Global Health Special Series: Takeaways and the Teen Perspective

By Grace Masback

WANT Original Content

The Princeton-Fung Global Forum in Dublin came to a close on Tuesday, but for those concerned about Global Health, particularly teens, the discussion of the key issues related to global pandemics must continue. One key take-away from the Forum is that it isn’t a question of if the next crisis will emerge but when. With that knowledge in hand, it is crucial that the key findings from the Forum be discussed and disseminated widely.

Although the Forum was entitled, “Modern Plagues: Lessons From the Ebola Crisis,” its speakers and audience aimed much higher. They looked at systemic issues that created environments ripe for a pandemic. They analyzed weaknesses in local healthcare and suggested possible solutions. They criticized the lack of coordination among relief organizations (and governments) and the minimal funds many allocated for addressing the problem. However, running through the keynotes and panels was a commitment to action. More importantly, there was a commitment to coordinated action using the skills and resources of governments, relief organizations, the WHO, and major research universities to identify the means to prevent future crises or deal with them more effectively if they occur. In the words of Princeton President, Christopher Eisgruber, “Conversations have been rich, varied, and contested . . . as they should be. And, the conversations, actions, and commitment need to continue.”

Of the many observations and themes that emerged from the two days of the Forum, four resonated with me:

  1. Illness is universal but access to quality health care is not – this is wrong as health care is a basic human right.
  2. Epidemics are inevitable, but pandemics are optional, and dealing with epidemics is a global public good.
  3. Information technology offers the best means of identifying the existence of a crisis and dealing with it.
  4. Support should go to missionaries, who develop meaningful long-term relationships, over development experts, who think in five-year timeframes.

I gathered a group of teenagers with an interest in global health to offer reflections on the topics of the Princeton-Fung forum, specifically how youth can relate to and understand global health. The following excerpts from our conversation yield interesting perspective into the ideas of engaged youth. High School Junior Grace Wong, a fervent advocate for equality around the world stated, “When it comes to dealing with infectious disease understanding global health, the responsibly lies within the world community as it affects us all, not just those who are sick” She continued stating, “When government won’t take action, we as youth must fundraise and raise awareness for organizations that are committed to solving these issues and working with medical professionals to find ways to prevent and stop epidemics.” Junior and aspiring writer Sahil Neruker continued on the theme of youth engagement stating, “Youth initiatives are the most important courses of action for dealing with global health issues. Due to social media and modern technology, youths are more empowered now than ever before, and it is in this new power that they can create initiatives that address the global health issues of today and tomorrow. Though they may lack the material resources, the actions stemming from their passion for change can have a far more profound impact than the policies of ephemeral government structures.” Junior Sydney Palmer, who regularly uses her video skills to bring awareness to various causes asserted, “Teens can’t ignore issues of global health. Not only because these issues potentially threaten us, but because our compassion should motivate us to care for others as we would our own. The work that the Princeton-Fung Global Forum is doing to bring awareness must be carried over to youth so that they can be educated and enabled to spread positive change in their communities.” These reflections offer compelling insight into the potential for youth engagement in global health.

The majority of young people do not have passionate interests in global heath. I was appalled by the apathy I observed at the peak of the Ebola crisis in 2014.  Insensitive Ebola jokes were alarmingly commonplace and the majority teenagers in countries such as the United States felt no responsibility to take action because the issue felt so foreign and the threat so distant. As several speakers at the Forum observed, one of the greatest challenges to getting individuals, non-profits, and governments engaged in global health and involved when a crisis or outbreak occurs is the lack of emotional connection with the disease. In the case of the 2014 Ebola crisis, it became an “us versus them” situation. As the death toll mounted, most people just let the news wash over them without any real motivation to take action because they were not experiencing an immediate threat. In reality, diseases like Ebola not only kill but they decimate economies, limit the education of aspiring children, disrupt social order, and lead to violence – all issues that, in isolation, would attract vibrant interest and energetic calls to action. Indifference is all-too-commonplace given the persistent negativity of the news cycle.

It is vital that such attitudes and outlooks change, and it is up to young people, especially teens and young adults, to be the motivators of such change. It is a startling reality, made very clear at the Forum, that we live in a world where death at the hands of infectious disease is both common and expected in many developing countries. The quotidian horror of such disease in our modern world and its impact on human potential is analogous to the plight of the lower classes in 19th century England.

Young people are rarely engaged or knowledgeable about topics pertaining to global health, viewing global health as something too abstract or complicated, unattainable for people without a specialized degree. Yet if our generation doesn’t take action, we face living in a world where disease continues to limit innovation, limit human potential, and limit progress. It is time for humanity to take control of disease. Youth need to be educated about global health, to understand how a disease in one country impacts the entire world, and they must be willing to engage in advocacy work to continue to build awareness and make change. Specialized knowledge is not essential but passion is. With appropriate effort, knowledge, and attention, the young people of today hold the key to building awareness and eradicating the infectious diseases of tomorrow.

Photo Credit: Unsplash

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (www.wantnewsforteens.com).

There are 4 comments

  1. phoebe nicks

    Hi Grace, I am a teacher at a high school in South Africa. We are attempting to engage our students in a similar global health symposium. Do you mind sharing some pointers on how to get young people engaged with these issues? As you rightly point out, that they tend to view global health as “too abstract or complicated.”

    1. wantnewsforteens

      Hi Phoebe!

      Thank you so much for reaching out. I am glad to hear that your high school is hoping to engage with and understand global health issues. I am by no means an expert so all of my advice comes purely from personal experience, but I have a couple ideas for how to engage young people in global health.

      1. Tell them about it. A lot of times young people feel overwhelmed because they don’t really understand what global health means or who it effects. By giving them information, articles, videos, or even interactive activities to find out more they can begin to better understand and appreciate global health. In presenting the information, the more it can be presented in interactive, engaging ways the better.
      2. Come up with concrete ways that they can help with global health crisis. Youth experience a lack of empathy and interest when they feel no connection to the topic. Have bake sales, sign petitions, write articles, and run fundraisers in order to help students feel they are truly part of the movement.
      3. Look at the stories of individuals. These can be people who have been affected by a disease, who are helping to fight illness, or who are advocating for government policy surrounding global health. The stories of individuals make the topic of global health more tangible and less abstract.

      I hope this helps! Please keep me posted on your symposium and encourage your students to consider looking/writing for WANT.

      1. phoebe nicks

        Thanks Grace for your ideas. I am particularly interested in number 2, finding leadership opportunities for them and as they develop those skills I will surely encourage them to write for WANT. Thanks again!

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