Occupy the Future

I had a few hours to kill between landing in DC for APHA’s Annual Meeting and the dinner that the IH section leadership organizes each year.  I normally relish free to time wander, sightsee and explore – indeed, the last time I was in DC, I walked seven miles in one afternoon to see ALL the national monuments – but this year’s nasty weather quickly put the kabosh on that.

So instead, I decided to put on walking shoes that were not warm enough and walk down to McPherson square to check out Occupy DC.

By the time I got to the tent-packed square, it had been raining for several hours.  Cardboard signs with streaked ink and professionally printed banners surrounded many of the tents.  “Fairness ≠ Warfare.” “We are fed up!” “Fight the Power.”  “Spread love, not fear.” I noticed a small group of people listening to one of the organizers, so I hovered behind them to eavesdrop: he was encouraging them to join the group for some upcoming marches.  Meanwhile, volunteers in the makeshift kitchen were helping to haul in donations of soy milk and cereal brought in by one generous supporter.

As soon as they caught sight of me, they whirled around.  “Oh my goodness, you must be freezing!” said one of them as she caught sight of my shoes.  I grinned.  “Would you like an umbrella?”
“Sure. Are you guys from around here?”
“Yeah, we are freshman from College Park. What about you?”
“I am actually here for a conference. I’m from Texas.”
Gasps. “Really? Ohmygod, don’t you love it? Isn’t this wonderful?”
We chatted for a bit about the movement in different parts of the country, then I dashed across the street to a nearby Starbucks – which, incidentally, was also somewhat “occupied” by protesters – to get warm.  I took the only empty seat available and opened my laptop to work through this week’s Devex vacancy newsletter.

Two people on my left were arguing about the camp’s management.  The woman, a hair stylist from Denver, was emphasizing the importance of communal welfare to keep the occupiers warm.  “I mean, we need to get organized and get blankets and make sure that everyone has tarps.  Otherwise, people are going to die, and then the protest won’t matter.  I mean, look at this weather!”

“Reminds me of monsoon season,” replied a woman across from us.  “In Asia, they get regular heavy rains every year.”
“Where are you from?”
“Burma.”
“Really!” I exclaimed. “What year did you come here?”
“1996. It’s kinda funny, actually – my parents came here to escape oppression, and now I protesting oppression here in America. My parents don’t get it – they’re like, ‘Why are you protesting? You’re free!’ and I’m like, ‘Not really.'”
“There’s oppression where you come from?” asked another one.
“Yeah. Burma has the world’s longest-running civil war,” she explained.

The guy to my right, a relaxed-looking black man watching a movie on his smart phone, glanced over my shoulder.  “I’m looking for work,” I offered.
“International Medical Corps? You a doctor or nurse or something?”
“No, I’m a public health professional.”
He chuckled. “Professional, huh?”
I laughed. “Well, there’s not exactly a good word for my job description, so I just go with that.” I told him about my work coordinating public health surveillance projects.  He was looking for work, too – a friend of his got him a single-person tent in the square as a temporary living arrangement while he networked and applied for jobs.

The “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) movement has spread like wildfire across countries and continents and has seen everything from one-man marches to riots and clashes with police.  Yet it has no clear message, goal, or spokesperson – a fact that has analysts scrambling to explain it and pundits whining that they are wasting everyone’s time.

They are missing the point.  As some have begun to point out, OWS is not your mama’s protest movement.  They are not fighting for rights or reform, but recognition.  They are simply saying, “We are here.”

If Occupy Wall Street resembles any movement in recent American history, it would actually be the new women’s movement of the 1970s. …Although the leaders of the new women’s movement had policies they wanted on the agenda, their foremost demand was for recognition of, and credit for, the gendered reality of everyday life. Likewise, when the Occupy Wall Street activists attack Wall Street, it is not capitalism as such they are targeting, but a system of economic relations that has lost its way and failed to serve the public.

Some, like the walk organizers, are there because they are truly invested in pushing for social change; others, like the college freshman, are enthralled by the atmosphere and the energy. Some view it as their struggle to survive, while others are taking advantage of the opportunities it provides.  What right do we have to criticize them?  Do we not also see the same themes in the Tea Party?  Or among members of APHA?

