My first day at Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Friends of the Global Fund, executive director Rawan told me health is not just about your physical body.
“Health is art,” she said. “Health is sports. Health is smiling. Healthy doesn’t mean just not being sick – it means having a good life. Going to see a play or a comedy show is healthy. Spending time with friends is healthy. If you are not happy and you have a bad life, what does anything else matter?”
It made me think, in the States, we divide the different kinds of health and treat them separately. Mostly, we talk about mental and physical health – for which we see two different professionals who don’t communicate about our needs. It makes a lot more sense to consider everything to be health.
I had thought I was coming to help simply eradicate disease – and though I knew that included some social aspects, I didn’t think of it as almost entirely cultural.
“Health is culture,” said my coworker Abeer. “People with disease face discrimination every day here, so they don’t get tested to find out they have it. They would rather not know and die among friends than be alive, but jobless and without family.”
She said she has asthma, and though it’s under control, some employers don’t want to hire her because of the ailment.
“They think I’ll get sick a lot or something silly like that,” she said.
Abeer said it’s common for someone with a disease – particularly HIV/AIDS – to become an outcast in Jordanian society. My host sister, Suha, had said the same thing earlier that day.
“It’s assumed that you got AIDS from sexual misconduct,” she said. “If you weren’t sneaking on your wife or doing something else immoral, you wouldn’t get it.”
Abeer says the real reason most patients get HIV/AIDS is because of a lack of standards in medical care.
“They use the same instruments on everyone,” Abeer said. “So if the dentist doesn’t wash his tools well, and they are still bloody from the last patient, BOOM. You could get AIDS.”
She said even hospitals don’t have standard sanitation methods in place to prevent blood infections from traveling between patients.
Because of the mismatch between the taboo and the reality of poor medical sanitation, the workers at Friends of the Global Fund aim to educate community leaders to break the silence and talk about these issues. They hope to end discrimination towards those with diseases, encourage testing, and create an open dialogue with the community.
Only when these elements are in place – when the community attitudes are healthy, or at least open-minded – can any organization hope to impact the physical health, too.