Struggling to Wake Up

My espresso is still too hot as I force down an extra large gulp of the remaining brown, bitter liquid. I’m bleary eyed, grumpy, and curt with my classmate sitting across from me as we rush to write our blog posts before the caffeine wears off. Five marathon days and counting, and a growing sleep deficit has me on edge, but attending the World Health Assembly has been far from a chore. For many of us this will be one of the defining experiences of our graduate education in global health.

The aftermath of a 15 hour day at the WHA

Last night ended with four USC MPH students at a hip, smoky Swiss café, turning heads as we fumed over the reasons universal healthcare hasn’t happened yet in the US. “Solidarity is the common denominator,” I said, “we are too big, too diverse.” “You’re wrong, government mandated social programs are just too difficult to swallow for a country whose culture is synonymous with personal freedoms,” said my friend.

Earlier in the day I listened as one of my international classmates expressed frustration after seeing her own native country interact at the WHA. “Why does it seem like they have nothing to say, like everything is prepared and un-provocative,” she asked Douglas Webb of UNDP. “Remember that countries with the most to gain will always be the loudest, and those with the least to gain will be the quietest…think about what it would cost your country to implement any change,” he replied. It was a brilliant and deeply insightful response, one that forced all of us to look critically at our own countries’ interactions on the global playing field.

Later another classmate vented to me over the political barriers in global health; “it’s in everything, across all levels, how can anything ever get done…it makes me very worried about the future.” I tried to mollify her, saying that “politics have always been around, and that they do exist in everything, but look how far we’ve come.” Her distress deeply affected me, and as the week has progressed I’ve seen other classmates uncharacteristically erupt in anger as their beliefs and perceptions were challenged.

An honest discussion with former US ambassador to Botswana

I think for many of us our idealized notions of the “real world” of global health were dispelled this week. Problems that seemed so black and white from the classroom showed their true shades of gray. We are all in public health because we are motivated by something more than personal gain – a desire to improve the wellbeing of others. It’s easy to think that desire is enough to ensure success, and that words such as scalability, sustainability, and equity are merely tools to be wielded. The WHA has shown me that these aren’t just tools, and that desire isn’t enough. Attending the WHA has been a wake up call – these problems affecting global health are hard, really hard, for many reasons that I can’t fully comprehend. I think it is that realization, the sheer magnitude and complexity of these problems, that has shook so many of us to our core. If we want to improve the wellbeing of others, we must be ready for a trek that is much longer and more strenuous than we all thought.