Tara Lisa Persaud, HCC’s ‘Our Views Our Voices Technical Advisor’ attended the Global NCD Alliance Forum which took place in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, in December 2017, here she gives her Reflections on Sharjah.
In September, 2017, when I told anyone that in December 2017 I was going to attend the Global NCD Alliance Forum in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, they all, bar none, looked at me like I had lost my mind. Well, in fact, I had – sort of!
On July 6th, 2017 I had major brain surgery to remove a tumour the size of a golf ball that had grown there as a result of the Stage IV breast cancer that I had been diagnosed with at the end of 2014. On August 21st, 2017 I had more surgery in my brain to get rid of any last bits of the cancer cells. I spent all of July and August throwing up and not being able to walk more than a short way to the bathroom. Even to have a shower in that first month required that I sit on a stool because if I stood up – well I would fall down (which I have done a few times well!). So everyone thought that, just maybe, the surgeons had removed some of the logical part of my brain with the tumour.
“Do you know how much time you have to be in a plane? It’s more than 16 hours!”; “You can’t walk in a straight line or balance well and your hand still shakes like crazy, are you mad?”; “Motion makes you vomit and you get easily confused”; “You still have double vision and you can’t see to write much less anything else.”
Well, if I am honest, I was not sure either. Yet, I was determined to try. And in December, I succeeded and attended the conference with the Healthy Caribbean Coalition team. (How I managed it another story for another day). I am so glad that I did. I learned so much – more than I could write here. But I would like to share a few of the things that I took away with me from my time in Sharjah.
The first thing I learned is that there are so many people working on Non-Communicable Diseases and so much being done. Who knew? I certainly had no idea.
In the past I had worked with Ministries of Health, the Pan-American Health Organisation, with the Inter-American Development Bank, and with UWI on NCD projects. So learning that so many brilliant and dedicated minds are working on preventing and treating these diseases that affect so many of us is eye-opening and inspiring. This gives me hope. Real hope. There are doctors, scientists, advocates, survivors, government officials, multi-lateral organisations, and private sector individuals; all of whom see how NCDs are affecting the well-being of children, adults, economies, countries and the world.
They are all talking about NCDs and sharing information, successes, research and strategies. They discuss strengthening health care systems; integrated care; financing for prevention and treatment; access to treatment and medicines; national planning and budgeting; maternal and child health; planetary health; legal safeguards; healthy diets; workplace wellness; and so much more.
When you are facing a diagnosis of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc. or you are the parent of a child who has an NCD, you can feel very much like you are facing this battle alone. Well, seeing and listening to all these people who are working to help the world battle these diseases, you realise that you are not alone. I realised also that many people get involved because they have their own experiences of disease; as a patient, a doctor, a parent, a caregiver, a sibling or a friend. We are not alone.
What is even more important to understand is that this global forum and the groups that met from all over the planet, do not just want to talk. This was not just a ‘talk shop”. These groups act, they want others to act and they want to influence and promote this action. They do this every day in their home countries and this global gathering of civil society was an opportunity to meet and decide on how best to influence the upcoming United Nations High Level Meeting (UNHLM) on NCDs which will take place just ahead of the UN General Assembly in New York in September. That meeting is intended to result in commitments by the heads of governments on the world’s political actions on NCDs.
Now this is a very difficult thing to do. To try to influence the decisions of leaders is a huge challenge. I worked on two meetings of world leaders in 2009 and with first-hand experience, I can safely say that most leaders take everything from civil society as “suggestions” and carry on with their own pressing political agenda. Even if they make commitments, leaders have a lot of different priorities. They may agree on one thing at a meeting but when they get home and face the various challenges, the politics and the next election, well these commitments can fall through the cracks. It is understandable but we must also understand that everything is linked. If we had better prevention and treatment, we would not have to allocate such a large portion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to healthcare and social services as there would be less people with NCDs. These savings could go towards combatting crime, paying salaries, building infrastructure, improving education; even to solving sewerage issues.
So the civil society groups that met in Sharjah are strategically positioning their views, opinions and recommendations, based on evidence, research, science and experience, so that leaders pay attention. For example, they are working on boosting financing for NCDs; increasing action on childhood obesity; taxing unhealthy commodities; increasing access to treatment to save lives; putting people first; and improving accountability for both resources and results.
What are we doing in the Caribbean? This is another big learning for me. We have a growing effort by civil society – NGOs, medicine and academia – against NCDs. The Caribbean contingent to Sharjah was small – Belize, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados. But the stories and the voices are not small. The region will have its own meeting in Jamaica in April in preparation for the UN High Level Meeting later in the year. This meeting is also a stepping stone that needs to be used strategically to get our Caribbean governments to listen and speak up when it comes to NCDs. The charge is being led by the HCC. Why should we listen to the HCC? Because its work impacts each of us, but also because the rest of the world is taking notice.
In Sharjah, I understood how well the HCC is respected; how it is seen as a global leader in NCD work. The HCC speaks and people listen. Whether it was Sir George Alleyne making a keynote, Sir Trevor hosting a workshop, or Maisha chairing the final plenary, there is a consensus that the HCC is dedicated to action, results and making people’s lives better in a tangible way
The region is working on so many things – drinking and eating less sugar, reducing smoking, improving what children eat at school, increasing access to better care, to name a few. All of this work is important. It is work to make us all healthier, happier and more productive. So as the region heads towards April 2018 in Jamaica and September 2018 in New York, we need to take seriously that we face increasing disease epidemics.
We need to put NCD work on the agenda and make our voices heard. Because we are not alone. And because our lives depend on it.