BMA: Health and human rights in the new world (dis)order

10 April, 2022

Dear HIFA colleagues,

I am forwarding this extract on behalf of HIFA member Richard Fitton. It is from a new BMA publication.

Health and human rights in the new world (dis)order

A report from the British Medical Association


'Introduction: As we havseen with COVID, to protect our health, we need access to reliable, up-to-date information. Whether we are making personal, health-promoting decisions, seeking advice from health professionals, or where governments, health departments or public health experts are seeking to protect the health of communities, access to the best available information is critical. From its infancy, medical science has been committed to pushing back the frontiers of knowledge to protect and promote human health and wellbeing. So essential is access to authoritative sources of opinion that it forms part of a cluster of health-related human rights, including, most obviously, rights to health and self determination. This chapter explores the complex and unsettling impact of new media on medical expertise globally. However, making sense of these developments is not possible without some understanding of their political context. During the last decade our global political discourse has changed significantly.

'The driving factors are widely acknowledged: the aftershocks of the 2008 crisis in global financial institutions; decades of increasing inequalities; a declining faith in the political classes through widespread accusations of 'sleaze'; a deepening frustration with technocratic government; and a corresponding shift to a politics of identity and emotionalism – to what journalist Matthew D'Ancona hhas called a politics of 'post truth': what matters in this new political landscape is not so much the truth of a political utterance, but its emotional charge, how it makes the voter feel. Added to this are social media platforms with their power to target, influence and persuade.

'In April 2020, during a White House briefing after the arrival of the COVID pandemic, speaking to a global audience, then US President Donald Trump suggested that an 'injection inside' the body with a disinfectant such as bleach could help combat the virus. Alternatively, he suggested that 'hitting' the body with a powerful dose of ultraviolet light, either inside or outside, might prove effective. Although loudly condemned by medical doctors – as well as the manufacturers of bleach – and lateater dismissed by Trump himself as an exercise in 'sarcasm', it felt emblematic. Here was perhaps the most powerful political leader in the world seeking to bend the institution and practice of medical science to clear political ends. Aided by his unprecedented use of Twitter and other forms of social media, such comments had an impact far beyond the reach of ordinary White House press releases. It did not seem to disconcert the President that calls to poison centres in the US following exposure to bleach and disinfectant subsequently spiked, or that ensuing research from the US Center for Disease Control found that 4% of responders had drunk or gargled bleach after his suggestions.'


The above are the opening paragraphs to Chapter 5: The information age: new media and the assault on medical expertise

I invite discussion on the issues raised.

Best wishes, Neil

Neil Pakenham-Walsh, Global Coordinator HIFA,