On ‘The Uncounted’ by Sara ‘Meg’ Davis

The Uncounted by Sara L.M. Davis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


In today’s world in particular, there are days when it seems as though we are drowning in information. Too much data. Too much ‘stuff’ to process and make sense of. That feeling is only partially true, however. Across various areas and arenas, we know far too little, particularly when we focus on issues surrounding health and human rights. All too often we take the absence of information or data or evidence as a sign that we may relax a bit.

We desperately need to shift that thinking. The Uncounted, by Sara ‘Meg’ Davis provides a road map for how we may begin to shift our thinking and perspectives in order to adjust how, amongst whom and what we collect data in a relatively simple way, and in a way which may pay huge dividends, particularly amongst those most in need and previously most neglected in policy planning and financing.

‘The Uncounted’ is a fantastic read, one which profoundly challenges the notion that in the absence of information or evidence we don’t need to worry about issue X. That is, if we carefully examine those variables for which we have no data or evidence, perhaps upon digging deeper and enlisting assistance from those more acutely and intimately aware than we are, we will find previously hidden information and data. And, that data and information are likely to radically shift how we design programmes or policies on various issues. We will no longer be able to simply dismiss an issue as unproblematic. Quite simply, ‘The Uncounted’ provides a profound argument for carefully considering how we examine and apply the absence of evidence as an indicator.

‘The Uncounted’ is rich in ethnographic descriptions, documenting the various assumptions made by multilateral agencies charged with dispersing funding to and establishing guidelines for countries in how they respond to HIV, tuberculosis and malaria (e.g., The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, UNAIDS, WHO, PEPFAR, etc) and local-level agencies and individuals best situated to argue for expanding programmes and funding schemes within communities. For those unfamiliar with such agencies, Dr Davis disentangles these various personalities and agencies rather neatly, making it clear who does what and whose voice is perhaps most necessary in deciding upon programmes and policies to address HIV in particular. Following the progress and steps necessary to count the uncounted within the Caribbean region provides evidence for how we can begin to shift our thinking and truly ensure full inclusion of all individuals affected by HIV and specifically those least likely to date to receive crucial services and support.

Reading ‘The Uncounted’ during a global pandemic proved rather surreal,not simply because some of its key characters are also playing a crucial role in current events vis-a-vis Covid-19. As our global health-related realities have been thrown into chaos this year with the emergence of Covid-19, I’m curious to see how various elements of Dr Davis’ careful and thorough work play out. Whilst focused primarily on HIV, and the very real oversights in counting typically hidden populations such as men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers and people who use drugs, certainly many individuals, and perhaps the most vulnerable, will go uncounted in the wake of Covid-19. Will health, social, and economic policy makers and planners at local, national, and international levels solicit the perspectives from those at the community levels most intimately associated with the epidemics and acutely aware of problems in providing treatment, care and support to those affected in order to understand who, what, why and where? Or will they rely on the absence of evidence as evidence of absence simply because individuals are not counted by the powers that be? How will key populations be accounted for? Will they?

My hope is that the powers that be across power structures would heed the advice and road maps provided by Dr Davis. The reality is that in some places, that advice and those road maps are not being considered. And, in those places it seems as those Covid-19 is raging unchallenged. [Insert heavy sigh here.]

‘The Uncounted’ provides this cynic with a bit of hope, however, particularly with regards to HIV. Hope that we expand our perspective ever so slightly, yet in a way which we can make a huge difference to communities and key populations who may have previously faced stigma, discrimination and institutional neglect, and who may finally receive the crucial support to transform structures that place them at the response to HIV. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary. And, to my mind, long overdue.

Clearly, we can no longer that that ‘absence of evidence as evidence of absence’.



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Juneteenth

The video below provides an animated version of the Atlantic Slave Trade. For 2 minutes, dots of varying sizes indicating the number of black human beings transported from Africa to the Americas against their will move across the Atlantic Ocean from the Old World to the New.

If this isn’t horrific, I don’t know what is.

Today, 19 June, is Juneteenth, the day we should all celebrate as marking the end of a most horrific era in human history, the day when all black Americans learned that the ownership of other human beings (meaning, their ownership by their white masters) officially ended across the United States. Yet, few know that Juneteenth actually exists or what it specifically means and refers to. That lack of knowledge and skipped-over bit of history is problematic all on its own. It’s also emblematic of how far we still have to go in the United States and elsewhere in making racism and inequity and inequality a part of our past rather than current events so that we may truly claim freedom for all a reality.

