Approaching the Aerodrom on my last day in Ljubljana I thought about the whirlwind the last three days had been. From losing my luggage, to meeting such inspirational people from all over Europe, to being able to present at a panel alongside the likes of the World Bank, State Secretary of Montenegro, University College London, Public Health Committee of Sweden and Mondragon University Spain. It was an incredible experience but one with a strong call to action about doing more to tackle the growing social, economic, health and political inequalities we face in our societies.
To back track a bit, the European Office of the World Health Organisation invited VHS, in our role as the secretariat for the Health Inequalities Cross Party Group (CPG), to provide a case study on the work of the CPG to tackle health inequalities. The case study was one of 32 featured in the The WHO European Health Equity Status Report Case Studies and a suite of resources were launched at the ‘Healthy, Prosperous Lives for all in the European Region – High-level Conference on Health Equity’. VHS was asked to present on our collaborative approach to tackling health inequalities at this conference and as such began my journey to Ljubljana on 10th of June.
On the first day, Professor Sir Michael Marmot delivered one of the strongest messages of the conference. A message that stayed with me as I finished my response to the Public Health Scotland consultation and begin responding to the Scottish Parliament Call for Evidence on Primary Care Reform.
“You cannot treat people and send them back to the conditions that caused them to get ill in the first place!”
For too long there has been a focus on behavioural change rather than the social and economic circumstances that underpin health and wellbeing. Professor Marmot’s message set the tone for the three day conference provided the impetus and to shift our emphasis away from describing the issue to actioning change. We all understand the inequalities people face but we need to focus on identifying the most effective ways of tackling them.
The conference had three guiding themes or ‘pillars’: Achieve, Accelerate and Influence. The Achieve pillar sought to explain how health equity can be achieved when investment is directed towards financial protection, housing, safe and inclusive spaces, equal and quality employment opportunities and social protection. The Accelerate pillar focused on reducing health gaps by ensuring policies are made with people not for them, that they are person centred and all interventions combine both universal and targeted approaches to maximise impact. Finally, the Influence pillar focused on health in all policies and the development of multi-sectorial and multi-disciplinary partnerships to tackle inequalities.
My contribution was to the Influence pillar – as a Policy and Engagement Officer this could not have been a better fit. All of my work revolves around influencing policy to improve health and wellbeing as well as working collaboratively to tackle issues. I took the opportunity to convey examples such as the work of the Cross Party Group on Health Inequalities to shine a light on areas less well known: the barriers to health and wellbeing for the prison population; clustering of fast food, alcohol and gambling outlets in areas of deprivation; as well as the impact of culture and arts on health and wellbeing. I also spoke about the whole systems approach to health and wellbeing that Public Health Scotland will take, which aims to be multi-sectorial and partnership based. I highlighted the work of lived experience panels of Social Security Scotland and the aim to ensure seldom heard voices help shape the way in which the new agency works.
I also spoke about the need to step away from othering* people who live with inequalities, from speaking about them as if they are just a statistic towards recognising the resilience, power and resource that already exist within disadvantaged communities, support to develop these and further empowering people to affect the change that they need and want. Without planning to, this ended up being one of the closing messages of the conference.
I sincerely hope that in the future we will see more people with lived experience round the tables of decision makers and conferences such as the one I spoke at – helping to shape the discussion, policies and interventions that affect our lives.
*Othering within this scenario represents a group of people as being different to the rest of us. A sort of looking glass into how the ‘others’ live which perpetuates the concept then of doing things to people rather than with them
Kiren Zubairi is the Policy Engagement Officer at Voluntary Health Scotland. For further information contact: Kiren.firstname.lastname@example.org