23 October 2020 Blogs

A Conversation with Three Global Health Pioneers

Partners In Health founders discuss COVID-19, healthcare in developing countries, and the power of film.

By Alison Roth

Just an hour before the final presidential debate in the U.S., thousands of people all over the world were enamored by an entirely different type of moderated conversation.

On Thursday, October 22, the founders of Partners In Health (PIH), a social justice organization that provides healthcare to vulnerable populations, joined Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson for a frank and honest conversation about some of today’s most timely and relevant topics in healthcare. The event was hosted by EdTech leader ProQuest and documentary curator FILM PLATFORM.

PIH is the subject of the award-winning documentary Bending the Arc from executive producers Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Damon & Heidi Lindelof. The film tells the story of the organization’s founders – Dr. Paul Farmer, Ophelia Dahl and Dr. Jim Yong Kim – who began a movement in the 1980s that changed global health forever. The documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017 and is now available from ProQuest and FILM PLATFORM. 

Jackson, Farmer, Dahl and Kim joined the event from their homes in the U.S. on Thursday night, where PIH is currently running the COVID-19 contact-tracing program in Massachusetts. Jackson facilitated the discussion by taking questions from the audience, which included faculty, students and librarians from 50 countries. While it’s absolutely worth watching the event recording, here’s a summary of some of the topics the panel discussed.

On the COVID-19 response globally… “I hope that things will get better, but right now is a very difficult time,” said Kim. He noted that COVID-19 revealed a much more coordinated response in countries like Korea, who have been through pandemics before. “In the countries where the response was robust and effective, it’s because they had experience with pandemics in the past,” he said. “The formula is straightforward: there has to be access to services for everyone, and those services have to be linked to robust public health capabilities. The history of infectious disease has been a cycle of panic and neglect. Now that so many people in the world have had this experience, my hope is that we won’t go back into neglect, but we’ll ask informed questions.”

On any positives that might emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic… “We’re hoping for major changes around everything from unemployment insurance to universal healthcare,” said Farmer. “We’re hoping there will be a new, deeper and more committed conversation.” He also said that the pandemic has brought to light inequities that may otherwise have remained in the shadows, including the murder of George Floyd and rampant racism in the U.S. “A lot of these social pathologies have been revealed as a viral pathogen spreads through us,” he added.

On the challenges of serving vulnerable populations… “I felt overwhelmed, as a young person, seeing the suffering in front of me,” said Dahl of her early years with PIH. “But I’ve been socialized to learn that…you can address the web of complexity in front of you. We’re lucky that we’ve been able to use our lives in this way to address these things. Being able to have the privilege and the muscle to address this – I can’t imagine being any luckier to be able to spend my life this way.”

On PIH’s commitment to ongoing struggles (the organization serves populations globally, including in Peru, Rwanda and the U.S.)… “If you’re going to do this work, you have to continue to renew your commitment to stand with the poor – those who have overwhelming predisposing conditions that lead to terrible outcomes,” said Kim. “A lot of people think of PIH as so successful, but let me tell you, to this day…we feel so badly that we haven’t done more. One of the founding principles of PIH was that we were not going to fall into the trap of describing our work with success narratives. We knew we were going to lose so much more often than we were going to win.”

On how non-clinicians can contribute to improving healthcare… “As a young person in Haiti (where PIH started),” said Dahl, “I thought the only way to respond would be to go to medical school…but as a non-clinician, I’ve been involved in global health for years. Almost all the people we work with – members of our 17,000-strong PIH organization – are non-clinicians. You need every single profession to be a part of this, and educators are right up there. If you’re doing what you’re good at, bend that towards justice.”

On the conviction it takes to get involved… “If you want to work with [organizations like] PIH, you have to have some fundamental convictions,” said Kim. “I will not avert my gaze from the suffering of the poor. Not get caught up in the victory narrative. I will then move in the directions that are required if we’re going to make a change. That’s the core of the film, the core of PIH. If what moves you is a deep commitment to lessening the suffering of the poor, then find an organization that can help you do that.”

And finally, on the power of documentary film… “Cinema can open up the imagination,” said Jackson of the powerful and honest narrative in Bending the Arc. “It’s a time machine. We can meet the young Ophelia, Paul and Jim and follow them through their journey. We can reconjure people who are not with us and make them present again. And we can help a general audience understand incredibly complicated things, in some way, are very simple. I want to thank [ProQuest and FILM PLATFORM] for recognizing the role that film has to play in research and discovery.”

Watch the event recording

Get access to films like Bending the Arc and John Lewis: Good Trouble (coming soon!) for your students and faculty