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Inequalities in health and community-oriented social work: lessons from Cuba?

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journal contribution
posted on 2023-08-30, 13:26 authored by Dave Backwith, Greg Mantle
Social justice is, as the World Health Organization Commission on Social Determinants of Health (WHO CSDH, 2008) reminds us, ‘a matter of life and death’. While the stark differences in mortality rates and life expectancy between rich and poor countries might be the most obvious example of this, it is also true that ‘Within countries, the differences in life chances are dramatic and are seen in all countries – even the richest’ (WHO CSDH, 2008: 26). As the Commission demonstrates, the roots of these inequities lie in social conditions, suggesting an important role for social work in this area. Unfortunately, the Commission says very little about the type of social work that might be appropriate: nevertheless, the report does provide fresh impetus to the debate about what social workers might contribute to tackling health inequalities. In this article, we suggest that a community-oriented approach to social work is required. In making a case for this, we review the progress of the government’s drive to reduce inequalities in England,1 arguing that this has, thus far, been largely unsuccessful because it has primarily been pursued through health-care services, while addressing the wider (social) determinants of health has been a secondary consideration. In contrast, we offer the example of Cuban community-oriented social work (COSW) which has helped maintain population health at a level that stands comparison with much wealthier nations, despite the hardships and inequalities which followed economic collapse in the 1990s. In many ways the Cuban situation is unusual, perhaps unique, so we are not arguing that Cuban social work methods can be readily transferred. Rather, we suggest that, in the neglected field of tackling health inequalities, social workers can learn from the general approach taken in Cuba. To establish the context of this discussion, we begin by defining key concepts: COSW itself, health inequalities and inequity, the health gap and the health gradient.



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International Social Work





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ARCHIVED Faculty of Health, Social Care & Education (until September 2018)

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