Tuesday, July 26, 2005

A link to photos

The causes of the causes of illnesses

Thursday, July 21st:

On Wednesday evening, I had thought of attending a meeting of the Indian delegation. That didn't happen, but I did talk to Janet Gottschalk of the North American delegation. Janet works part-time at George Washington University and is a visiting professor at Texas A&M University, Laredo. She works on border issues and is also the co-chair for the Religious Working committee at the WHO. She is interested in working on Trade and Health and proposed we connect up with the group working at APHA. A group called C-PATH is also working on these issues and she recommended that we connect with Ellen from that group. We also talked a bit about the education for Public Policy and Public Health in the US. Her suggestion was that I stick to online courses and self-study!

On Thursday, I decided to diligently attend every session I could, inspite of tiredness and muscle aches (in my usual fashion, I had taken a few tumbles in Cajas – but this time, blame the mud!) Plenary A was on the revitalization of the spirit of 'Health for all' and Alma Ata. The Alma Ata declaration was signed in 1978 by most of the countries in the world and promises to provide comprehensive Health Care for all by 2000. This amazing document has almost been forgotten in the mainstream for many reasons: the fall of the Soviet Union and decline of socialism, the rise of neoliberalism, the change in economies, expanding globalization etc. Details can be found at:

The testimonies covered local initiatives in Health Care and mobilization. A speaker from the Phillipines talked about the problems with militarization that her group of community health workers faces, in spite of which they have made strides. An aboriginal activist from Australia talked about the start of their movement in 1972 and the energy they got from attending Alma Ata. The Aboriginal community has been very marginalized, receiving less money for health care and facing the government's 'divide and rule' policy. A recent development has been 'personal responsibility' statements, wherein both communities and providers pledge to meet certain standards.

A short film from Guarjilla, El Salvadore was screened which talked about the resettlement of refugees who had fled to the Honduras during their civil war. Health workers had been selected from the community. They, along with an external group, worked to improve health indicators by constant monitoring through household surveys, the combination of education, treatment and rehabilitation and community radio. While malnutrition rates are 33% nationwide, they are only 12% in Guarjilla.

The next presenter, from Mozambique, talked about a comprehensive health care approach his NGO is implementing, which includes education, sanitation, small enterprises and credit programs. The primary health needs are met by training activists in rural sector and traditional birth attendants. Working groups aimed at finding problems and solving them are set up in all communities. Home visits, prenatal care, immunization and sexual and reproductive health are all part of the program. The difficulties include poor access to information, low sustainability of committees, lack of infrastructure and a poor economy.

Two community health workers from Haiti talked about the work their group Zanmi Lasante does with HIV/AIDS education and treatment. Next, a speaker from Venezuela talked about her country's 'Barrio Adentro' program. The mayor of Caracas had visited Cuba and requested its President for help in improving the medical facilities. Instead of 50 doctors, Fidel Castro sent 100. The program was expanded to the entire country by Hugo Chavez. An official mission has been formed and an agreement signed with Cuba. Health services are now completely free. She said 'Please get the word out that Hugo Chavez is not a terrorist'.

The final testimony was from a street child in Canar province (of which Cuenca is a part). In poetry and spoken word, he eloquently described the plight of street children. 'I don't have a face or a name. I look for you, but cannot find you... I am as important as the birds you feed... I have infections, but the nurses don't treat me... It's not my fault that I was born... My life is a bad dream. Why have you forgotten me?'

Next was the turn of the panelists. First was David Sanders from South Africa. He talked about the progress in Global Health – improved life expectancy and control of diseases – and the widening gap in health outcomes between and within countries. Since the 1980's, there had been mixed success in health due to a split in the health care movement. Some chose to do selected interventions, with some success like with the UNICEF's GOBI (Growth monitoring, Oral Rehydration Therapy, Breastfeeding & Immunization) program. But such programs leave out crucial gaps that can only be addressed using a Comprehensive health approach.

In the 1990's, there were reversals in health indicators due to globalization, health sector 'reform' and HIV/AIDS. Health care packages were now being drawn up with a basic set of deliverables and essential services. The cost-effectiveness of selective interventions was analyzed by the World Bank, with some very strange results. One example is the conclusion that case management of diarrhea and promotion of hand washing is more effective than providing safe water! David showed a cartoon of a man saying 'I'm hungry' and a fat executive eating a scrumptious meal replying 'Stop talking politics'!

An example from the Eastern Cape in South Africa was presented. This was a problem faced in tertiary centers - children were dying of malnutrition at rates of 28% - 46% across the hospitals in the region and this was unacceptable. A little analysis showed that children were dying due to delay in feeding which was the result of staffing and supply shortages. A 3 hour feeding cycle was established, but generated mixed results due to low morale and the underlying staff shortage. But in places that undertook leadership and capacity building, the results were very good. Mothers were educated about nutrition and 76% remembered the instructions. But 71% could not implement them due to poverty. All these households were eligible for but not receiving welfare. An advocacy campaign was launched through the press and the screening of a documentary on TV. Within 36 hours, the health minister arrived in the area and set up a task force for processing Child Support Grants. Thus, 'intersectoral action is required to institute real change'.

During and after the break, we were entertained by the exhilerating of a performance Cuban musician. After this foot-stomping routine, it was time for Michael Marmot to take the stage. Michael Marmot heads the Commission for Social Determinants at the WHO. PHM has achieved enough prominence to be recognized by the 'establishment' – it has a representative to the Commission for Social Determinants and a number of representatives from the WHO were present at the assembly. This has made it an eclectic mix - as Michael put it, this is the first time he has attended a conference with reports from the field and scientific discussions and performances all on the same stage. 'We have all come together on a basic idea – that health is a human right, not an economic activity', he said. We need to look at the causes of the causes of illness, which means that we have to address the distribution of diseases, government responsibility for health and social measures, poverty and inequality, environmental degradation and many other factors. The Commission for Social Determinants was launched in Santiago, Chile during March, 2005 to address this social imperative.

Michael Marmot also presented statistics demonstrating inequities in health. The probability that a 15-year old man will live to 60 is 8.3% in Sweden, 46.9% in Russia and 90% in Lesotho. In Russia, cardiovascular disease and violence have led to a sharp decline in health indicators. He also talked about the burden of non-communicable diseases and injury and the dependance of infant mortality on race and the mother's education.

There are 2 types of success for reducing mortality – the one most promoted is growth-mediated, such as in Hong Kong. But the other type, with support as in Cuba, Costa Rica and Sri Lanka has been equally successful. The commission will look into this and other issues through knowledge networks set up to collect information on specific issues. It plans to come out with a report in its 4-year term. In conclusion, 'what good does it do to treat people and send them back to the conditions that led to the disease in the first place?'

Next to speak was Dr. Espinoza from El Salvador. He talked about how the fight for Primary Health Care (PHC) can be used as an instrument for mobilization and development. He stated that we should be talking about the revitalization, not the resurrection, of Alma Ata, because it is still alive! The concept of PHC was born in communities, systemized in Alma Ata and still alive in communities. Alma Ata was a commitment. Cuba did it. Others have tried, but successes have been reversed in Nicaragua and elsewhere. Yet the struggle continues. He noted the success of the Guarjilla program, the 'silos' in North San Salvador and the healthy municipalities program in Nicaragua. Capacity has to be built at the local level, with activists then going beyond local spheres to mobilize people and influence government policy. Finally, Dr. Espinoza singled out IPHU, the International Public Health University, for praise.

Next was a presentation by the head of PAHO (Pan American Health Organization), the regional organization of WHO for the Americas. The presentation was lacklustre, talking about various resolutions and proposals and repeating a lot of textbook stuff. I later learnt that the PAHO head is a very strong supporter of the PHM model – good for her. Finally, in a short and simple presentation, Thelma Narayan talked about CHC's work in Karnataka. They have used theater for mobilization and have taken on the issues of gender and environmental justice. She talked about a situation (without) specifics where a local community campaigned successfully against mercury contamination by a factory in their vicinity. The Karnataka Task force set up in 1999 and Citizen's charters drawn up at PHC's also came up for honorable mention.

I had talked to Thelma a few days earlier about specific issues AID should get involved in. Our talk had been wide-ranging, with mention of the seeds issue (the new Seeds Bill that seeks to restrict barter and storing of seeds by farmers), health of slum populations and the resettlement of tsunami survivors. Incidentally, CEHAT has a project in Mumbai and Delhi which monitors health indicators of resettled slum residents, and CHC does some work with these populations in Bangalore. I hope I can follow up on this issue (volunteers welcome!) because it connects up the slum demolition issue. Resettlement is not the panacea many of us seem to think it is – conventional wisdom seems to be that slum residents are being moved to better accomodations and therefore should be better off. But this is often not the case. Anyway, more later...

Back to the plenary – it wound down after some audience comments. I was sitting next to Prasanna who was off to a meeting of the Global Right-to-Health campaign. This was being headed by Abhay Shukla and the objective was for participants to take up the responsibility of or to coordinate the developing of campaigns in their regions. This would involve contacting other groups – health-based groups, unions, human rights groups etc. As Abhay put it, the strength of the PHM – its lack of organizational structure and flexibility in operation – is also its weaknesses. At any rate, the PHM charter is such that any group can choose to adopt it and thus becomes a part of the network. He suggested a 6-month deadline for mobilizing and participating in conferences or fora in each region. Examples were the African Social Forum in Harare in October and the American Public Health Association in New Orleans in November. In Latin America, the InterAmerican forum and Alames had been invited to the PHA-2 to get an idea of how PHM functions – hopefully, now they would choose to use the Right to Health campaign as another tool for mobilization.

At 2.30 pm, I left the meeting to go to an afternoon session (no point calling these workshops). I finally figured out which bus to catch – this took me on a roundabout route and I might have been better off walking. But hey, I got to see more of Cuenca... The session I attended was on Seeds, a future under threat. Since there were only 3 English speakers, the translators chose to speak to us in a huddle rather than use the equipment. But it was a struggle – the translators deserve kudos for their hard work. Most of the speakers raced through their presentation and the translators have frantically tried to catch up. Things can't be this hard at the UN and other international meeting, what with diplomats reading carefully from documents, right?!

The presentations were average at best, with a lot of generalities about the field and statistics about the seed and pharma companies – nothing one cannot collect after a couple of hours on the web. The last 2 presentations may have been good, but I was way too tired and left. I had to plan my travel with Jael to Isla de la Plata, referred to in most guidebooks as the “poor man's Galapagos”. Or, as in our case, the poor woman's. The tickets to Galapagos alone cost ~$400. But for this island, we'd just have to take a series of buses to Puerto Lopez and then go on a 2-hour boat trip to the island.

After a rest at the hotel, the next stop was the meeting of the North American delegation. We talked about the Right to Health campaign. The Tennessee and Pennsylvania groups are doing some great mobilization and it was proposed that we build on them. Obviously, though, there is a lot of mobilization around the issue of health throughout the US and we'll have to connect with local groups. The truth commissions being planned in Tennessee could be organized elsewhere. It seems that one such commission has been organized during the Boston Social Forum (in which PHM-US had participated). These are similar to the Jan sunvaais in India. Everyone agreed that we should present information about PHM work in our local communities and there was an idea of coming up with an adaptive powerpoint presentation for this purpose. The social determinants work would involve feeding information to the knowledge networks and also the representative from the US to this commission (hope is faint that she will heed this information). Other groups provided updates – the militarization group had met with the European group and there was a proposal afloat to invite Dr. Salaam Ismael to the US and talk to communities. There was a suggestion that returning veterans who have been denied health care also speak at these events. Both on one stage? I don't know – it feels like the message will be diluted. But hey, maybe it would be a double whammy. And maybe more people will attend than the usual lot who turns up for these events. And maybe Dr. Ismael will get a visa... A national network of health workers is supporting 10,000 GI's who are refusing to go to war – it was suggested that we work with them.

The women's issues group has already been strong and they have had a great track. Nadia Van der Linde of Netherlands had arranged small group discussions in their session earlier in the day to come up with recommendations. Already some of them have been working on the global gag rule that prevents clinics who receive US aid from even mentioning abortion. More info can be found at www.globalgagrule.org
This was one of the issues it was suggested they work on.

Where trade and health was concerned, Janet and I gave our brief report. We were told that Ellen of C-Path would love to facilitate any contributions on our part. It was also suggested that debt relief should be a part of this sub-group. September 23rd, the day before a meeting of the WTO, had been suggested as a day to mobilize. Incidentally, Janet wore a white band to mark her participation in the Edinburgh protests. Finally, the meeting ended with the familiar headache of logistics and returning tickets to be sorted out.

Laura, Sonia and I headed out to dinner – some in the delegation had gone to the Cuban performance. Maybe I should have gone too, but at that moment, all I could think about was sleep, sweet sleep.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

In the woods

Wednesday, July 20th:

Back in the hotel on Tuesday night, we had received a note from Tim Sexton, a student from U of Iowa, saying he wanted to join us on our trip. Unfortunately, we couldn't connect with him. On the bright side, Patty was able to join us as there was place in the van.

For those who are reading this blog to learn about the PHA-2 – sorry, folks! I'll get back on track tomorrow. However, since we learnt about the biodiversity of Ecuador and the healing properties of plants in the mountains, this could be considered a field trip! Read on...

The ride to Cajas took about an hour. We passed through a small town right outside Cuenca. Here, Santiago (our guide) said, every family has a member in the United States. It's the case with most of Cuenca too – a picturesque and teeming town, it's also a rich one. In the usual 'pulling a tale out of a hat' approach, Santiago mentioned that Gayacuil had the highest population in Ecuador, next Quito, then New York! That is, there are more Ecuadorians in New York than in Cuenca!

Our drive to the park took about an hour. Along the way were a few villages and that scourge of the countryside – Eucalyptus. Yes, Eucalyptus does have medicinal properties, its oil is fragrant and good for the skin and its wood is useful. But the trees don't allow any other vegetation to flourish. Further, it depletes the water table with its deep roots. But hey, it's a money maker...

We entered the park and started our first trek – to a height of 4100 meters. The trek was sharply uphill in places and a light rain made it worse. Luckily, I was dressed for the weather, down to my waterproof pants. We reached the heights to encounter clouds in every direction. Santiago suggested we wait and mentioned that we were on a continental divide, that is, water west of us would flow to the Pacific and to the east would flow to the Atlantic thousands of miles away. As he promised, the clouds started drifting away and some of the hundreds of lakes in the park became visible. We returned to the van and drove to the start of the second trek. This would be a 2-hour trek through the mountains and also in a 'wet mountain forest'. Santiago stopped every few minutes to show us a plant or tell us a legend about a certain lake. One lake is considered to 'eat the people' as it has a lot of algae that entangle swimmers. A type of tulip is a hermaphrodite and never opens. Another plant, related to the pineapple, can be eaten in emergencies. A number of medicinal plants and flowers were shown to us.

The wet mountain forest had trees with barks that peeled like paper – I forget their scientific name. After the wilderness in Minnesota, this forest was a welcome change. Here and elsewhere in the mountains, even rocks are covered with vegetation. Mosses, lichens, small plants, daisies at ground level (evolutionary response to the winds) abound. In the mountain forest, we had to watch our heads. Tracks were hard to make out – I wasn't much in favor of a guided tour but now was glad we took it instead of losing our way.

Ahead of us was another group so Santiago took us on another path. This took a lot longer than expected – a bonus was another wet forest. But we were dog tired when we reached the restaurant almost 4 hours later. The lunch was excellent – for the rest, a fried cod and for me, a salad with heart of palms, broccoli etc. The food has been almost universally good here – lots of fruits like naranjilla, mora etc. that are unique here and plenty of vegetables to satisfy the herbivores. After the meal, we went to see a cloud forest. This was at 2.30 pm and the clouds were gone by then. We also didn't see any birds – too many tourists, I guess. We did ask Santiago about the indigenous people – whether they lived in the park and were evicted. Santiago said yes, they were 'destroying' the environment. The biggest failure of environmental movements that look at local communities as the problem...

But overall, it was great to experience the combination of the tropics and the altitude and the amazing biodiversity of Ecuador.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The cost of war

July 19th:

After breakfast, I went to an Internet center to check e-mail and send out blogs. It took longer than planned and I entered the Plenary late. This was on militarization. Outside, I met Nadia and exchanged notes on Monday. She said that her track had decided to shorten presentations and try to facilitate small group discussions so that the afternoon workshops would not turn into mini plenaries. The translation headphones had run out, so she had come out of the session to make phone calls. I went in to find out that the talk was in English – whew!
I also came in for what might be considered the highlight of the session – a presentation by Dr. Salaam Ismael of the Doctors from Iraq society. Dr. Ismael spoke from his heart. No, from his gut. I have been reading quite a bit on the war in Iraq – the casualties, the human rights violations, the devastation. But none of this was enough preparation for listening to a firsthand account of the horrors of Fallujah. Dr. Ismael talked about multiple ways in which health has been impacted – the new weapons of war (cluster bombs, depleted uranium), structural failures (power failures, lack of water), shortage of supplies (medicines, oxygen, anasthesia) and the brain drain of medical professionals. With photos and personal anecdotes, he thrust the situation into our midst. He had to cut short his talk due to time constraints – a crying shame. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.
The next presentation was the Medact report on Iraq by Judith Cook - a summary of statistics, a few of which had been covered by Dr. Ismael, and a list of recommendations. A valiant effort it was, but felt like the lull after a storm. Next was Dr. Bert de Belder from Belgium with an analysis of US military strategy and some actions Belgian doctors have taken. A little more lively. A statistic he quoted from http://costofwar.com was that so far $178.741 billion has been spent on the war. This money could provide 59 years of basic immunizations for all children in the world. An action his group had undertaken was to present a bill of medical expenses for an Iraqi child to the US government. This child had been injured during a US military operation. Reuters had picked up this story and thus it got circulated widely.
Again I had to leave early – we were singing near the food tent at 1 pm. At lunch, Pervez sat at my table and talked about the film he wanted to make and the struggle in obtaining funding for it. Pervez is an ex-psychiatrist who now makes films and performs. He comes from a family of activists – more pedigree. At our table was Patty of IPAS, a group that works on providing safe abortions based in North Carolina (!) and Brahm from the people's grocery in California.
The performance started late, as usual. This time, PHA attendees were present. A positive response here too.
Post-performance, some chitchat and then confusion in finding the venue led to me reaching the Nutrition and Health session late. The room was completely inadequate for the crowd. The smell of sweat permeated the atmosphere and there was barely enough space to stand. Narendra Gupta from Rajasthan was presenting when I arrived. He talked about the Right to Food, Information and Employment campaigns that were launched through mobilization, pressuring of government officials and other approaches. The questions he was asked were about the white revolution, on conditions of Dalits and the use of traditional medicines compared to Western medicine.
Next were two speakers from Columbia. The first speaker talked about a nutrition program launched by her group in a remote rural area of Columbia. This area is at a high altitude and experiences very high humidity. It seems the people in this area were eating a diet heavy in carbs but low in vitamins and minerals. The group went in with ideas about growing quinua, a highly nutritious cereal, and vegetables. To interest the villagers, they conducted cooking classes with recipes including quinua and vegetables. They helped the community set up vegetable gardens and rear hamsters for consumption. After 2 years, there has been marked improvement in nutrition in the area. The second presenter, an agriculture student, presented a proposal for a similar project in Sumapaz, a rural area of Columbia. He also talked about quinua. Incidentally, he talked later about the problems with monoculture, including the increased use of pesticides. But he didn't elaborate on strategies to combat that.
I had a number of questions: one, is quinua a non-native plant to the area, or was it just forgotten by these communities? (I'm guessing they migrated from lower altitudes) If non-native, are there native plants that could provide the same kind of nutrition? What are the pitfalls of introducing a non-native crop? Were they trying any kind of mixed cropping? If so, what?
A number of people raised their hands, however, and asked extremely valid questions. One was about land ownership. The answer was that this is a land reserve, so all land belongs to the government. Which means that the people can be forcibly evicted if the government wishes it. The next question was: how can any work in the area be done without allegiance either to government forces or the guerrilas? The answer was diplomatic, on the lines of 'We are doctors, we can be neutral'. After that, a number of audience members began asking about Plan Columbia – how one could even conceptualize a program for the Right to Food without the Right to Life. A number of people began speaking, there was shouting and I figured my questions could keep – it was past 5 pm and it didn't look like anything else would happen.
I handed my earphones back, thanked the translator (they truly have a thankless job and are exhausted – simultaneous translation is no joke with extremely passionate, rapid fire speakers). Claudia and Jael, a Jewish native of Calcutta currently working for the Ford Foundation, met me outside. They were in the Gender session. We wanted to play hookey the next day and visit either Cajas National Park or Ingapirca, a place with Inca ruins. We went back to the hotel and in search of a travel agent – IXA tours, the official travel company for the Assembly was swamped anyway. We booked a tour to Cajas for the next day.
Next, we headed to the North American delegation meeting. This time, the room was much fuller and we had some involved discussion. Not as much as I would have liked, but I have to agree that longer discussions should be carried out with smaller working groups. Working groups were asked for their reports and sadly had little to talk about. A group was set up to frame a press release – no shortage of volunteers for that! Tawnia was to coordinate a group to work on social determinants for health – I volunteered for that. Sonia and I talked about doing some work on the issue of Trade and Health. Then was time for logistics – Sarah Shannon has been worked hard on this. Some of us had to pay for our tickets even though we had paid Hesparian, others had to run around for hotels. The logistics for this event have been bad. It didn't need to be this way – so many things were done in a hurry in the last month inspite of a year of planning. Anyway, the delegation decided to meet again on Thursday.
A group of us went out to dinner and we convinced Patty to join us on our trip the next day. Lots of food and laughter later, the day came to a close.

Just another manic Monday

July 18th:

Some carry-overs from yesterday – I had met folks from the Media Team and made some suggestions to them. In true voluntary group tradition, I was asked to do the work! One of the tasks included writing profiles of children attending the conference. I met and talked to 2 children from the African delegation (profile will be posted when complete). I also talked to their delegation head, Mwajuma Masaiganah – more about her later.
Anyway, Monday dawned gloomily and we walked over to the University for Plenary A dressed for the weather. The sound system was being unloaded as we entered the building at 7.55 am – so much for starting on time! Deepa (a member of the singing troupe) and I were to leave early so we sat close to the exit. It worked for another reason, because as soon as the auditorium began to fill up, an announcement was made that we had to go out and collect headphones for translation. A group of students collected ID's and even passports in return for headsets. Finally, around 8.40 am, the plenary rumbled to a start.
First, it was the testimonies. A group from Argentina screened a film about the takeover of a factory by workers. This brought out yet another problem – the film didn't run! Too many programs running on the laptop or as one panelist tried to explain it, 'problems with the RAM of the laptop'. Well, the audio was being provided in realtime, so it continued. A doctor from Columbia talked about the struggled to keep the government hospital where he works running in the wake of militarization. The hospital employees had not been paid for months and were now living in the hospital itself. When money stopped coming from the government, the hospital tried to reinvent itself as a cultural center with health facilities and mobilize the community to keep it alive. It hasn't succeeded and is set to close. Next another film which actually ran without hitches – one from Brazil for the 'right to sport'. I had been in discussions the previous day where this 'testimony' had been discussed, criticized and derided for being 'unrealistic', 'promoting something that already occupies so many minds' and so on. The film was OK, interspersing child laborers with elite athletes training in expensive facilities to show the contrast and ending with images of children playing in their school and on the streets as they should.
More testimonies: one from Chile about increasing privatization and another from Argentina about a community struggling with high rates of cancers and gastrointestinal problems. Finally, Thelma Narayan, who was chairing the plenary, took the stage. She said that they had hope to have testimonies from other continents but couldn't get the speakers to the Assembly, so chose to have testimonies entirely from Latin America. Next a dance was presented by 2 children from Bangladesh to celebrate the passing of the torch from Bangladesh to Ecuador. The girl was confident and in control and the boy compensated with plenty of enthusiasm!
After this came the turn of the presenters starting with Abhay Shukla of CEHAT. Abhay talked about the mobilization carried out by PHM throughout India – the 'Jan sunwaais' (people's courts), trainings, reports and so on. Halfway through his speech, Deepa (of PHM Bangalore), Raman (of the government and Mitanin, Chhatisgarh) and I had to leave to join Pervez. We took a cab to Parque Calderon to find, as seems par for the course, confusion. After a few minutes of walking around, we finally figured out where we would be performing. Another group was already setting up – we had been told we'd perform first. Some more talking and negotiating with the other group led to us getting the stage. The lead singer of the other group, Diego, kindly offered to translate. As we performed, the citizenry of Cuenca gathered around - old men talking a walk in the park, mothers with children, some youth. The PHA attendees were still in their meetings, so we had a crowd that had no contextual info about us. Well, they still enjoyed it, I think, or were extremely polite!
It was time for lunch, which was being served in the Medical Facility on the other side of town. There are multiple venues for PHA-2 plenaries and sessions throughout Cuenca and none of them are within walking distance. The only time everyone is at a single venue is lunch. Even more confusing, some venues are listed differently in the English and Spanish versions of the program and others are not marked on the map. The Media center is also in the Medical Facility and I went to visit Nisha and the rest of the team there. Letchu a.k.a. Sowbhagya was talking about the huge quantities of food wasted during the meal – Cuencans believe in serving big portions. I mentioned the widespread use of bottled water in an Assembly that has taken on the Right to Water campaign. She asked me to write about it by 7 pm.

Earlier, when I was entering the building, a young woman sitting outside it had asked me a logistics question. She then wondered aloud how I had figured out all these details – she turned out to be an Ecuadorian by birth (now a US citizen). Sonia is studying health policy at Johns Hopkins and looking at issues of international health and trade. I had planned on attending the Trade and Health session where the discussion was to be on Patents. But since it was already 2.30 pm, we headed to the nearest session – that on an education and training strategy for PHM activists. After some confusion, we found the room – it was tightly packed with more people than capacity. The simultaneous translation system via earphones didn't work, so the translator had to come forward to translate. This meant that each presentation would take twice as long and presentors were asked to cut short their talks.
Lanny Smith of Doctors for Global Health went first – he talked about Liberacion Medicin, a group started in Latin America that 'promotes the conscientious use of medicine with social justice and human dignity'. The talk didn't get into as much specifics as I would have liked – I wasn't able to understand what exactly LM does. There was no round of questions after the talk. Next was David Sanders, Director of the School of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. He presented some health statistics for South Africa. Despite public sector spending per citizen of $140/year, the country' health statistics are poor even in areas such as immunization of children (78%). He then talked about the gaps in delivery, most of which he sees as due to poor training. His School's program for Public Health aims to fill this gap with training of doctors and nurses. It does not focus on methodologies and theoretical work as much on training of health workers from the undergrad stage onwards. Thus even dieticians and physiotherapists are exposed to the Public Health perspectives.

At this point in Dr. Sanders talk, he began getting into more detail than I thought necessary (I sound like Goldilocks here!) Finally he did yield the stage. Thelma Narayan was next but now began a royal snafu. The simultaneous translation system was back on, but there weren't enough earphones to go around. Eventually, folks realized that there were more Spanish speakers than English ones in the room. So a Spanish speaker, Florence Levy, was asked to go next. She is from Nicaragua and began speaking of a University for Public Health there. By this point, I was hot and tired. Further it didn't seem like there'd be any discussion – there were 3-4 more speakers to go. So Sonia and I left to get some coffee and chill out.
Afterwards, I went to the Media Center to write out the article on water and also complete the profile on the African children. I found Mwajuma Masaiganah, the head of the African delegation, in the travel office nearby and asked her for some background on them. We talked about other issues affecting Africa. I asked her if she ever felt that the focus on HIV/AIDS in Africa was drowning out attention to other diseases and problems. She told me that in her talk earlier in the afternoon (in the Gender issues track), she had given case studies of women suffering from Malaria. She had consciously chosen not to talk about HIV/AIDS and had given her reasons to the audience – to return focus to Malaria and other diseases that kill as much as AIDS.
I finished my writeups at 7 pm and left for the hotel. Claudia wasn't in our room. At the Presidente, I found Vineeta Gupta (of AID-US, SHAI and other groups working on HIV/AIDS) She had just contacted Tawnia. Yet another tale of woe, this time hers' of having to pay $60 for 4 hours in a hotel in Gayacuil! A journalist from the Indian Express, Rajeev, was with her – he hadn't yet received his luggage. It was on a merry trip to Caracas and then Gayacuil and...
Anyway, they weren't ready to go for dinner, so I headed out to a vegetarian retaurant for a lonely meal. The fried rice I ordered was great, and the serving as usual was enormous. I asked for a leftovers box with gestures, in the stereotypical manner of every klutzy tourist out there :) Well, at any rate, the mimes worked and I carried my next day's breakfast back to my room.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Heal the world, one delegate at a time

July 17th:

Claudia and I had been told that the US delegation would be meeting at 9.30 am in the Presidente. After a breakfast at the hotel (more explaining about 'sin carne' – no meat), we went to the Presidente. There, we found a number of people dressed in white – it seemed that white apparel was suggested for the healing ceremony at noon. The closest thing I had to white was yellow, luckily ethnic (that wins some points). Some of the members of the Indian delegation were in the lobby and the restaurant upstairs.

The US delegation, or at least those who had arrived – about 20, met in a room nearby. About 65 people have registered for the conference from US and Canada. It was then we found out that we are actually the North American delegation. Mexican delegates are part of the Central American delegation – well, it atleast works out in terms of language!
We went through a round of introductions – this was a diverse set of people with varied experiences. Some have worked on US-Mexico border issues, others are union representatives fighting for heathcare, yet others work on global campaigns and quite a few are students. One delegate from Tennessee, Lori Smith, talked about her problems with health insurance when she fell sick. She is now part of a group organizing a sit-in in Tennessee protesting cuts in healthcare.
We discussed logistics – essential for finding people in this town filled with ~1500 delegates and more tourists. Incidentally, it seems there are only 1700 beds in hotels in this town. I guess a lot more people turned out than the organizers expected! Daily meetings of 5.30 pm were planned and a bulletin board would be set up so that delegates could exchange information. Some topics of interest to this group were discussed – a global 'Right to Health' campaign, right to water, protesting militarization, food security, women's health and reproductive rights and social determinants of health. I volunteered for a few tasks – the result of a high predilection for raising my hand at every occasion :)
Next, I had to buy batteries for my camera. The first shop I enquired in asked for $7 per battery (C2 lithium). 2 blocks down, it was $4!
The healing ceremony was to be led by indigenous peoples from across the world. The goal was to 'activate the earth' and seek blessings. It was held in a highly scenic place – a quadrangle bounded by buildings on three sides and a glorious backdrop on the fourth. We walked in to chanting interspersed with haunting music. The 'convenors', dressed in traditional clothes stood in a circle, with attendees in concentric circles around them and yet more in balconies around. The part of the ceremony that I witnessed included calls to the four directions, the heavens and the earth. Speakers talked about war, oppression and the hope for a better world.
I found Navin, Prasanna and Abraham from PHM, Bangalore in the crowd. All of them were in impeccable white, Prasanna attired in traditional South Indian style. 45 minutes into the event, I felt healed enough and headed out to the secretariat. More walking, especially since I lost my way. Thankfully, streets are labeled reasonably well.
At the secretariat, I found Laura of the North American delegation. We had volunteered to find the room we were assigned (Mt. St. Helena). One hour of searching and questioning everyone we could find (in fluent Spanish, thanks to Laura) was unsuccessful. Finally, Laura was able to collar the Dean of the Medical college and he promised her any room she wanted in the new facility.
Meanwhile, I joined the meeting of the Indian delegation. Because of the organizational needs, many members of this group had been drafted by various committees. The remaining members, almost to a person, were presenting papers – a marked difference from the N American delegation. As they remarked, this is just an indication of how mobilized PHM-India is. Among the attendees from India are Meera Shiva (VHAI), Abhay Shukla (CEHAT), Amitava Guha (of Patents fame) and others. One of the delegates, Pervez, is a filmmaker and musician. He asked for volunteers for a chorus for some performances around town. One more task, definitely more pleasant, added to my list.
After the meeting, I waited for Prasanna to finish his other tasks so that we could discuss a plan of action – we had earlier discussed sharing information throughout the week with AIDers and others. No luck – not only was he busy, but he was feeling mentally drained. We decided to convene the discussion to another day.
Finally, at 8 pm, a group of 5 met in Pervez's room to practice the songs we were to perform – one from the NBA (Narmada Bachao Andolan), another a Bhojpuri song and finally a 'maajhi' (boatman) song. That and a hearty meal signalled the end of one hectic day (of many to follow, hopefully).

Monday, July 18, 2005

Back on the map

It's been a long time since I've updated this blog – maybe I'm only able to write on this while traveling. In the meantime, life's been busy, with a conference on Memorial Day (See http://conference.aidindia.org), other AID stuff now I'm part of the 'establishment' (more on that later) and volunteering at an organic farm (See http://w-e-i.org). But now that I´m traveling again, this time to the PHA-2 in Ecuador, it's high time I revived this blog... I think.
The second People's Health Assembly is being held in Cuenca, Ecuador. Details are at:http://www.phmovement.org/pha2I will be part of the part of the US delegation along with a group of extremely accomplished, highly motivated people. Help!

July 16th:

I stayed in Miami overnight in a hostel – not the best choice of accomodation (one of the girls in my dorm got up at 2 am to have a snack of extremely noisy chips) but cheap. The shuttle came at 4 am to pick me up for my 7:45 am flight. Thought of making a few calls from the airport but sleep, sweet sleep claimed me till it was time to take off.

The airline I flew was LAN, a Latin American carrier. Comfy seats and personal TV's made up for the fact that 'vegetarian' for this airline meant a fruit salad. Enroute, someone a few rows ahead began having problems and the call went out for a medical practitioner. A lady got up to help – I found myself wondering if she was heading to the PHA-2.

We touched down in Quito just before 11 am (it's on Central Daylight Time, like Minnesota). Quito is the second highest capital in the world (after La Paz, Bolivia) and landing at the airport there is memorable. The passengers clapped as we touched ground – surprising, the landing didn't seem all that dangerous. Maybe it's a part of Latin culture. Or Ecuadorians were just happy to be home.

I headed to the counter of Grupo Global, the agency organizing our tickets to Cuenca. They didn't have my ticket – I wasn't even on their list! The doctor who had helped out on the flight did turn out to be a PHA-2 delegate – Claudia Morrissey. (So I can be spared the stereotyping label!) Claudia was set to fly out in an hour to Cuenca and the Grupo Global team was determined to put me on that flight as well. Lots of broken communication and gesticulation later, the woman at the counter took me into the domestic terminal. I paid $63 for the ticket to Cuenca – Ecuador is a dollarized economy. In the gate area I found Claudia, along with Hedwig and Pedro, two delegates from Paraguay. And of course, the flight was delayed!
Claudia is a doctor with Public Health training and teaches International Health at the University of Illinois, Chicago and also at Northwestern University. She has worked in clinics in Bangladesh, Mexico and Guatemala (possibly other places – we didn't get that far). She has been working on reproductive rights issues for over 30 years. Another issue close to her heart is gender equity in University faculties, especially in reference to tenure. As she put it, “The system has many problems, but it's still better than what's offered for non-tenured faculty.”
We landed in Cuenca after a 35 minute flight (during which the attendants still managed to feed us, a la Indian carriers). Cuenca is a city of 350,000 people at an altitude of ~2500 m. It's set in a colonial style – when the Inca ruler of Cuenca heard of the conquistadors' imminent arrival, he ordered the city destroyed. It's also considered an easier city to navigate compared to other Latin American cities.
We had information that the US delegation was to be housed at Hotel El Presidente, so Claudia and I headed there along with Nadia, a member of the PHA steering committee who met us at the airport. We headed to El Presidente, only to find that they were full! Duh, weren't we already booked for this place? A note at the reception said to check with Tawnia Queen, the coordinator of the US delegation, for registration and meal tickets. I suggested we go meet her but already our luggage was being taken to another hotel! As I turned to follow the luggage, Tawnia herself appeared by my side. By now, I had had a sense of a few coordination problems – normal for a gathering of this size. From what Tawnia conveyed, it was a much bigger problem. Well, anyway it looked like we were getting a room in another hotel – the Cuenca and the room was pretty nice. Nadia, Claudia and I were put in one room. Since Nadia was part of the steering committee, it would make more sense for her to stay with the rest of that group in the Presidente and we headed there to work it out. She did get a room there – a dingy, tiny room with none of the charm of the Cuenca. Being on the steering committee would be all work and no fun, it looked like.
After picking up our registration material (and T-shirts), the 3 of us headed out to see the city and more importantly, fill our stomachs. We entered a church briefly - its chapel was gleaming draped in shiny cloths. The others admired it but I found myself thinking of Indian festival or wedding decorations of the more gaudy type! The few people wearing ethnic dresses – long pleated skirts and ponchos and leathery faces were a lot more interesting, in my opinion. It took a while, but we found a restaurant that looked promising. Nadia suggested we order Pote Millo, the local delicacy of Cuenca, which turned out to be a lovely mix of eggs and corn that had been soaked in lime.
Nadia is a coordinator with the Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights and is from Amsterdam. If bloodlines and pedigree played a role in the NGO community (and well, doesn't it sometimes?), Nadia would be on the A-list. Her father worked at the UN and now is in the Ministry of Economic Affairs of the Netherlands. Her mother taught around the world and is now in the Ministry of External Affairs. Nadia herself has been involved in global campaigns for reproductive rights, some of them frustrating and achieving little. But, as she put it, these things have to be tackled. One issue that she has worked, and interestingly, so did her mother thirty years ago – Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Africa. Her mother had attended a session she organized and was disheartened to see that the talking points – the taboos, the silence and the need to break 'cultural' mores – hadn't changed. We discussed how progress on certain issues, such as FGM, had been reversed and the rise of conservatism across the world. Even in the Netherlands, the supposed bastion of 'liberalism', it had taken a lot of work to approve over-the-counter availability of emergency contraception (also called 'the morning after' pill).
After the heavy meal of corn, eggs and potatoes, my systems were ready to shut down and we headed back to the hotel for long-overdue sleep.