Tribute to a fierce health warrior: David Sanders, 1945–2019

Save the Children was saddened to learn of the death last weekend of Professor David Sanders, Emeritus Professor in the School of Public Health in the University of Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa and Co-chair of the global People’s Health Movement.

David founded the School of Public Health in 1993.  A passionate campaigner and advocate for primary health care, in 2014 he received the Public Health Innovation and Lifetime Achievement Award from the Public Health Association of South Africa.

He even worked with Save the Children for a short time as Regional Health Adviser for Southern Africa. He had two red lines when he joined – that Save the Children would not silence his voice and would not make him reduce his engagement with the People’s Health Movement.

Friends and colleagues remember David fondly as someone who was a great scholar but always down to earth, approachable and willing to clarify or argue a point if it meant one more recruit for the struggle to achieve health for all. As a highly regarded academic, he taught and inspired young people who have gone on to become health ministers and policy-makers. Friends comment on how, despite his fiery opinions, he never lost his cool, was always pleasant and never missed an opportunity to be hospitable – and keep the wine flowing.

I met David Sanders for the last time at the 72nd World Health Assembly in Geneva in May this year. David has been a family friend ever since I can remember as he and my father were two of the founding members of the People’s Health Movement. He has seen me grow up over the years and follow in my parents’ footsteps and has always had words of advice whenever we met. The Geneva encounter was no exception.

With David at the primary health care session of this year’s World Health Assembly

We bumped into each other when we were attending the session on primary health care and both of us were looking for a place to sit – all empty chairs had been reserved for Member State representatives. Having greeted each other with a big hug, we proceeded to occupy two of the reserved seats for the duration of the session.  David kept up a steady commentary all through the session, starting with what he thought of the Astana Conference, which did not address social determinants of ill health. He was worried about Save’s position on Universal Health Coverage (UHC). His concern was that the UHC framework reduces primary health care by making it just a route to achieving UHC. This, he said, resulted in further medicalisation and commercialisation of health care – resulting in primary health care becoming more expensive and inaccessible to the poor.

David maintained that primary health care should be the lodestar in the progression towards Health for All. He remained steadfast in this belief till his untimely death on 30 August. The health sector has lost a fierce health warrior. The baton has now passed to the many people he has trained and colleagues who had the privilege to interact with him and share his views.




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  • Adem Alo

    It is big lose to miss such a resourceful and knowledgeable scholar. I wish him RiP; and peace and patience for his family members!


  • kausar s khan

    I first met George Sanders when he came to Aga Khan University, Karaci, Pakistan. I was involved in arranging a visit of foregin delegates to the field sites of Community Health Sciences Department of Aga Khan University. I placed a condition that community will have as much right to ask questons of visitors as they have of asking questions of communities. this was agreed. George Sanders was familiar with the local language of Pakistan. The goup that met him were happy to have interacted with him.
    I last met him many years ago in S Africa in his own university. (I was to speak on PHC in the University). He very generously shared the teachin material for the MPH course that the unviersity offered.
    He was a friend of the then chiar of Community Health Sciences. He was Jack Bryant who passed away a year ago. Like George Jack was a great advocate of PHC of the 1978 declaration. The older stalwarts are going one by one, and it is our responsibility to keep PHC alive as it was orginally conceived .