
The World Health Organisation reminds us that health and well-being is a multidimensional phenomenon, one that is strongly tied to food security, education, early life, economic opportunities, our environment and many other factors. In 2011, they introduced these factors as the 10 Social Determinants of Health. Each of these are tied to broader systems in society, including food systems, economic systems, education systems, and housing systems, to name a few. Since systemic inequity is not isolated to the health care system, all IDW 2021 presentations made me realize that decolonizing health and well-being is not just a healthcare issue, it’s an all-of-society, multi-system issue. By perpetuating imbalances of power in any of these systems, we will continue to uphold health and wellness paradigms that don’t serve everybody’s needs, and we will continue to find groups that carry far larger mental and physical health burdens than others.
Our ability to apply the lens of intersectionality and be more conscious of our power will help us in this work. We often hear that such a pursuit demands the inclusion of diverse voices in the design and decision-making process. While that is true, systemic transformations as broad as this will not only require a kind of leadership that is diverse in ethnicity, income, gender, religion, ability, age, and race, but also diverse in thought and experience. This might make health and well-being accessible to all, allow us to take stock of the diverse needs in our communities, and remind us that community care is inseparable from self care, health, and social and economic prosperity.
I am certain that the international development community will continue to stress the idea of creating “universal access” to health care in working to advance the Sustainable Development Goals agenda, as they should. But in doing so, we must also ask ourselves – is it enough to create access to health care if the health care available doesn’t serve everybody equitably? Our efforts should consider who has access and to what.