While it can be politically expedient for governments to engage with health inequalities, in a neoliberal world they struggle to realistically propose actions which will substantially reduce them – such as tackling power inequalities, patriarchy-sustaining institutions or class inequality. A dominant ‘policy paradigm’ prioritising economic growth restricts even their ability to imagine alternative, equitable scenarios. In this context, politicians, policy makers and some researchers have devised a parallel fantasy world in which proximal, downstream and easily tackled exposures are put forward as viable solutions to health inequalities (and sometimes even positioned as the causes). The consequence of this is a widespread public sector culture in which well-meaning policy-makers, practitioners, researchers and the public collude in sustaining a ‘cargo cult’ around the ‘worship’ of health behaviourism.
It’s now widely accepted that health inequalities – unfair, unjust differences in health determinants and outcomes within and between populations – have serious immediate and long-term negative impacts on individuals and societies. As a result, many governments have at least a rhetorical commitment to reducing of health inequalities. It is rare for national inequality reduction strategies to include any analysis of the causal pathways that result in health inequalities and rarer still for them to suggest interventions that seek to tackle the fundamental causes of health inequalities. Instead, most policy approaches (even the few that acknowledge material and structural causes) put forward lists of ‘downstream’ (proximal) health determinants, such as smoking, unhealthy dietary choices, poor housing conditions, or failure to use contraception, whose social patterning – ie, greater prevalence among working class people – is itself presumed to represent the cause of the relevant inequality. Continue reading “Neoliberal governments and health inequalities: a fantasy paradigm”