Inspiring Positive Change: A Painful Truth about Poverty

Maddy Lewis, Ssezibwa Falls, Uganda, June 11, 2017

By Maddy Lewis, Senior, School of Biological Sciences

In the beautiful East African country of Uganda, I have experienced the best and worst times of my life. I white-water rafted aggressive waters on the Nile River and met people who made me bend over in laughter daily. Alas, I came down with a common and deadly parasitic infection—Malaria. After a few nauseating days in a clinic, I recovered. But I did not leave this diverse country without actualizing a fact I began learning years before. This was the painful truth that nothing makes you sick quite like poverty does.

Getting sick in this area was much too easy. Sub-Saharan Africa hosts more than 90% of the world’s deaths from Malaria. In fact, the top three infectious disease killers–Malaria, Tuberculosis, and HIV–are heavily concentrated in this part of the world. As a young child, I was exposed to the fact that Africa has some of the world’s poorest populations, and that infectious disease was common. Since my childhood, I discovered more about the diverse cultures and regions that Africa contains. But, I still wondered why there is so much poverty. And even more so, why are poverty and disease an inextricable pair?

In regards to the huge amounts of poverty, this is a question that I am still trying to answer because it is not so simple. Many people point to colonialism–which was the complete invasion, conquest, and exploitation of nearly the entire continent (done so by several European countries). Since colonialism was intended to economically exploit the continent, it left the post-colonial land mass with unsustainable economic systems and poor infrastructure. Another important factor to consider is the past and present lack of stable institutions, such as education and transportation. On top of this, government corruption is making the lack of stability even worse. Overall, the current socioeconomic state of the continent is varied, diverse, and can be addressed in many different ways. What we can do is look at the past and current political, economic, and cultural aspects across Africa to begin answering this heavy question.

As stated, poverty and large amounts of disease seem to be inseparable. This fact is true across the world. In the United States, one’s zip code and income alone can actually give experts a reasonable life expectancy for that person. In the field of public health, we can begin to reason why this is by looking into the social determinants of health. By looking at these, we learn the ways in which the living and working conditions of a population will affect the health of those people (as opposed to looking into the health risks that individuals might take, such as overeating or smoking). This is due to the fact that poverty (a lack of resources, money, and privileges) limits people’s ability to access safe environments, safe working conditions, adequate amounts of healthy food, and education.

After my remarkable experiences and the unfortunate sickness, I fully realized that health is a vital aspect of life, no matter who you are or what you have. After having to unexpectedly place my life in someone else’s hands, I decided that health is a basic human right that all individuals should be entitled to –and if poor living conditions hinders that right–I will just have to be a part of the movements to improve them.