For many of us the veil has been lifted on the Western Medical system’s ulterior motives as healer-come-money-making-machine. This disillusionment may have come about by being subjected to a vicious cycle of pharmaceuticals and their side-kick side-effects, or simply from watching the downfall of the National Health Service in Britain as money is pulled out of it like Jenga blocks in some competitive frenzy. A game where no one really cares who lets the tower crumble, just as long as they’ve got a block in their hand.
My own personal experience of Britain’s poor, dear, lamenting legacy, the NHS, is two-fold. Picking up perpetual prescriptions for a persistent chronic disease was perpetuated by the stress of working in a hospital who’s dignity, like it’s walls, was falling away like a wet cake. Patients no longer suffered alone but would now find themselves fighting their own nurse for a doctor’s appointment. The realisation of the unhealthfulness of my own situation dawned on me like a long drawn out wet fart. What a mess it left, but I didn’t know it was going to be so bad until it happened!
This period of my life provoked a great passion within in me to get to grips with why super-scientific western medicine has gone so wrong, especially in a “developed” country with a highly reputable welfare state. This reputation is certainly dwindling, perhaps to put off the most desperate of asylum seekers. Well done Tories! But without getting too conspiratorial (just yet), I will stick to what I consider useful facts and hopefully helpful comparisons.
Working as a healthcare assistant found me rubbing shoulders and making beds with some of the most unsung healing soldiers of our times. Getting “promoted” into the field of clinical research trials found me following the orders of faceless corporations who didn’t care to hide the fact that funding for any medical research was only given to the highest profit-making business plan. Yes, we were explicitly informed of this shameful situation with a shrug and a sigh from the grey faced and bleary eyed ‘motivational’ speaker in training sessions.
The malignant combination of working for the NHS and being a patient within it soon came to a nasty head, and so, dosed up on false hope and desperation, I fled to the East. I am not using my anecdotal experience in Sri Lanka to directly compare two countries’ healthcare systems but using it as an opportunity to locate issues within the Western attitude towards healthcare. I am also, in no way, “doctor-bashing”, or discrediting biomedical science. It is true modern magic, with a rich evolution of theory and practice, yet it’s current management is alchemising it into absolute fool’s gold.
Sri Lanka boasts a high level of public healthcare services. 90% of biomedical healthcare is apparently available for free, or very subsidised. However, “boasting” doesn’t always mean it actually is providing the healthcare it claims to. The three pharmacies on every street corner selling all kinds of drugs only available on prescription in the UK doesn’t necessarily mean good treatment is readily available to everyone including very poor villagers. I’ve met visiting medical students from around the world who told us of patients sharing beds in areas overrun with Dengue.
Universally, I believe there are great physicians, and healthcare workers, in every country doing their best with the resources they have, including Britain where resources are being cut back one incontinence pad at a time. Bed wetting is on the increase, but will we regress to bed sharing? Or will complete privatisation cover up the failing figures?
Rest is for the Rich
But I digress. My point in this article concerns the cultural attitude towards being “ill.” In the West being chronically unwell is simply unacceptable. We care, love and sympathise with each other’s wellness woes within our close relationships, but socially and economically it’s just a big “No”. Being perfectly healthy and fending for yourself means being able to make money to buy a house, car, laptop; go out to groovy parties and get smashed, dine out on rich food at expensive restaurants, etcetera. And if you can’t, due to health reasons, you are categorically “disabled”. To claim any help from the state, which is legally bound to provide financial support after centuries of humanitarian work developing a globally enviable system, you must claim “disability allowance”. Good luck with that paperwork.
To admit these claims from a social perspective, is social suicide. You may as well be living on Benefits Street with 10 kids. If you had any dreams of a reputable career path, that’s out of the window. No one will take you seriously, and even though there are schemes and support groups and whatever, they are still outside the realms of social acceptability. You feel like an invalid. Invalidated. This is not due to the humans born in British boundaries being a particularly hard, cold and unforgiving race of people, but because the capitalist regime has taken over and harnessed the healthcare system.
It is no news that the “rat race” in the west, and especially the UK with it’s right wing growing so monstrously huge again that we’re all flying round in circles, requires everyone to work as hard as they possibly can to make as much money as they possibly can. Only then can they have a holiday. To me, this is directly reflective of Western medicine, which has been geared and designed for quick fixing, pain killing, symptom suppressing treatment to get you to work on Monday morning.
Scientific breakthroughs and life-changing technologies are no longer what western medicine proudly represents. Instead, one can’t hide how it resonates within Marxist theory. Workers are kept well enough to work in their industry despite, and at the expense of, their quality of life outside of it. And not only that, but patients, working or not, are also producing capital for big Pharma by endlessly popping their pills to keep everyone in business. The NHS, once a socialist’s dream, is now a proletariat’s nightmare.
Despite the (very welcome and much appreciated, lets not be naive) advances in biomedicine becoming available in “developing” countries, the cultural attitude towards health and wellbeing in the East is a more reflective of the ancient medical systems intrinsic to South Asian society. Ayurvedic medicine, for example, involves the long game. Especially in cases of chronic illness, this system does not just let a patient into a bed through the emergency doors, dose them up on steroids, and then send them back out to the world if they are walking and eating and able to type. They can be admitted into a completely government funded hospital, and kept there to spend all the time that is needed to tackle the disease from the source.
Panchakarma is a rigorous five-pronged method of cleansing the body before administering treatment. It can take three months or more to treat long-term illnesses and is recommended for at least a few days every year for a generally healthy person. Ayurvedic medicine is a way of life. Regular and convalescing regimes such as panchakarma are taken seriously as a part of a person’s wellbeing. People are expected to tend to their bodies and take the time to do so. Furthermore, medicine alone does not claim to cure you by itself. Diet, de-stressing, massage, steam-baths and many other treatments are tailored to each individual person depending on their constitution and balance of doshas.
