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Bending the Arc–Towards Justice and the Right to Health

Bending the Arc is the 2017 Netflix documentary of the renowned public health advocate and physician, Paul Farmer.  We see, first hand, Farmer  taking on the medical establishment in his fierce and heroic fight to treat poor people suffering from curable but  deadly diseases.  Known as “the man who could cure the world, ” according to the Pulitzer-prize winning author, Tracy Kidder in his biography of Farmer, “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” Bending the Arc can be considered the visual companion to Kidder’s moving homage to Dr. Farmer.

Dr. Farmer began as an idealistic volunteer working in Cange, Haiti aiding the community in treating tuberculosis and other communicable but curable diseases.  After realizing that medical training would be of critical importance to a worldwide transformation of health organizations and policies, Farmer graduates with a medical degree and a degree in medical anthropology and is soon gaining a reputation at Harvard Medical School as  a brilliant diagnostician and innovator of health infrastructures. He and four of his colleagues co-found Partners in Health (PIH) in 1987.   Along with the idealistic Harvard classmate, Jim Yong Kim, and the activist, Ophelia Dahl (Roald Dahl’s daughter), they believe they can remedy some of the world’s pressing humanitarian crises by analyzing the existing healthcare systems  Global international institutions (such as UNESCO, WHO, and USAID) claimed that  it was impossible to treat the destitute  on such a large scale.  Thinking outside the box, Farmer engages patients themselves as health care workers. since many communities are “clinical deserts.” And most remarkably—despite enormous resistance from the outside world—they treat diseases that the experts have determined could not or should not be treated because of expense and difficulty.These three  real-world heroes were committed to making a difference and upending the traditional top- down medical  model.

Financing becomes a never-ending challenge.  The oftentimes exorbitant pricing of drugs for tuberculosis and AIDS  creates what seems insurmountable obstacles,  until  Dr. Kim testifies before Congress that this is tantamount to genocide.  Policy and pharmaceutical companies’  changes allow generics to enter the market.   Drug prices drop.

With the success of community-based treatment strategies delivering high-quality medical care in resource-poor communities both abroad and in the US, PIH has an ever-expanding influence (eg. Peru, Rwanda, Southeast Asia, in US “clinical desert” communities).   Their strategies and distribution system for medical care have had a  massive impact on global health, building their own clinics, network of community workers, and sometimes providing housing with clean water and sanitation on the clinic’s grounds.  

PIH doctors become the first in the world to treat patients in rural settings with full courses of antiretrovirals. As a result, world policies change, deeply entrenched ideas transform, and millions of lives are saved. Dr. Farmer and PIH were the developers of worldwide contact-tracing methods to manage COVID-19 exposure, based on their experience in containing Ebola.  

Bending the Arc has several emotionally charged scenes: of  survivors who otherwise had given up hope of living, nevertheless survive.   Remarkably candid interviews and stunning never-before-seen archival and on-the-ground footage are shown in the midst of a deadly epidemic. We are immersed in the struggle of these fierce heroes defying some of the industrialized super-powers’ most respected institutions. 

In some of the final scenes of Bending the Arc Dr. Farmer advises scientists studying disease to account for racism, sexism and poverty that hinder people’s abilities to take advantage of medical treatment. In one particularly powerful interview he seems resigned but not hopeless:  100% of people who receive small monthly stipends and food alongside free tuberculosis treatment from his team in Peru were cured of the disease, compared with only 56% of those given the drugs alone. “The money needed to save lives exists if lives are valued equally,”  Who lives?  And, who dies?

Bending the Arc is moving, inspirational, and absorbing.  This documentary film will restore one’s belief that a few people can truly make a difference.

Availability:  Netflix (leaves on October 23)!!

Note: Dr. Paul Farmer (1959-2022) died on February 21, 2022, in Rwanda, five years after Bending the Arc was released.

Note 2: Dr. Jim Yong Kim was appointed president of the World Bank from 2012-2019 by President Obama.  He radically changed the World Bank’s public health policies as the first president with a medical background, not a financial one, 

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