That Juneteenth honours and remembers events from Galveston, Texas, when Major General Gordon Granger informed the people of Texas that all slaves were free, makes it all the more ironic if not outrageous to this particular Daughter of the Republic of Texas (yes, I am actually a member of the DRT). We are not taught this particular and incredibly important event in our ‘history’ courses. We are taught the history of white America, but not American history. Rather than being taught the history of Juneteenth in grade school or university history classes as a young girl or young woman, much as I learnt about the Emancipation Proclamation, I first heard the term Juneteenth within the last several years. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that most textbooks are written for and approved by the Texas Board of Education, an agency known to bend to the whims of political ideology and religious dogma at the expense of critical thinking or scientific knowledge and understanding of the world around us. At one point in time, before an outcry and complaints, one Texas textbook referred to slaves as involuntary ‘immigrants’ and workers. Talk about whitewashing history.

It’s shameful to me that in 2020 we are still woefully unaware of our own history. That history, whether we acknowledge it or not, shapes our lives today, and informs how we view and treat one another. From Juneteenth to the Tulsa race massacre and destruction of the Black Wall Street to the impact and legacy of Jim Crow laws to rewriting MLK and Malcom X as less threatening and more ‘peaceful’ to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Robert Fuller and today’s mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow, we need to revisit and rewrite history, making it less favourable to white America and more reflexive and inclusive of the voices and lived experiences of POC. It will be uncomfortable, and it will be difficult. But, it is necessary. And, it is right and just and honest and true, even if we find it horrific.

So, as a first step, let’s start today. Right now. Here’s to making Juneteenth a national holiday, celebrating freedom and a day of remembrance.

School’s out

Taken on a Nokia 8. Munkkiniemi Frisbeegolf Course, Finland, 1 June 2020.

What a truly bizarre academic school year.

My last lecture for the 2019–2020 academic year was scheduled to take place this morning. But, covid-19 ensured that I would not physically meet with my students, and the entire last dash towards the end of the year was rather anticlimactic. I spent a portion of this weekend recording and cleaning up the audio files for my last lecture and sorting through my slide decks. And, by about 9.30 this morning, all of the lecture materials were uploaded and visible via various distance learning tools the University of Helsinki has made available to both instructors and students alike.

Now, I’m left with sorting through my inbox as final assignments filter in and submitting my final reports and student grades. No lovely send offs. No in-person thanks and well-wishes for equally productive and restorative summer holidays. No fanfare at all, it seems.

It kind of sucks, to be honest.

And, most educators I suspect have felt something similar for the last several months. specifically as they close the books (pun intended) for this school year. And, certainly at the end of this most memorable and challenging of academic years.

Teaching and lecturing are exhausting during the best of times, and more so when you must quickly adapt and adjust to new realities with relatively little warning at all. I’m fortunate. I love my job and find the exhaustion infinitely rewarding because of the returns earned through inspiration and continual intellectual challenges and breakthroughs for me and my students. I’m infinitely fortunate to have the continual support from my direct supervisor and immediate colleagues, and incredible students, all of whom as graduate students are more than capable of using their own reserves to draw upon for self-discipline and time management necessary to learning asynchronously.

But, goodness I miss lecturing.

The worry for me and the source of my overwhelming exhaustion this year relates to that constant concern that the courses and materials are not meeting their needs. That all of these tools and technologies made available to us are poor and rather inadequate substitutes for the real-life, in-person interactions we typically enjoy and use to gauge engagement and understanding. Interactions I enjoy, and ultimately use to measure my own performance as much as theirs.

Summer may have arrived in Helsinki for this university instructor and her students. But, much of this summer for me means revamping and reexamining how to make distance learning a little more palatable for my students as well as for me. How to make achieving our mutual learning objectives a bit more possible and attainable. And, how to make the experience a little less lonely and a little more fulfilling and more interactive even with social distancing measures in place.

And, here, again, I suspect I’m not alone.

