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Health & Humanity Summit: Overview

17 August 2023, New Delhi

MSF South Asia’s inaugural Health and Humanity Summit brought together leaders, practitioners, and academics to foster discussions, incite collaboration and seek out solutions to complex humanitarian and public health issues in an ever-changing world. Over 300 attendees were present, weaving through panel discussions and accompanying art exhibits, with dynamic exchanges and collaborations taking place in between.

Upon opening the ceremony, MSF South Asia Director of Communications, Sana Bég, highlighted the need to translate every discussion and innovation stemming from this summit to the communities at the heart of the issues. In her opening remarks, Dr Farhat Mantoo, MSF South Asia Executive Director, brought this point home by telling the story of one of the first patients to receive anti-retroviral drugs in an MSF project – his access to medicine, he said, ensured that he was still here today. He now works as an MSF Peer Counselor in Malawi.

The Keynote speaker for this event was renowned journalist P. Sainath. In his speech, he highlighted stories from the COVID-19 pandemic, which provided a “brilliant, but scathing autopsy of our society” bringing into sharp relief the impact of social determinants of health on people. Health, he said, should be seen as mental and social well-being which requires action in many different sectors, including on a social and economic level. He ended with a call to the audience: “maybe you can do something about it.”

The first panel session, moderated by journalist Vidya Krishnan, brought together a panel of experts to explore the theme of migration and People Forced from Home. The panel sought to re-think the so-called “refugee crisis”, speaking to the urgency of re-humanizing people on the move, creating pathways for legal protection, resettlement, and more comprehensive mobility laws. As emergencies unfold into protracted crises, we experience an “unwanted familiarity of displacement”, one which beckons new people-centered solutions.

In the second panel, access to healthcare was on the agenda, with MSF Access Campaign lead Leena Menghaney leading the discussion. The panelists dissected how COVID shaped justice and access to treatments, as privatization of healthcare and vaccine hoarding failed to protect people around the world, and the need for transformative change in healthcare. Panelists spoke on new pandemic treaties and the need to share technology and resources, strengthen infrastructure, public health systems, and distill collective learning from the pandemic, asking the question: can we meaningfully learn from COVID-19 and expand the way we respond to future crises?

Discussions then moved to the theme of security threats in the humanitarian space, moderated by MSF’s Dr Maria Guevara. Panelists reflected on various threats impacting health and human rights, such as the securitization of health, restrictions on movement, violence on aid workers, new epidemics and outbreaks, and “slow burn problems” such as climate change. They addressed the relationship between human health, human rights and planetary health and the need for collaboration: “we need to do something together, and we need to do it right.”

The final panel brought the issue of mis/disinformation to center stage, moderated by MSF’s Disinformation Advisor, Divya Pushkarna. The panel delved into the threat of mis/disinformation and the psychology of crises which create “perfect storms” for mis/disinformation to spread, further reinforcing social cleavages and biases. The emergence of AI was also discussed, both in terms of threats and opportunities: “AI is a tool with no guard rails; human made AI and we are fallible, therefore AI is fallible.”

Beyond these discussions, highlights of the summit included interactive art exhibits that echoed the issues discussed. MSF’s Health & Humanity exhibit centered stories of vulnerable people and communities in MSF projects and the causes of these vulnerabilities, as photographer Uğur Gallenkuş’s ‘Side by Side’ exhibit, in collaboration with MSF, highlighted stark contrasts in people’s lived experiences.

In the closing losing remarks, delivered by retired Indian diplomat Vijay Nambiar, the room was asked to turn to the future and seek solutions that aim to reduce risk and vulnerability, “working in harmony toward collective outcomes”. This focus on solutions and looking to the future was also reflected in a direct action, as MSF South Asia announced the launch of the “Humanitarianism in South Asia Initiative”, a network of universities and research centers aiming to co-create an interdisciplinary course on humanitarian studies in the region.

As the summit came to an end, the discussions were only beginning. The event fostered an environment where a wide array of leaders, experts, academics, and other actors from South Asia and beyond came together and aims to be a catalyst for change and opportunities to seek innovative solutions to both existing and new crises and challenges.

Speakers in order of appearance:

Panelists: Roshni Shanker (Migration and Asylum Project), Rezaul Karim (BRAC), Jolene Anthony Dass (MSF), Dr Parivelan K.M. (TISS), K.M. Gopakumar (Third World Network), Dr Brinelle D’Souza (TISS), Giten Khwairakpam (TREAT), Elizabeth Willets (Harvard), Benjamen Mason Meier, (University of North Carolina), Nishant Sirohi (Geneva Health Files), Tina Purnat (WHO), Osama Manzar (Digital Empowerment Foundation) Shalini Joshi (Khabar Lahariya)

Keynote speakers and moderators: Dr Farhat Mantoo (MSF South Asia Executive Director), P. Sainath (author, veteran journalist), Vidya Krishnan (journalist), Leena Menghaney (MSF Access Campaign), Dr Maria Guevara (MSF International Medical Secretary), Divya Pushkkarna (MSF Disinformation Advisor), Ambassador Vijay Nambiar (retired Indian diplomat)

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