The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. – Theodore Parker
This week we celebrate World Health Worker Week. I cannot think of a better testimony to health workers than those shown in “Bending the Arc”, a documentary chronicling the journey of the people behind Partners in Health. The VillageReach team gathered to screen this film, which beautifully chronicles the health workers, patients, and activists who demonstrate the value of building a “preferential option for the poor” in health care.
“Bending the Arc” tells the story of health workers who showed up every day to make sure their TB or HIV patients took their medicines, had food to keep them strong during treatment, and had the social support needed to get through years of treatment. Partners in Health hired and empowered community health workers (“accompagnateurs”) to reach patients directly, as a contrast to the westernized model of patients needing to reach health care facilities. Then the organization used its influence to bring the evidence of this success to policymakers, global gatekeepers, regulators, and financing institutions and break down pervasive barriers to equitable and affordable health care.
One of the most powerful scenes in the movie shows a community health worker coaching a young man – Melquiades Huauya Oré – who is ravished by multi-drug resistant TB. After years of ineffective treatment, he no longer has the will to take more pills. The health worker knows that his only chance to live is to take the new regimen for multi-drug resistant TB, and she patiently coaches, soothes, and listens as Melquiades cries. Eventually he takes the medicine. The film then jumps to current day, and footage of a healthy, vibrant Melquiades. Partners in Health co-founder (and current President of the World Bank) Dr. Jim Kim breaks down in tears on screen when he sees the transformation of Melquiades.
At VillageReach, we are not building clinics or providing direct medical services the way that Partners in Health did in their early days, and still does in some countries today. Yet our work is a part of the same movement – a movement that champions health as a human right and the belief that all people, no matter where you live or how much money you have, deserve access to quality health care. Our approaches are different, but our driving values are the same. While watching the movie last week, I was reminded of just how powerful alliances built on a combination of data, human experience, and strong principles of equity and justice can be in changing the course of history.
In VillageReach’s work to scale solutions to health care delivery challenges, we have seen how effective it is to demonstrate health impact at a local level, and then to identify and support champions to bring evidence to the national and global stage. In “Bending the Arc”, health workers in Haiti and Peru created the evidence to show that not only could HIV and MDR-TB be treated in their countries, but also that the outcomes were even better in their countries than in the developed world. Co-founders Paul Farmer and Jim Kim took those studies and the data to the highest policy levels. These two efforts together saved more lives, more quickly, than either could have on their own.
The progress is still not fast enough. One VillageReach staff member reflected, “What they were doing was amazing, but it was still only in a few health care facilities. It took decades for these efforts to scale.” She is correct. Partners in Health may have bent the arc faster, but the work is far from done.
We have to fight every day to ensure health workers make a living wage and have the tools to do their jobs effectively. We have to support the building of health systems that are resilient enough to stop epidemics before they spread. We have to ensure that the resources are sufficient to give every person the quality care they deserve. “Bending the Arc” gives me a vivid picture of what success looks like.
You can find a screening of “Bending the Arc” or learn how to host your own by visiting http://bendingthearcfilm.com/screenings/. If you do, let us know. Some of our team just might join you.