We are all redefining what ‘normal’ means to and for us. [Instructor and teacher friends, we’ve got this!] We are all adjusting to new realities and wondering what various seeds of change drifting on one wind or another will sprout in the near and distant futures.

One conversation at a time

NB: Like many, I’m genuinely struggling to put into words what I feel or to process what we’re collectively witnessing and experiencing in this moment. This is my own first step, based on a personal experience from this morning and how it might help me, at least, move forward and do something — anything — to affect positive change within my own network. The specifics of this morning’s experience are anonymised in order to protect my friend’s identity. This is my own perspective and reflects that alone.

Uncertain future. Illustration: Chris Riddell

I am not necessarily good at difficult conversations. I have never have been, and it’s perhaps the flaw I recognise as most unfortunate about myself. And, the flaw I struggle with the most.

If I am completely honest, I see the ugliest parts of myself surface during those moments. Specifically, I do not deal with criticism well at all, despite being more critical of myself than anyone else could ever hope to be. Contrary to understanding its necessity in helping me do and be better as a wife, friend, instructor, writer, [insert descriptor/role here], constructive criticism makes me exceedingly uncomfortable in the moment. I have no problem questioning my own beliefs on my own, but publicly I find such instances particularly painful and typically shy away from them whenever and as much as possible. I am also working on this. Because I want to grow as a person and be a better person for those in my life as well as my own community. But, it’s damn hard work.

Given the current backdrop of various bits of chaos that has become 2020, and the unreal events unfolding in the United States specifically, difficult and uncomfortable conversations are necessary. So, when a friend with whom I share very little ideologically reached out to ask me about a sensitive topic, I took a deep breath and dove in head first.

And, you know what? I regret nothing. It felt good. It worked. It was respectful and honest. Unresolved, but solid and a step in a direction we both welcomed. And, that’s something.

Because neither of us approached this conversation from the perspective of needing to be right or correct or proving our point, it worked.

To me, this moment provided an opportunity, not only offering the chance to reach an understanding of a perspective and the thoughts of someone with whom I do not share a world view. But, also, a chance to help someone I know understand a bit more about where to find resources and perhaps look at their own world view in a slightly different way, one which might prove more beneficial to those unlike us who desperately need allies who look like us. This moment hearkened back to a time when liberals and conservatives / Democrats and Republicans / blue states and red states could discuss the issues of the day and find a way forward rather than ripping one another apart.

This friend and I conversed with the intention of listening and gaining insight rather than being heard and judging one another. We challenged one another (I hope), but we also chatted aiming to help one another rather than selfishly and myopically support and validate our respective viewpoints. We did not approach the conversation intending to pick apart everything; instead, we tried to unpack one thing. We asked probing questions and patiently waited for responses. We left labels aside, placed pins in other important topics which were tangential to this specific topic and focused instead upon the meanings we might have missed by using various labels previously.

And, we left the conversation with points to think about and consider, with an agreement return to our discussion later. We did not leave feeling frustrated, angry, hurt of belittled.

We provided ourselves with a way to move ourselves as well as our communities forward. And, that’s huge.

So many of us right now are hurting, whether we agree on what pains us or not. So many of us lament and despair the loss of innocent lives and the inhumanity we are collectively witnessing, all in the middle of a global pandemic that demands social distancing and has impacted our social and economic realities if the not the very fabric of our lives. We may not necessarily agree on what causes the pain or anguish, or indeed upon on what specifically what must change. But, we agree that the wounds run deep and divisions are killing us. And, that change is necessary.

To me, we must also confront continuing injustices such as institutionalised racism and a system rigged to maintain the status quo and extreme power differentials in place. Doing so requires finding common ground and understanding wherever and whenever we can. It won’t be easy, and perhaps might result in more than a little blood, sweat and tears, for some real and for others allegorically and metaphorically. But, the difficult, sensitive and hard conversations and discussions must take place.

So, here’s an invitation: Come talk to me.

I will listen. I will do my best to be open to those difficult conversations, without judgement or justification. I will do my best to be respectful and less reactionary or defensive. Primarily, rather than shy away from them, I invite those discussions and conversations, welcoming them and genuinely consider them. I may not always agree, but I will seek out ways to reach consensus where possible and check my own biases and privileges and assumptions as necessary. I hope all of us will do likewise. Otherwise, nothing will change.

