The universal story: learning from the past!

Author: Maximilian Glätzner (HITA Expert - Contact:

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"; these words come from George Santayana, a us philosopher and writer. Regardless of what Santayana actually meant to say, the quote often serves as a warning against history repeating itself. Many believe that history is a repeating cycle. But this is not true; history does not repeat itself, of course. If history were to repeat itself, then we would be able to say with certainty what we would face tomorrow or in ten years. But this is not the case; nobody knows the future, again and again things happen that surprise us. By no means does history have a repetitive character, but it does have a universal character: patterns can be discerned in historical processes, and we can transfer historical processes to the present day. We can do this for one reason: history is made by people and people have not changed in their nature and basic features. Consequently, the basic features and structures within history have always been the same. This realization naturally offers room for resignation. We must understand that although time is moving forward and we are experiencing progress, people are still struggling with the same problems. However, falling into historical fatalism would be the wrong way to go. It is important to realize that the possibility of transferring historical processes to the present time also offers the possibility of learning from history. Perhaps the quote from George Santayana mentioned at the beginning can be rephrased: "Those who do not know or fail to recognize history cannot learn from it." Now this is not merely a philosophical metaphysical realization. This insight can also be applied practically. I would like to illustrate this with the medical situation in Ghana.

It should be stated at the outset that any sustainable economic development should be preceded by medical development. No state will be able to develop positively in the long term if a large part of the population has only a short life expectancy due to illness and poor medical care. Thus, improving the health care system in a state not only has positive consequences for the population per se, but rather helps the entire state in its development.

Although Ghana is in a better economic and political position than many other African countries, many people in Ghana still die from diseases that could actually be cured. An inadequate health care system is to blame. The positive development of the Ghanaian economy in recent years has led to a rural exodus and thus to urban centers. People are leaving the poorly connected rural areas and moving to the cities, which are growing unnaturally fast as a result. However, the important infrastructures, i.e. the sewage systems, the supply of clean drinking water and a functioning waste disposal system, are not growing at the same rate. The consequences have already been mentioned: infectious diseases such as cholera and typhoid spread and often end fatally, especially for children.

Exactly this description also applies to Europe in the middle of the 19th century. In the course of industrialization, there was also a rural exodus in Europe, resulting in the creation of urban centers in which infectious diseases could spread unhindered - medical infrastructure was lacking here as well. The victims were, of course, the weak from the lower social classes. We can easily transfer the European processes of that time to the situation in Ghana, precisely because history has a universal character. So the important question remains how the problems of that time were solved and how the disastrous conditions were counteracted.

To cope with these problems, a long process was necessary, which made western orthodox medicine what it is today. In the Middle Ages, medicine was characterized by the idea that human health depended on only four humors in the human body (humoral pathology or four-juice doctrine). It was believed that these four juices had to be kept in balance, otherwise disease would result. This led to completely abstruse treatment methods such as bloodletting, which not infrequently resulted in the death of the patient. Often these medical assumptions were still associated with astrology or other religious beliefs. It goes without saying that the medicine of that time contributed little to the common good. With the Enlightenment, not only did the modern natural sciences develop, but medicine was also henceforth conducted in a scientific manner and modern paradigms prevailed. The age of industrialization, which from a medical point of view - as already mentioned - was characterized by infectious diseases, led to research into the same: Microorganisms were discovered and bacteriology became established. This was the decisive milestone for European conventional medicine. Now it was known that it was not bad air that made people sick, but tiny organisms. Gradually, people became aware of the importance of hygiene. Sanitation systems were built, medical infrastructure in general was developed, health offices were established, and when doctors started washing only their hands before surgical procedures, the success of treatments increased significantly. Later, disinfectants and antibiotics were also developed, and after World War I, infectious diseases no longer played such a major role in Europe. If knowledge about the importance of hygiene (both in cities and in hospitals or military hospitals) had been available a few decades earlier, millions of people would not have died.

It is also these, actually banal, findings that could help to significantly improve the medical situation in Ghana and to effectively and preventively counteract all infectious diseases. Above all, it is not a matter of medical facts that are difficult to grasp; it is relatively easy-to-understand content that could very well be disseminated via communication systems, i.e., cell phones, for example. Just imagine medical staff in Ghana using a cell phone to go through a checklist of key hygiene requirements in the medical field. In this way, knowledge about hygiene could also reach the more poorly connected northern areas of Ghana, without the need for studied doctors to practice there.

Finally, it remains only to emphasize that this article in no way offers an exact instruction on what to do. However, it should become clear that we can transfer European history and European developments (especially in the medical field) to African countries without major problems and learn from them. The story is just universal.

by Maximilian Glätzner (HITA Expert - Contact: