By Grace Masback
WANT Original Content
There was no lack of energy as day two of the Princeton-Fung Global Forum commenced. The room was alive with people talking (and Tweeting) about the first day’s events. The Forum began with a day two welcome from Princeton President, Christopher Eisgruber, who again expressed optimism about the utility of the Forum.
Keynote speaker Jeremy Farrar followed Eisgruber and quickly refocused attention. One of Fortune Magazine’s “50 Greatest Leaders,” Farrar noted that, “Epidemics are inevitable, but pandemics are optional.” He struck an optimistic note when he said that, “We are not passive observers of history. In one generation the world can change . . . if we make the right choices.” The Director of the Wellcome Trust, Farrar’s research focuses on infectious disease and he predicted that the biggest public health challenge in the 21st century will be resistant infections.
The day’s first panel entitled, “Politics of the Plague,” was moderated by Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post and featured a lively discussion. Joao Biehl, a Princeton Professor of Anthropology and the Co-Director of the Program in Human Health at Princeton, called health “a right of the people and a duty of the state.” Dominic MacSorley, the CEO of Concern Worldwide, warned against an overly-bureaucratic approach, “When you become a transaction organization, you take the human out of humanitarian.” Princeton professor Leonard Wantchekon discussed public versus private aid, saying that there needs to be both public and private aid to fight pandemics. Overall, the panel wresteled with difficult questions as it examined the political systems that bring attention to and approach a health crisis.
The lunchtime keynote address was given by Raj Panjabi whose life story is both inspiring and relevant to the Forum’s topics. As a nine-year-old, he escaped the Liberian civil war. He later returned to Liberia and co-founded Last Mile Health, an organization that trains and employs local villagers to be healthcare professionals. He asked for a moment of silence to remember the lives lost from Ebola and stated several basic truths including, “Illness is universal. Access to health care is not” and “In global health, the best defense is a good offense.” He lauded the power of local health care workers saying, “Without rural frontline workers, we cannot stop modern plagues.”
The panel “Follow the Money” looked at the financial implications of plagues, including who funds relief efforts, how money is allocated, and what counts as relief. Angus Deaton of Princeton, who was just awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, observed that throwing money at health systems without dealing with fundamental issues isn’t a viable solution. He added that, “Our response to epidemics may be based on how scared we are, not what affected people want.” Suspicious of the word “partnership,” Deaton asks, “How does that work when one person has all the money and other people none?” Emmanuel D’Harcourt of the International Rescue Committee endorsed the notion of localized efforts being effective, but expressed concern about the disconnect between the funders and those on the ground, “With Ebola, we have the Jeb Bush problem – so much money, so little connection to the people you’re supposed to represent.” He added, “We need to lose the high-level models and work at the technical details with the outbreak.” Carolyn Rouse, a Princeton Anthropology professor, spoke most provocatively asserting, “I appreciate missionaries over development experts — they develop long-term relationships and truly engaged on the ground versus the experts who just develop five-year plans and leave.” Her point brought up the important concept of pledged support vs. direct action. Rouse also stressed the importance of making meaningful use of funds, ““More money into healthcare doesn’t equal better health.” Such admonitions serve as vital takeaways for forum participants.
The panels came to a close with a panel entitled “After the Plague.” Moderated by Cecilia Rouse, dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs, this panel pulled together threads from previous panels and looked at how universities can play a more meaningful role in dealing with future global health crises. Princeton professor Adel Mahmoud called for a global vaccine development fund noting that, “commercial viability affects vaccine development despite the extreme need.” He observed that biotech firms have a hard time getting venture capital for vaccine development and production. Given the emphasis on strengthening local health infrastructure, Alex Gasasira, Liberia’s representative to the World Health Organization, asked if, “Should we be paying the community health care volunteer?” a predicament Liberia faced in its post-Ebola effort. Such topics began the dialogue as to the true impacts of infectious diseases and helped to determine action that can be taken to facilitate recovery in nations most affected.
President Eisgruber closed the Forum commenting, “Conversations have been rich, varied, and contested . . . as they should be. And, the conversations, actions, and commitment need to continue.” This wrapped up two engaging days of presentations and discussions. The recent Ebola outbreak and the terror it engendered worldwide demonstrate the importance of understanding the dynamics of a global health emergency — what can be done to prevent them in the future and what can be done if they occur. It is vital that people of all ages, especially young people stay engaged in the conversations posed in this forum to ensure society is prompted into taking real action instead of standing by as passive observers.
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