Tom Murphy writes on his blog “A View from the Cave” that he believes that storytelling will change the landscape of international aid and development.  In global health we are bombarded by images of poverty and despair that, while compelling us to action, reinforce stereotypes and perpetuate ignorance.  This needs to be changed, he argues, by taking time to listen to people’s stories and responding in ways that suit their needs, not ours.  Not every woman from the Congo or in Dadaab has been raped by rogue soldiers and abandoned by her husband; not every South African township dweller has HIV; not every girl in Yemen is a child bride.  Not every OWS protester is an unemployed college graduate.  Each one has his or her own story to tell, and it our job first and foremost to listen before we leap up to help them.  This is the future of social change.

Don’t get caught up in what past movements looked like.  Tell your own story.  Occupy the future.

Global Health News Last Week

May 18 was HIV Vaccine Awareness Day.

POLITICS AND POLICY

  • Hundreds of Kenyan AIDS activists held a protest on 18 May in the capital, Nairobi to demand that the government meet its commitment to increase annual health and HIV funding.
  • In response to the mutual expulsion of diplomats, the UK’s DFID announced that it has frozen new aid to Malawi.
  • DDT has made a controversial re-appearance in Uganda.

PROGRAMS

RESEARCH

  • The World Health Organization has just launched a new web-based information resource tool that should be of interest to many in global health and development community, the Global Health Observatory.
  • According to the World Health Organization, the worldwide prevalence of obesity has more than doubled between 1980 and 2008.
  • New research has found that a variant in one gene can lead to a 30 percent lower risk of developing cerebral malaria.
  • A new study from Bangladesh concludes that most of the world’s pregnant women don’t need vitamin A supplements.
  • American scientists have tested a treatment regimen for tuberculosis which will reduce the amount of time it takes to complete the full treatment as compared to current plans.
  • A new report from the Guttmacher Institute finds that that 7 in 10 women in Sub Saharan Africa, south central Asia and south east Asia who want to avoid pregnancy, but are not using modern methods give reasons for non-use which suggest available methods do not fulfill their needs.
  • Average life expectancy across much of the world — except Iraq and South Africa — is steadily climbing and infant deaths dropped across the world during the first decade of the 21st century, according to figures released by the World Health Organization.
  • The Clinton Health Access Initiative and Gates Foundation have teamed up to support research into developing a cheaper version of the drug Tenofovir.

DISEASES AND DISASTERS

  • China has reduced its AIDS mortality by two-thirds since it began distributing free antiretroviral drugs in 2002; however, the improvements were seen largely in patients who acquired HIV through blood transfusion, rather than through sex or drug use. On a darker note, Chinese authorities ordered an AIDS activists’ web site shut down after it had published an open letter from a retired senior official concerning news restrictions placed on a 20th-century public health scandal.
  • Dr. Orin Levine looks at a disturbing global trend: Infectious killers that had been beaten back by aggressive immunization efforts are making a comeback in places long thought to be safe havens.

WORLD HEALTH ASSEMBLY

The IH Blog was featured in the “Buzzing in the Blogs” section of the Healthy Dose this week! Thanks to Tom Murphy for reading and tweeting us!

Global Health News Last Week

The PSI Healthy Lives Blog has begun running a daily global health news summary called “The Healthy Dose,” written by Mark Leon Goldberg and Tom Murphy (who also blogs about development at A View from the Cave).

STUDENTS AND YOUNG PROFESSIONALS: The Global Health Corps is currently accepting applications for its Global Health Fellows Program, which comes highly recommended by just about everyone I have heard mention it.

February 6 was International No Tolerance Day to Female Genital Mutilation.

The Vatican will host an international conference in May on preventing AIDS and caring for those afflicted with it amid continued confusion over its position concerning condoms as a way to prevent HIV transmission.

The Global Fund announced the launch of new anti-corruption measures after intense scrutiny from donors following stories on fraud investigations by The Associated Press. Meanwhile, debate and public controversy over the AP’s presentation of the story rages on.

The discovery of a new type of mosquito, a subgroup of Anopheles gambiae (the species which transmits malaria), is causing concern among scientists because it appears to be very susceptible to the malaria parasite.

Bill Gates is becoming frantic in his pursuit to eradicate polio. In addition to making it the cornerstone of his 2011 annual letter, he held a webcast event last week, campaigned for funds at Davos, and is needling governments to donate funds for a “final push.” He is also beginning to irk some, who say he is distorting other priorities.