Sunday, 25 May 2014

Should I even be here? Reflections on #WHA67

This is a question that rattled round my mind when I came to the World Health Assembly (WHA) last year and, arriving back in Geneva for WHA67, I find myself chewing over that same question again.

After all I'm not a doctor and I have no medical or scientific background to speak of (living with the mad scientist probably doesn't count...), nor have I been schooled in public health policy.

So immediately I'm in a position of 'not knowing'.  And there's just so much to 'not know'.

The language spoken here is at times impenetrable.  This year the conference is abuzz with discussion about the formal inclusion of 'Non-State actors' at the World Health Organistion (WHO) table.  These people are not, as it turns out, Shakespearean bards funded from a supra-national purse*, they are in fact (for those of you who hate a mystery) the private sector, universities, philanthropic funds and Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - most of whom are currently (officially at any rate) outside of WHO inner sanctum of proceedings.

Similarly someone you know may at this very minute be suffering from a Non Communicable Disease (NCD).  Again, this doesn't mean they are particularly shy or mute, but rather that they have heart disease, diabetes or are obese (e.g a disease you can't catch, hence non-communicable).

The really scary thing is, the examples above fall into the category of 'the easy stuff'. Easy or not it can be intimidating for the uninitiated - knowledge is after all power (as Foucault would say) - and last year I was definitely intimidated.

It's not just the language or the science though.  It's the politics.  It honestly hadn't dawned on me prior to last May to think about health as an international diplomatic bartering chip.   Not until I realised that many of the ministers rocking up to the World Health Assembly were actually Minsters of Finance or Foreign Ministers in their own countries, rather than (or, in addition to) the Health Minister.  There's more than just health policy happening here then.

Health is an economic issues too - who has the money to fund the initiatives, who receives money, how much and how do they use it?  (Hence the presence of Finance Ministers as well as NGO's lobbying for their issue to be focused on and, a new one on me this year 'BINGOs' - Business Interest groups apparently acting as Non-governmental/benign organisations.  The plot thickens...).

It's also a community.  Everybody knows everyone else and there's so much gossiping (I mean important and profound conversations) about what's really going on happening in the lobby areas and coffee shops at WHA.  But like the new girl on the first day of school you can hardly just walk up and into one of these conversations.  It takes time, you have to become known and, presumably, trusted.

Last but not least in the intimidating stakes is the super size of the WHA.  Some 2000 delegates and lobbyists (and a handful of journalists....), many of whom are at the top of their professions and so represent a vast depth and breadth of knowledge in their areas, gather for WHA.  And where do they gather? In the very opulent and grand Palais des Nations - a building that by design is grandiose and imposing.

So frankly it's hardly surprising that on my first visit to WHA last year I was a little overwhelmed.  Nor is it surprising that this year's World Health Communication Associates (WHCA) graduate journalists have felt overwhelmed and intimidated once or twice.

But that is the point of the WHCA Health Communications programme.  To bring 'cub' reporters into a huge arena that is over-briming with fascinating stories and give them enough courage and support to dive on in ask questions.  We're in a perfect position to make those who talk to us explain in plain English what is going on and then to share that information with the rest of YOU who equally probably don't talk this very special blend of bureaucratic, scientific and political patois.

Despite the fear and trepidation that we shared as graduate journalists embarking on the week at #WHA67 I think everyone has emerged from it feeling more capable and able to enter the arena of public health.  Perhaps our biggest challenge if we continue working and writing in this space is to keep enough of our innocence and our everyday language in our reports.  We have to ensure that our reports continue to be accessible and written for 99.9% of the world, for the people who are impacted by the issues and the decisions made in these hallowed halls, whilst learning and knowing enough about public health to be an effective and trusted translator rather than pseudo medic or politician.

 (*although I do know a Shakepearean actor who was paid to be a virus at a WHO event once....)

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