Post-pandemic, all countries are trying to stay ahead of the curve in terms of public health. The Indian government, which is often criticized for its lukewarm support of primary health and a snail’s pace rise in major health indicators, has made strides with a host of schemes under the National Health Mission, and the Budget allocation for health has increased to 26% in FY23 from 21% in FY19. Health was a major point of discussion at last year’s G20 meet where India pushed for evidence-based traditional medicine and the strengthening of digital telemedicine platforms. Yet, steely grey skies and thick smog, a result of Delhi’s air pollution, have herded us into our homes.
K. Srinath Reddy’s Pulse to Planet: The Long Lifeline of Human Health comes at a fortuitous moment. The preface talks of the disease not just as a singular entity but also its interplay with social, biological, environmental, economic, cultural and commercial factors. Picking up from the philosophical debate of free will, Reddy argues that a particular behaviour adopted by a particular human being for their health is never devoid of these factors. It is a pertinent point, yet a few paragraphs later, the acuteness of his observations is watered down by platitudes: “If they [well-meaning older adults] could effectively change the systems…why would we have a world with widening inequalities, rabid religious discord, appalling anti-science movements, acrimonious political polarization, narrow nationalism, violent ethnic conflicts, terrorism that strikes at will.”
Reddy has the bird’s eye view of a public health specialist combined with the precision of a cardiologist. He opens up oft-repeated but interesting debates about human health. The chapter on commercial determinants of health, for instance, systematically explores how local policies and international trade affect personal choice. He uses the example of turkey tails to explain that the US consumes thousands of turkeys at Thanksgiving, but the birds’ tails don’t end up on tables or in giblet bags. The huge load of tails is dumped in Samoa, propagated as protein-rich foods for the poor working class. The tactic worked and over the years turkey tails have assumed cultural importance in Samoan foods. On the downside, this calorie-rich food has led to a 75% rate of obesity, causing a barrage of other non-communicable diseases in Samoa.
Such absorbing arguments, however, are rare in the book as it tries to cover far too much ground. Like a glossy encyclopaedia, it offers bite-sized introductory passages with occasional in-depth exploration. Reddy often makes perceptive observations but does not build upon them. On the effect of the state-owned tobacco industry on health, for instance, Reddy states, “The industry co-opted policymakers in many countries, muffled media voices with lucrative advertisements (direct or surrogate) and targeted critics with an arsenal of intimidatory threats.” Intriguing but he doesn’t substantiate it with a single example. The real heft of non-fiction rests in the ‘how’, without which a bold statement like this loses its potency.
The language is appealing and Reddy crafts his sentences with a poet’s precision, never letting go of any chance of alliteration. The description of an anxious person gives us a moment of tongue-in-cheek humour: “a hurried, harried and harassed person who is in harm’s way”. However, Reddy misses out on what a non-fiction book must do: startle a reader with fresh and compelling arguments, insights and research.
Kinshuk Gupta is a resident doctor and author of Yeh Dil Hai Ki Chor Darwaja, a book of LGBT short fiction.