A welcome visit

Like everyone else in the world, Covid-19 has altered our world. We have socially isolated ourselves since 13 March, which seems like a lifetime ago. A friend who lives in our neighbourhood has stopped by a few times briefly for visits reminiscent of Romeo & Juliette’s balcony scene without the drama. But, aside from those chats, we have interacted with no one other humans beyond the supermarket staff and each other, our darling kitten and nature for the last 8 weeks or so. The uncertainty and weight of these times, along with various reactions to it are, overwhelming at times.

Yesterday, this guy visited one of the feeders we hang from our second-floor flat’s balcony. Our views largely consist of other buildings. But, we are close enough to woodlands that many birds visit our balcony daily. This gorgeous creature is a more recent and our most precious guests.

A family of woodpeckers visited our former flat daily throughout the spring and summer months. Since moving about 1.5 years ago, our only real regret was not seeing or hearing those woodpeckers outside our balcony, despite moving less than ~1 km from our former flat. We’ve missed that family, and their lovely little chirps as they fed on the treats we left for them. The appearance of this guy last week made my heart sing. And, was so utterly random. At one point as I watched the tits and finches feed whilst sipping coffee, he just appeared. Time stopped. And, the weight of the world lifted. For whatever reason, hope was restored. At a time when I needed a reminder of the good in this world, I was reminded that the tiniest of joy can and often do appear when you least expect them.

Yesterday, Woody — because all woodpeckers are ‘Woody’ to us — showed up to delight The Cuban, who quietly gasped, quickly ran to grab our fancy-ass camera and then crept as close as he could to snap this and many more pics. The look of pure delight on his face nearly made me cry.

Moments like these are so, so precious. And, we are beyond grateful for them. I’ll be taking a few moments each day now to simply sit at our table stare out the window and watch the birdies. No wonder Pollito Pito Frito Fu does this daily.

Covid-19 has not impacted us directly. The curve here in Helsinki and Finland remains relatively flat. But, since most of our families and friends are scattered across this world and far from us, we feel that distance more acutely these days. As accustomed to this as we are, the knowledge that we can do absolutely nothing to help those we love or be there for them is crushing. At least we have the technology now to stay in touch with everyone. And, to share our concern, unease and uncertainty as well as our hope with all those we hold near and dear as well as all of you.

Solidarity, y’all. Be safe and be well. And, thank you for sharing your views from across this gorgeous world. We are all in this together

Simple, necessary changes

l’ll be honest — climate change has become one of the things that keeps me up at night. The more I read, the more I fear for the future world we will likely face. It may not be a world I personally face, but I definitely fear the world we leave for the next generation.

So, I’m taking more steps to limit the impact my life has on the lives of those who follow me.

We use LEDs more these days, after seeing first-hand how much brighter they are during the long, cold and beyond-dark winter months in Helsinki. I no longer drive since my US driver’s licence expired more than a decade ago. I walk when I have the time more often than not. And, since last September I’ve been a vegetarian (completely unrelated, but now I can’t imagine going back). For those who understand my undying devotion to every single cheese ever made, I now eat about half if not a quarter of what I once consumed. And, because y’all understand you’ll need to pry my coffee cup from my cold dead hand, oddly, I prefer Oatly for my daily java jolts. I tried it after being dazzled by a rather witty ad blitz earlier this year, and it’s actually quite tasty. Since they also make other non-dairy ‘dairy-like products, I’ve tried them and like them as well.

I’m fairly certain my own carbon footprint sucks. But, I’m working on as many changes as possible to reduce it as much as possible. And, my life is largely unchanged if not fitter. Walking (and running) about 50 km per week has it’s benefits, from reducing my carbon footprint to allowing me to process the anxiety related to it.

You don’t need to go to extremes to reduce your carbon footprint. Small changes can make a huge difference. If you aren’t that concerned about the world you’ll inhabit in your own future, perhaps you’ll pause to think about the world your children and grandchildren will be forced to endure. That world may not be nearly as beautiful nor as hospitable, and that’s on us. Particularly if we continue to shirk our collective responsibility to implement incredibly simple changes in addition to larger ones that might just save us all.

Words matter

Words matter. The words we use and choose reflect where and upon what we place importance. They convey our emotions; they create our narratives, and help others understand our positions as well as our passions. We all need to choose them a bit more carefully and with far more thought, particularly on those issues which are most important to us.