Ayurvedic medicine aims to restore calm, balance and invigoration into the physical, mental and emotional state of the person. A holistic approach with clinically proven success and widely government funded in Sri Lanka (there are of course expensive luxury versions too). My own comparative example of an inflammatory bowel disease is treated by strong drugs and surgery from a Western medical perspective without attention given to diet or lifestyle. Whilst causes are indeed unknown for IBD and therefore vastly complicated, denying that food has anything to do with recovery seems nonsensical to the person who’s daily gripe can be dramatically altered by their latest meal. In Ayurveda, medicine is food. It can also be poison. Personal constitution, completely overlooked by the generics of clinically trialled mass produced chemical medicines, is a huge factor governing Ayurvedic medical treatment and menus. You are considered an individual.
Adam Curtis delves into the dark epiphany, in his groundbreaking doc, The Century of the Self, that “although we feel we are free, in reality, we—like the politicians—have become the slaves of our own desires”. The importance put on being a free individual is generated by capitalist regimes: free-markets and consumerism insinuate that people are free to make, take home and spend as much money as they can earn. They are able to keep it to themselves and their families, and not have to worry too much about the other people in the community. The Age of the Individual sounds like an attractive period to live in, fair enough if you’re into that sort of thing.
However, the fact is, is that the promise of individual gain is being continually broken. Capitalism is by definition, only designed to help itself. The individuals’ heyday is not upon us. And we can clearly see this through the current medical system. Clinical trials, patient procedures, prescriptions…it’s all generically generated. What worked for those 50 people on that trial ten years ago, is considered safe to try on you. Safe for who though? Safe for the system administering the drug. “Evidence-based medicine” cannot be argued with, despite subjecting someone to side-effects that may manifest differently from person to person. Alas, the proof is in the prescription.
But ancient medical systems like Ayurveda consider the entire patient, and keep trying, adjusting, monitoring low, safe doses of natural medicines over longer periods of time. They don’t expect quick results as this may throw something else out of whack. They try and work with the body’s natural reactions to disease, not against them. This takes time and patience. And as social beings, society must allow time for it too. Rather than trying to fix our embarrassing unwellness discreetly by spending endless money on medications, and medications to counter their side-effects, and medications to counter their side-effects, perhaps we should admit to each other that we need time out to get to the root of the problem.
Another factor western medical systems are only just admitting to, is stress. Again, the gripes go up a gear when stressful times are afoot. Luckily, this has become unavoidable to ignore, and admit, by doctors anywhere in the world, yet very hard to treat in western lifestyles. Rest and relaxation is expensive, as well as being considered “lazy”. Sri Lankans, on the other hand, are proud of being lazy! I hear it all the time. Sometimes those with British values find the slow pace of Sri Lankan life infuriating, but the rat race is just not a big deal out here. In fact, it’s a big reason why people leave the West and settle here, trying to clean out their stress-filled souls. Taking time to heal, be well, de-stress and eat right, is clearly a malleable attitude between cultures. But we should be able to take our health matters into our own hands despite our location.
Is it all just a brutal reinstatement of “natural selection”? In Foucauldian biopolitics, the sovereignty or state in this case has the power to “let die”, the weak – those who can’t handle the modern world’s chaos and suffer chronic illness as a result of a capitalist regime. Of course, not literally “die” as we need them to spend money on pharmaceuticals. It’s like a bloody Margaret Atwood novel. They will just filter out from attractive society who are well enough to run in the rat race and post their fresh-OJ-in -their-PJ pics. Instead, they “make live” the strong, those who can keep up with the rat race who have the intestines to pop a Prozac or a paracetamol if needs must. We are pit against each other in the race. I’m not trying to promote communism or attack capitalism, but to shed some light on ways we can look at how we treat ourselves and each other without being manipulated out of a healthy attitude towards health.
New schemes in modern companies are things like “duvet days”, where people are meant to take time to rest, even if they are not ill. In the West, “wellness” is becoming a big industry. Lovely Instagram snaps of expensive Manuka honey and cacao enemas are getting the consumer juices flowing, yet I wonder if wellness can ever really work unless it is an authentic endeavour to respect our lives and bodies aside from how we appear to the rest of society. Can even holistic therapies be exploited? Perhaps this puts even more pressure on appearing “well,” and not actually letting us take time out to become it.
Change of Pace
On a positive note, I have been inspired by some of my Eastern experiences. I have spoken with many doctors: ayurvedic, biomedical, homeopathic, English and Sri lankan; I have triangulated with my own internet research, and it is a fact that, eastern populations do not suffer from the amount of stress related or self-inflicted problems like we do in the West. We must learn from this. We must look at why – natural foods, aspirations to have time to relax with friends and family, admitting when we need to rest, and taking time out to recover from illness. I have recently taken a job as a yoga teacher in a place where wellness and wellbeing is taken seriously. If someone needs time off they take it! And everyone else supports them as much as they can.
Stop panicking and pill-popping. Let’s not leave it up to the government to “make live” the most efficient producers of profit, but “let live” everybody. Heal by starting with our natural resources and innate immune systems, supported by the individually appropriate magical medicine. Otherwise, Britain will just waste the progress it has worked so hard to develop within the health domain. If we continue to disrespect our healing processes, we will not be able to keep up with ourselves. We forget why we’re running this rat race, or what we are running towards, apart from an expensive tombstone in the Cotswolds.