The biographies of those who lived through World War I and II have always had a deep magnetism for me. Read from contemporary Europe perspective, they seem to me to be unreal novels, characters that surpass literary creations, adventurers without choice who often lost their lives at the hands of iron, fire, and fanaticism. The stories of those who were persecuted, tortured and overcrowded in concentration camps for defending their ideas and still kept on going, are quite fascinating.
Andrija Štampar was born in Drenovac in 1888. This small Croatian village at that time had no more than 140 inhabitants. Since those days, Drenovac has navigated in the times of history through many seas: those of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (the embryo of first Yugoslavia), the fascist domination of the Nazis — Ustachas, Popular Yugoslavia and today the Republic of Croatia. Three dramatic wars in less than 100 years shape its character, like that of the vast majority of the region.
It is said that Stmapar inherited curiosity about the world, restlessness and the fight for the defence of his father’s freedoms, a professor of liberal ideas who always had the suitcase ready to flee due to his political convictions. From a young age, his passion was medicine, but due to his greed to understand the world around him, he joined one of the most innovative fields at that time, epidemiology, community health, preventive health, and international health.
In 1911, he graduated in medicine, and from there until the end of his days, his objective was to expand the principles of public health throughout the world. Although it may sound strange to us, one of its main fields of action was the eradication of malaria in Croatia and its neighbouring countries. He used pioneering citizen awareness techniques, such as showing films in communities to convey the message to the population. Even today, in Morocco, there is a statue in his honour for his contribution to ending malaria in southern Europe and northern Africa.
Andrija Štampar on one of his trips to China (1936-1939)
He survived World War I, created the School of Public Health and the Zagreb Institute of Hygiene, fled again with the arrival of fascism, and travelled throughout Europe, the United States and China to study the most effective methods of promoting maternal and child health. The fascists imprisoned him from 1941 until 1945, he was released by the Soviet army, and once again, as soon as he could return to his passion, public health. Finally, he put all his knowledge and political beliefs at the service of the world and was one of the promoters and creators of the World Health Organization (WHO). He was appointed the first president of WHO by unanimous vote. He died in 1958 in Zagreb, at the age of 69, with a life full of intense experiences, political commitment, being a citizen of the world, creating a global organization which, although today has much to criticize, has improved unquestionably the humanity. The health model to which he contributed in his country, the Yugoslavia of Tito, was among the most advanced on the planet and although at that time the term universal coverage was not even coined, the truth is that all its citizens had free access, quality medical care, and prevention was the aim of all health policies.
Gradec – Barrio Antiguo de Zagreb
The Europe that Andrija left does not resemble that of today. Landing on Friday afternoon in an autumnal atmosphere of Zagreb, embellished, stately in some neighbourhoods and real socialist in others, I thought that Andrija perhaps did not imagine that his country was going to suffer another fraternal war, that the organization that contributed to creating, the WHO, would fall into the hands of philanthropist capitalists and private companies, or that the greatest effort to achieve coexistence and the expansion of the welfare state in the old continent, the European Union, was to be led by a horde of bureaucrats at the service of large companies and banks.
I recognize that I have trouble criticizing Europe. Not for any kind of patriotic feeling, rather for the idea of how I’m going to complain about having seen what I’ve seen. Sometimes it is as if I felt Mozambican, Bolivian or Burkinabé, and I was enchanted by the lights and achievements of the old continent. The truth is that most people on the planet still struggle to have welfare states that resemble it. Moreover, for the vast majority of people, rights are not something for which they fight in their day-to-day lives, they do not think in these terms, they fight only (which is no small thing) to survive. But in these three days in Zagreb, speaking with comrades from 12 European countries, I had no doubt that, if the trend is not reversed, we will long for this time when we enjoy the fruits of the struggle of those who gave everything for our freedom and rights.
Andrija did not imagine that WHO would fall into the hands of philanthropist capitalists and private companies
Our meeting began the same Friday, at nine o’clock at night, under a rain that looked like a film set, intense, constant, beautiful, I would even say welcoming. We head to Café Beertija, whose first floor is the former meeting room of the former Croatian Partisan Committee. I imagined people like Andrija Štampar in this room, in darker times than we have lived. This was to be the meeting point for each and every member of People’s Health Movement (PHM) Europe. There I hugged with some familiar faces and I could meet new members. The heterogeneity of the group always fascinated me, members of all ages and backgrounds, fighters and fighters with a common denominator: curb the feet of those who want to market with our health.
Presentations, experiences, successes and disappointments have taken place over the three days. Sofia Tzitzikoy explained to us how in Greece, despite the media forgetfulness to which the media punish us, they continue fighting so that the health system, already damaged after years of austerity policies, takes care of the thousands of refugees. Jan Schriefer related the tremendous transformation of the Dutch health system, once a model for everyone and how today every citizen in the Netherlands is obliged to pay for private medical insurance. Vittorio Agnoletto brought us up to date with the incredible differences in Italian regionalization, and as some of them have even been taken to court for a level of privatization of health services such that they do not guarantee care for all citizens which promulgates the Italian Constitution. All the stories were examples of setbacks in service coverage, in their quality. All were daughters of the same policies of cuts, austerity and commercialization promoted by the capitalism of the European Commission.
Given this reality, and out of necessity People’s Health Movement is born.We have established ourselves as observers of WHO policies, we remain one foot in the European parliament always at the scourge of commodification policies. In each country, it joins or integrates with social movements of health defence. The struggles are endless, from the most local (neighbourhood committees for the democratization of health) to the most strategic at the continent level. Listening to each of them, and I felt accompanied on this path that has taken me for a thousand and one corners of the planet.
People’s Health Movement Europe
Not only the intentions are important, but the forms are also important. The liturgy of the PHM meetings has always moved me, especially considering the tremendous level of each of the members (researchers, knowledge of 4 or 5 languages, experience, etc.) knowing that they could be trained by working in multinationals or United Nations agencies. There are no payments or benefits for presentations and shared knowledge. Simultaneous translations are carried out by some of its participants, with an enviable attitude, patience and dedication, with a quality that would result in thousands of euros in the market.
Sometimes it is done through digital applications that allow you to listen to them on mobile phones, other times, it is just about sitting next to the person who needs it and whispering in her or his ear the words that relate the struggles, resistance, dreams to get them to stop once and for all playing with our health. Articles are shared, media resources, videos, links, advocacy campaigns. There is no price on anything because we want knowledge to be free, as we will be free if we are not removed from it. In the meetings of the PHM we laugh and celebrate the conquests, and we cry and remember those who are no longer present, but who helped to globalize the struggle for rights, as was the case with David Sanders (1945-2019) or Amit Sengupta (1958-2018).
All the stories were examples of setbacks in service coverage, daughters of the same policies of cuts, austerity and commercialization promoted by the capitalism of the European Commission.
Chiara translates from English to French for Vladimir – PHM Europe
Walking through Ulica Kneza Branimira, after midnight and feeling how the cold entered my lungs, I thought that if Andrjia lived, he would be here with us, and we, in these days, on the side of those and those who do not want to leave health and ultimately life in the hands of the business. I felt that there is nothing that makes us freer than being healthy, that there is nothing that makes us more human than feeling again the fear that they will take away what we have achieved and react to it.
Our next meeting of the PHM is held in Barcelona. My city, mixed-race, Mediterranean, open and rotten, conciliatory and persistent. As Amit Sengupta said, I hope that again in those days there is magic in the air, the magic of the strength of the people.
International Relations Coordinator
*Translated from Spanish into English by Susanna Pujol Clivillé