Building Global Resistance to Ebola

Everyday Stories of Peace, entry thirteen, November 7, 2014

“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.” – Dr. Paul Farmer, Co-founder of Partners in Health

Everyone’s been thinking a lot about the Ebola virus outbreak these past few months. So when a friend and I decided to put together a Halloween party for our students, it seemed like a good venue for raising money to support the efforts of Partners in Health www.PIH.org, a global health care organization working to help the poorest of the poor.

We had our party earlier this evening (Halloween in Sweden is celebrated through the first week in November), and the children and parents who attended seemed to have fun. This year’s Halloween party included a “pumpkin walk,” face painting, crafts, music, and a used book sale. We also sold baked goods and sandwiches for our “fika” table. For those of you unfamiliar with “fika,” it’s one of the main national pastimes in Sweden where one takes a pause during the day to sit in friendly conversation with old or new acquaintances, often with a cup of coffee and a tasty home-baked treat.

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There are many fantastic organizations working to meet the health care needs of people across the globe, but what is especially appealing about the work of Partners in Health (PIH) is its emphasis on communities in extreme poverty, as well as its philosophy of putting health care in the center of the larger conversation about human rights. Founded by Dr. Paul Farmer and Ophelia Dahl over 25 years ago, PIH operates in Haiti, the United States, Mexico, Peru, Russia, Rwanda, Malawi and Lesotho. PIH’s current response to the Ebola virus disease focuses, among other things, on preventative care by providing community health care workers with information and materials to educate people about how to stay healthy. You can read more about it on their website: www.pih.org/priority-programs/ebola.

Since learning about PIH when were living back in our hometown near Boston, I’ve been extremely impressed by how the sheer determination of a few people can make an impact. I’ve heard Dr. Farmer speak twice, and even saw him once in Geneva many years ago leaving a WHO meeting. I’m pretty sure it was him because, as far as I could tell, he looked extremely indignant. He’s definitely the kind of doctor you’d want on your side, looking out for you as if you were an extended family member.

If you are interested in reading more about the founding of Partners in Health, I can recommend Track Kidder’s book, Mountains beyond Mountains, “The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who would change the world,” first published in 2003. This book has been a popular read, especially for high school and college students looking for inspiration as they think about their life direction.

Another book which is extremely useful in understanding the global health care situation is Dr. Farmer’s Pathologies of Power, “Health, Human Rights and the New War on the Poor,” published in 2005. He talks a lot about how a “preferential option” for the poorest of the poor is a social justice issue which should be at the top of the global to-do list. He discusses health care in the context of human rights, and has an extremely impressive list of endnotes and sources. As one of those strange people who reads a book by starting with the endnotes before the first chapter, I have to say that Dr. Farmer is the “King of Endnotes.”

My favorite endnote in his book pops up when he talks about the class divisions in European sanatoriums at the “dawn of the era of antibiotics.” Here he quotes from George Orwell’s journal entries written in a sanatorium the year before he died of tuberculosis. Orwell comments on the shrill tone of indifference in the voices of people visiting the sanatorium on Easter Sunday. “It is as though I were hearing these voices for the first time. And what voices! A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a constant bah-bahing of laughter [about] nothing….” (Farmer, P. Pathologies of Power. 2005. Endnote 22 from Chapter 5, pp. 300-1.) This quote from Orwell has haunted me since I found it buried in Dr. Farmer’s endnotes a few years ago. Surely we wouldn’t want the collective voice of humanity to have a shrill tone of indifference to the suffering of any of us.

Building global well-being takes all of us together to do our small part from wherever we find ourselves. Thank goodness the people at PIH are doing what they do best, as well as the other healthcare workers involved in helping people and families affected by the Ebola virus. Even more than building the global resistance to Ebola virus is the need to build global resistance to the fact that there are too many people out of the more than 7 billion of us who lack adequate food, shelter, water, health and hope.

The well-being of all of us is inter-connected. This was so eloquently said 800 years ago by the Persian poet Saadi. His well-loved poem is carved in Farsi inside the door of the United Nations building in New York. (Here’s one version – there are several different translations.)

What it is to be Human

Human beings come
From the same source.
We are one family.
If a part of a body hurts,
All parts contract in pain.

I read this quote to a group of teachers while I was in Uganda this past June, and we all cried.

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