Tick, tick, tick: Reflections from this year’s annual meeting

Tick, tick, tick.

The ticking of Dr. Victor Sidel’s metronome resonated throughout the large ballroom where a reception in his honor was held during the first days of the 2018 APHA Annual Meeting in San Diego. Dr. Sidel, a formative figure in the field of public health and a past president of APHA, died earlier this year after spending his career as a physician vigorously defending the rights of the world’s most vulnerable populations. The beats of the metronome, which he used to punctuate his presentations and speeches since the 1980s, were meant to represent the social disparities inherent in global public health. One tick meant that somewhere in the world, a child was dying due to preventable illness. One tick also represented tens of thousands of dollars spent in weapons sales. Among Dr. Sidel’s published works included seminal books such as War and Public Health and Social Injustice and Public Health, both edited by his longtime collaborator Dr. Barry Levy, who spoke at the APHA reception to honor his colleague. At a prior eulogy for Dr. Sidel, Dr. Levy summed up the body of work that had driven them for decades: “Vic taught us that health, peace and social justice were not isolated concepts, but tightly woven together. I can still hear him saying there cannot be health without peace and social justice, and there cannot be peace and social justice without health.” In many ways, the 2018 APHA conference showed just how deeply these intersections between health, peace, and social justice have been woven into the fabric of the organization, starting with honoring Dr. Sidel, continuing with the breadth and diversity of panels and posters, and concluding with a number of resolutions that were adopted.

Many panels examining various aspects of health and social justice were available throughout the conference. The International Health Section sponsored panels on topics like global health and human rights, equity in global women’s health and maternal, neonatal, and child health, health and war in countries like Yemen, Mexico, Syria, and Gaza, and refugee health. The Peace Caucus sponsored several complementary panels on topics of war and public health, militarization of the border, and violence on indigenous women, along with a presentation from the joint Lancet- American University of Beirut Commission on Syria. The Human Rights Caucus also presented panels on sexual and reproductive rights, as well as issues of health governance and advocacy. A search through the 2018 conference program found topics like environmental justice, worker’s rights, racial disparities, the rights of the incarcerated, and many other issues of social and health justice presented throughout hundreds of panels, roundtables, and posters.

More than many other health-related organizations and associations, APHA has long served as an advocacy platform for the pressing social issues of the time, recognizing the depth of issues that influence public health. While many APHA resolutions address topics traditionally associated with clinical outcomes, like smoking, diet, and reproductive health, combing through the decades of policy statements on the APHA Database shows positions on timely and controversial issues like opposing military action in Afghanistan and Central Asia in 2002, ensuring access to health services for undocumented immigrants in 1994, and raising concerns about the health impacts of fracking in 2012. This year was no different, with a total of 12 new policy statements adopted, many directly focusing on contemporary issues of social justice such as opposing family-child separations at the US border and addressing police violence as a public health issue.

The latter topic was first brought to APHA in 2016, where a collective of authors, motivated by grassroots organizing against state violence, recognized the significance of a national public health entity taking a strong position on the issue. While the resolution passed the APHA Governing Council vote overwhelmingly in San Diego (87% to 13%), just last year it was voted down by a 30-point margin (35% to 65%). A year of collaborative work on drafting and promoting the statement resulted in this year’s triumphant victory, which was crafted to specifically point to the public health implications of the “underlying conditions of the institutions, systems, and society we live in that determine our health outcomes,” according to the End Police Violence Collective. For them, APHA recognition of this resolution “is one more tool that organizers against law enforcement violence can use to pressure their elected officials.” This success, they state, is also portending a needed shift in public health from focusing primarily on behavioral interventions to considering structural ones as well. APHA’s role as a representative of the field of public health makes its willingness to frame public health inequities as social justice issues significant. Despite the two-year trajectory of this resolution within APHA, the Collective maintains that “this work has been ongoing for generations, in communities organizing to draw attention to, intervene on, and rebuild after experiences of law enforcement violence. This statement is a product of those generations of work. It is an important step. But there is more work to be done.”

A reminder of work to be done may be seen in another resolution that came before the governing council but was not met with the same cheers and jubilation. Members from the International Health Section, including Dr. Kevin Sykes, the Chair of the Advocacy and Policy Committee for the IH Section, and well-known scholars of war and public health Leonard Rubenstein and Dr. Amy Hagopian, put forward “A Call to end to attacks on health workers and health facilities in war and armed conflict settings.” Incidentally, the latter two authors have both been recipients of the APHA Victor Sidel and Barry Levy Award for Peace, in 2011 and 2018, respectively. The statement was introduced as a latebreaker due to the accelerated pace of attacks on health workers in 2017, as detailed by a report published by Safeguarding Health in Conflict, a coalition of which APHA is a member, and received several endorsements from multiple APHA components, including from the Peace Caucus, the Occupational Health and Safety Section, and the Forum on Human Rights. However, opposition to some of the specific details of the statement, especially those regarding Israel, led to a contentious process that culminated in little floor debate on the merits of the resolution and, ultimately, the governing council voted no (25% to 75%). Dr. Hagopian echoed the sentiments of the End Police Violence Collective when discussing the importance of APHA taking a stance on issues of social justice, despite what she sees as the sometimes conservative stance of the governing council when it comes to controversial issues. “People working to make the world a better place need all the support they can get- both this sort of written, academic association support as well as political support out in the world. When they can cite the APHA, as the largest and longest stand public health organization in the country, as being on board, that carries weight.” As a result, Dr. Hagopian plans to revise the statement and resubmit it for next year’s APHA conference in Philadelphia. Upon receiving the Award for Peace at the IH Section Awards Ceremony this year, she said “It’s important to be on the right side of history, early and often. So we’ll be back another day.”

Tick, tick, tick.  

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