"Over 300,000 HIV patients died before the powers that be were forced into action.”
DR. Jim Yong Kim, Co-Founder of Partners in Health
300,000! A horrifically coincidental number that we have overtaken with COVID related deaths in the US. These are directly relatable scenarios as many Americans don’t believe any measures are required to curb this pandemic, believing somehow everything will work itself out. Eventually we will win the fight against COVID, but only because of the forethought of those who have experienced pandemics before, and committed their lives to the cause. These people are, “Bending the Arc,” especially when it comes to providing healthcare to the underserved.
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is long...But what I see is I am sure it bends towards justice.
-Theadore Parker, philosopher
Do you know how Dr. Faucci learned to set up community based testing, quarantining, and localize the supply of PPE, and soon vaccinations? Because years ago he met Dr. Paul Farmer (shown left with a Hatian patient and child), Dr. Kim, Yverose Jean & Ophelia dahl, the subjects of an amazing documentary full of hope, now on Netflix, called, “Bending the Arc.” Thirty years ago, as much of the world was being ravaged by horrific diseases like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, these remarkable young people in the medical field, barely out of their teens, rejected the typical lives in medicine. They were determined to deliver to the Haitians, who soon became their friends, the same world-class level of medical care they would expect for their own families. They faced enormous obstacles. World health “experts” argued against their “every-life-is-worth-saving” approach. World Bank policies coerced poor nations to exchange health and education spending for loans. They persevered. Building hospitals and providing expensive life-saving treatments to human beings staring at death. The healthcare system has a history of ignoring the health and welfare of those without many resources.
“Optimism is a moral choice, but ignoring or refusing to care for all is criminal,” says Dr. Kim in the film. “With Paul Farmer and others, I learned how to take social justice and turn it into real work on the ground,” says Kim in the film. “We realized that this could be something like a movement.” But, “if you’re cynical about the work it would take to provide healthcare for all, then you will probably live out your very low ambitions.” Dr. Farmer adds, “The key is to have a pessimism of the intellect, but an optimism of the will.”
In another part of the world, around that same time, Jim Merkel, for different reasons, was at a crossroads. After witnessing the consequences of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, “In 1989 I turned in my top secret clearance (as an engineer working for a government contractor), stopped selling military electronics and simplified (my life) until my consumption was in the ballpark of average world GDP – around $5,000. And to slow population growth, I delayed fatherhood into my 50’s and then stopped at one child.” This is an excerpt from a chapter Jim contributed to in an amazing book, called, wait for it….“Bending the Arc,” by SUNY publications, but has no relation to the film.
Merkel continues, “Unlike Snowden, Assange and Manning, I lacked the courage to expose what I knew, not wanting to rot in a prison cell, hole up in an embassy or live on the run. I did however commit my life to peace, human rights and the environment and attempt daily to forgo the privileges that one-world-superpower status offer its citizens.”
“World peace seems unlikely to be fostered or brokered by the US while we maintain one-world-superpower status and use that status absorbed in self-interest. Our role must be to secure the well being of the marginalized and future generations and this will require a serious spiritual maturation. I know from first hand experiences that good people do horrible things. I did. This spiritual awakening appears to be happening and grows with encouragement.”
Over those 30 years, Merkel has become a leader and author in this area, who like those in the above film, is educating others about the simplicity of taking positive steps. The author of Radical Simplicity, Merkel is in post production of a new film of hope. “My latest project is the making of a documentary film with a working title Saving Walden’s World, (Originally titled The Hundred-Year Plan) that optimistically lays out the essentials for diffusing the population bomb, easing climate change and averting the sixth great extinction. It tells the quietly dramatic story of educated and empowered women around the world who choose small families while creatively living with small ecological footprints. These conditions played out over one hundred years could return a healthy balance between humans and nature.”
Spoiler alert: In Bending the Arc, the film, we see the team confront the typical healthcare system, ignoring a problem while the most affected are the least protected. We meet those emaciated by disease and the ills of the underserved , struggling to survive, while healthcare officials and suppliers refuse to consider alternative treatment modalities over profits. Dr Farmer & the team realize that only thru educating and empowering the community to distribute healthcare services among their own, could a pandemic be beaten. But will these ideas be accepted by those affected? Can they get the results at the micro level, that will convince the world health community it can be done on a larger scale? Will that knowledge create a community based preventative healthcare model, lifting everyone past the point of surviving to a level of thriving?
“[Dr Farmer, Dr Kim and team, their] quiet outrage over the widely-held assumption that it’s futile to treat the global poor drives this story, which is as much about the triumph of a philosophy as of medicine.” – The Boston Globe
You have to see the results for yourself. You can’t help but get drawn in by the personal stories of people on all sides struggling with a global issue. All the work that went into forming the protocol for pandemic response has informed how countries have responded to the COVID pandemic. Those that paid attention, like Kerala India, have less than 1/20 the number of cases and deaths as the US. Kerala put people and process ahead of profit and ego. Kerala is one of those countries visited by Merkel 30 years ago, and again recently for his film.
Merkel states, “The similarity to how the US blew it with COVID because of the unwillingness to admit we have an issue, or because of who it’s affecting, the under served, is obvious. Saving Walden’s World is about recognizing those issues that create an underserved population in the first place, and showing how communities around the world, that typically do NOT have the resources, are able to combat these problems BEFORE they get out of hand.”
“Part of the solution to the problem is for my son Walden, now 6-years old, and his generation, to learn 21st century survival skills from places not as mesmerized by the spell of consumerism. Seeing the low-impact, day-to-day realities in imperfect, but quite sustainable societies kindles the imagination as to what is possible.”
And a second spoiler alert. Jim Merkel eventually became Dartmouth College’s Sustainability Coordinator and Dr. Jim Yong Kim became Dartmouth’s president, and, ready for this… the president of the World Bank.
And for his and his teams work, Dr. Farmer was recently the recipient of the 2020 Berggruen Prize. The $1 million prize, which is awarded annually to people who “have profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world,” went to the doctor in recognition of his leadership related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Dr. Farmer’s call to improve public health systems is a matter not only of science but also of politics, economics and ethics,” Amy Gutmann, a contest juror and the president of the University of Pennsylvania, said in a news release. “In this crisis, like the ones that preceded it, our knowledge far outpaces our will to put effective solutions into action.”
“The arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. Together we bend it faster.”
Merkel's future thinking documentary is in the later stages of post production, and is looking for additional funding & distribution. World View Productions, Ltd & Bob Maraist helped film one of the segments, and produce. Others behind this insightful doc include two time academy award winner Debra Shaffer, recent academy award winner Julia Reichert (American Factory), and more. To learn more about Jim Merkel:
Resources for this article:
Bending the Arc - a film currently on Netflix
PiH - Partners in Health - a global health group with origins at Harvard University founded by Dr Paul Farmer & Dr. Jim Yong Kim
The National Institute of Health
Bending the Arc - Striving for Peace and Justice in the Age of Endless War
a book (by different contributors)
I started in this industry with an interest in sharing the life changing stories of those who otherwise could not, so that I and others may learn and grow.