Category Archives: Global Health

The wikipedia pithy definition is: the health of populations in a global context.

Who speaks for whom in Global Health?

Speakers’ corner [Source: Wikimedia]

I had an interesting experience the other day when a friend, Mark Cheong, and I submitted a letter to one of the leading health journals.

Mark, a Malaysian academic, had done his PhD on palliative care with a particular focus on the delivery of palliative care in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). For about six months, he and I had been discussing the ethical challenge of delivering palliative care in LMICs. It is a pillar of Universal Health Coverage. Still, there is a possibility that in weak health systems, governments could avoid their obligations to deliver curative care by choosing, instead, to deliver palliative care.

With the development of the COVID-19 pandemic, our conversation had taken a slightly different path. The modelling suggested that many LMICs would have their hospitals and clinics overwhelmed with COVID patients. The basic management tools of oxygen and ventilators, which were being rationed in High-Income Countries, would be a rare resource in poorer ones, leaving many people to die without any care at all. Our thinking returned to the palliative care question. The ethical dilemma, however, had shifted. The issue now was, how do LMICs deliver palliative care at a massive scale?

This was the subject of the letter, “Manage suffering when you cannot manage treatment”. The letter didn’t say anything earth-shattering, but it was necessary, and it had been crafted into a pithy 600 words. We had not seen anyone else raise the issue in the COVID-19 literature, which was (and still is) overwhelmingly focused on the provision of clinical care. We submitted the letter and crossed out fingers.

In terms of an academic career, a letter in a high profile journal does not amount to much. But it is a nice affirmation of one’s relevance in a global conversation. As a mentor, I have certainly encouraged colleagues to use letters as a vehicle for sharing and developing ideas. It also strikes me as important that it is academics and health professionals in LMICs who are the ones highlighting the issues that are important in LMICs. Now, you might take issue with whether I have a legitimate place in that conversation or not, but there is no doubt that Mark does.

I was surprised when, 9 days after the letter was submitted, an editorial appeared in the journal developing similar ideas. It was written by the Editor-in-Chief, a well-known advocate for many worthy causes, who lives in a high-income country. He regularly uses the pages of the journal to discuss challenging global health issues about health equity and human rights. He had more words available to develop the ideas and, in truth, he writes much better than we do. Six days after the editorial was published (15 days after submission), we received the rejection letter.

Thank you for submitting your Letter. Having discussed your Letter with the Editor-in-Chief, and weighing it up against other submissions we have under consideration, I am sorry to say that we are unable to accept it for publication. Please be assured that your Letter has been carefully read and discussed by the Editors.

I did not feel assured at all. It would have been impossible for the journal to publish the letter once the editorial was published. It was redundant. Instead, it made me wonder about whose voice gets heard? Whose voice has enough legitimacy even to have the possibility of being heard? And the reality is that power matters.

Nothing nefarious happened. Ideas are cheap, and the Editor-in-Chief had a similar idea to our’s — and he has a privileged platform from which to deliver it. The message is important, and ultimately it was delivered. Does it matter who delivered it? I think it does. Having the right to say something does not mean it is right that you say it. Comedians are very aware of this. A powerful joke from one person’s mouth falls flat when delivered from another’s. Who tells “a Jewish joke” and who uses the “N” word can shift comedy from hilarious to tone-deaf to the offensive.

To have a platform from which to advocate for justice is a great thing. It is often more important to use that platform to enable, empower and legitimise other voices (and add your voice to theirs) than to be the voice.

Es ist ernst! [It is serious]

Chancellor Angela Merkel, 2019 (source: wikimedia)

There are truly great, rousing political speeches. President John F Kennedy’s Inaugural Address on 29 January 1961 comes to mind: “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s, “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech, during World War II.

The defining political speech of the COVID-age will surely be that of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel: “Es is ernst!” It’s in German. There are subtitles. Watch it!!

The power of the speech lies in no single phrase and no single idea. The power lies in the gestalt. It lies in the thoughtful, measured, and compassionate speech to a nation from someone who holds the idea of democracy dearly, and needs to ask 83.1 Million people for patience, sacrifice, and forbearance; for a great community good — because no one is expendable.

