Progress happens through novel discourses. Black Lives Matter has revealed an age of moral awakening where the ‘woke’ generations have assumed avenues to bring about change. Social movements take center stage when it comes to mass social action through the collective opinions of communities.
However, beyond the enormous contributions of the Black Lives Matter movement lie smaller socially driven causes nationally and internationally, which by consequence affect public health. It is time we start deciphering their impact.
On Power Structures
In a paper jointly written by researchers from Brown University and the University of San Francisco, health social movements were lauded due to the challenges they brought to power structures.
What can easily be mistaken as a lucrative marketing scheme for Charity Water, ‘Pledge Your Birthday’ started trending on the internet and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the NGO to provide clean water to communities that lack such access.
While it is difficult to classify this as the typical social movement, it suffices to say that this is collective action in the form of community participation. It is targeted action towards a cause — ensuring the health and basic human rights of disadvantaged communities.
Social movements also hold the power to divert funding towards people and causes that require it.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, millions of dollars were raised for groups working towards racial justice, challenging the system of oppression. Hence, it is crucial to draw the connection between the social determinants of health, like racial injustice, and the contribution of such movements to address the inequities present.
On Healthcare Deliveries
Health social movements also hold the power of challenging medical authorities and people’s attitudes towards the type of care they are receiving:
The increasing awareness around microbial resistance has served to reduce prescriptions of antibiotics. There was a shift in the paradigm on emerging infections through reformers such as Stuart Levy and the Alliance for Prudent Use of Antibiotics. Federal authorities took action against this practice of overprescribing in 1999 through the help of the CDC, FDA, and NIH.
On Local Health Issues
Internationally, we have seen movements arise to bring attention to local health issues:
#BacharLorai is a social movement working towards awareness around COVID-19 in Bangladesh and consolidating aid efforts from expat communities.
Being one of the founders of this movement, I can vouch for how such initiatives allow greater democratization of healthcare through oversight from civil society. Through such initiatives, we can pressure medical communities to adapt to changing practices.
On Sustainability of Social Change
A major criticism against social movements is their lack of structure, leading to unsustainable efforts.
However, using an informal structure, Jane Jacobs brought reform in urban development practices relating to population health in North America. Her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities changed people’s perspective on the idea of livable cities.
A central tenet of her fight was to inform the public that ‘revitalization’ projects do more harm than good to urban communities. Issue-centric movements are efficient because they can dissolve once the issue is tackled, thus taking sustainability out of the equation. Additionally, a lack of singular leadership makes such movements dynamic.
These factors remain crucial in Jacobs’ social movement, which brought together city planners and community organizers. It ushered a new wave of thinking which continued beyond New York — her battleground — to cities across the U.S. and Canada.
However, a gap still remains in identifying the correlation between enacting policies against uncontrolled urbanization and general public health.
Need for Impact Measurement
The lack of data on the impact of social movements such as Jacobs’ ‘new urbanism‘ and others happening worldwide warrants the exploration of the insufficient academic frameworks present to measure such phenomena.
Although there has been classification of such movements into broad categories across multiple papers, the responsibility of impact measurement is being hastily passed around by scholars due to its ill-understood nature.
Thus, I call upon lawmakers to endorse research on improving the understanding of social movements and enhancing their position from academia’s periphery.
Having witnessed the tangible impact made on the lives of thousands, it becomes hard to ignore the power of collective action. Social movements, by virtue of public participation, add an extra realm of accountability in places where there is the potential for misuse.
In the age of viral campaigns, getting people involved in change offers a viable solution. It is time we start taking notice of people’s voices and take the democratic road to change.