In her speech, brilliantly, she thanks the forgotten cash register staff and shelf packers for their tireless efforts, as well as the easily remembered healthcare and public health workforce for theirs. She suggests that people might even consider writing a letter to a friend or loved one because, of course, the German postal service continues to work. She constantly plays between the culture of the German people (what it is to be a German), their expectations of Government, and the task of managing SARS-CoV-2.

Like many countries, Germany has instituted measures that are anathema to democracy, but necessary to slow the spread of the virus. As she explains, all we are doing now is buying time. Stretching it out. The longer we stretch it out, the more time researchers and healthcare workers have to find measures of prevention, management, and cure. The longer we stretch it out, the more person-ventilator-time (PVT) and person-ICU-time (PICUT) there will be to allocate. If you are acutely ill, PVT and PICUT are the most precious commodities available at the moment (excepting toilet paper), and the best way to make more of this commodity is to stretch out the length of the pandemic.

Do not watch or listen to the blather and buffoonery of the likes of Trump and Johnson. Whether they do not understand or do not care is irrelevant. Their “ideas”, their politics and their speeches will be lost in the waste-paper basket of history, to be picked over by pimply, undergraduate students in response to the essay topic: “Political leadership is important in times of crisis. Discuss”

Merkel’s speech is the most hopeful, rational and caring political message I have heard since the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Sitting at my desk in Dhaka, I found it enormously comforting to know that there was leadership like Angela Merkel’s out there. There has been considerable discussion about the lack of global political leadership. It is there. Turn your eyes and face the light.

This is serious.

Covid Economics

“Governments will not be able to minimise both deaths from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and the economic impact of viral spread.” [Anderson et al.]

A soup kitchen during the Great Depression. Apparently it was only men who were hungry

It is easy to see that the economies of the world are being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Share-markets have tumbled. Airlines are flying empty. Except for bizarre panic buying of toilet paper, malls and shops are more deserted. And if you have an employer with a large cash reserve and a bit of heart, you will be OK. There are many companies, however, that are at the margins and they are already failing because of the impact of COVID-19. Households are hunkering down: not spending, not going out.

These are the consequences of containment.

Now think about the daily wagers and piece workers, the sex workers, couriers, garbage pickers, rickshaw drivers and maids. Who will pay their bills, put food on their tables and ensure the same for their children?

Workplaces are instituting attendance rules based on health guidelines. Fevers, coughs, headaches and myalgia? Stay home! Recently been with someone who tested positive. Stay home! Etcetera.  That’s fine for me. I will apply for sick leave. In all countries, but disproportionately in Low- and Middle-Income Countries, large numbers of people in the workforce are in the informal sector. They are vulnerable. Even in the formal sector, many workers have no financial protection.

Think again about the daily wagers and piece workers, the sex workers and couriers. Their capacity to pay the bills and keep food on the table is proportional to their capacity to keep working. No matter what.

Death is not everything.

The obligation of countries who have committed to sustainable development goals is to “leave no one behind”. Governments should implement their public health measures to limit the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the poor should not have to carry an unfair burden.

A street sweeper in Mokhali

The “underserved” are “undeserved”

I hate the phrase, “the underserved”. I would love to remove it from the lexicon of public health. But it appears to be here to stay, particularly in North America where there is even a journal devoted to them.

A girl with kwashiorkor during the Nigerian-Biafran War (Public Domain; Wikipedia).

On a number of occasions in public lectures I have played with the phrase using a comparison of the “undeserved” and the “underserved”. It usually takes listeners a few minutes to work out that I am not repeating myself over and over again. And if you thought I had typed the same thing twice, look again. “underserved”≠”undeserved”.

My spell-checker knows the difference. It tells me that “underserved” is a spelling error and I almost certainly mean “undeserved”, and herein lies the problem. It is not simply that these two words look and sound similar, it is that there is an unpleasant semantic connection between them. It seems to depend where you lie on the political spectrum which term you use to refer to the same group of people.

On the left, the powerless and the left-behind, those with poor access to services and care would be characterised as the underserved. On the right of politics (or a nationalist left where refugees and migrants are vilified) anyone in need, the powerless and the left-behind, those with poor access to services and care are more typically characterised as the undeserved. The same people, the same need, and the same suffering, but a more or less generous view of our social obligations.