As various white men in the US decide that women must be incubators in some states, the world is melting. Rather than do something that requires immediate action and would potentially save countless thousands if not millions of humans lives (never mind plant and animal species) from the very real possibility of the devastating coming climate crisis we’ve created and accelerated, let’s instead focus on forcing women to breed.

Thank you, The Guardian, for changing your language and not sugar-coating your coverage. Climate crisis, climate heating, species extinction, and all that comes with it petrifies me. Because I’d like to see my friends’ children thrive and live long lives to enjoy their own children and so on.

And, I’d like that world in which they live to feature more than mere pictures of various creatures that once existed.

Just stop

I am so terribly weary from being a woman at the moment.

Last summer, a friend visiting Helsinki brought along pictures from the Women’s Rights March in DC from 1992, I believe. One of the signs from that day that my friends and I carried read, ‘US out of my uterus’. And, here we are

It’s not just the laws, governing and policing of lady bits going on. Or the pain and uncertainty that women living in those specific parts of the US or world will or currently feel given the limited options available to them. Or even the desperate measures they’re likely to resort to given their realities.

It’s primarily the vitriol and misogynistic context and tone to comment after comment after comment from men directed at women. To me, to women I know and to women I’ll likely never meet. It’s been seemingly constant since the fiasco and farce that was the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh.

And, frankly, I’m just tired of it all. Increasingly, I find that I genuinely do not like many, many, many men. [Thankfully, I married a feminist who gets this and shares my outrage, and call many other woke men friends. I do not dislike, y’all, if that wasn’t obvious already.]

Most of this rant will seem likely to the men feeling secure in their positions and who truly welcome equality with their uterus-possessing friends. We thank, y’all. Seriously. So, help us get this message out, eh?

If you claim to be an ally or want to know how to be one, here’s an idea: Just stop, listen / read our words, try to understand our despair and anger, and ask instead how you can help support the women in your life rather than tell them what they should feel or how they should act. [Mansplaining 101 from a woman’s perspective.]

And, if you feel it’s necessary to make snarky comments to someone you don’t know because of the safety of your keyboard, really? [Mansplaining 101 from a man’s perspective, because this is 2019 and women are still not taken seriously. And, hence, this post and my rage.]

Unless you have lived your entire life since puberty dealing with period shame,

Unless you have held your breath waiting for your period to come because various methods fail on occasion,

Unless you have watched as your idea was shot down or dismissed by someone in authority only to hear a man in the room say literally the same exact thing and be congratulated for their brilliance, 

Unless you have been told stop beingso emotional‘ or ‘overly hormonal’ when you disagree with a man, 

Unless you’ve been told on numerous occasions that you’re being a bitch so it must just be ‘that time of the month‘ [NB: this link is a fucking gem of an example of everything which induces rage in me at the moment in that sort of cumulative sort of way from a lifetime of it],

Unless you have had to wrestle and wiggle your way out of the clutches of *that* dude,

Unless you’ve been genuinely terrified that you won’t be able to wrestle and wiggle away *this* time,

Unless you’ve had to justify what you were wearing, or how flirty you were or weren’t or that no really does means no,

Just stop.

Stop telling me what I should say, what I should do, what I should feel or any other thing I do with my body or my mind. This is my body. This is my mind. And, these are my emotions.

And, I own them. All.

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Image credit: Anne Lesniak.

Further reading:

Three books that I think every single person on the planet should read right now:

On #Web30

A day late, but who cares? Here’s to the #Web30.

I use an image in my grant writing courses of a user experiencing a 404 error when they attempt to connect to the internet. Finland, given its near-compulsive internet use, quite naturally grants each of its citizens access to the internet as a basic right. Finland was the first country to grant this right, and did so in 2009.

I fondly reminisce lament the utter misery and frustration of attempting to connect to servers via dial-up connections oh so typical up until the early 2000s, and the glacially slow uploading speed at times losing a race againgst a turtle on quaaludes. My students, however, will never understand slow connection speeds or the inability to connect instantaneously and whenever or wherever they like. [Seriously, there are so few places in Finland where you cannot access the internet via at least 3G services. It’s at once fantastic and impressive, and annoying until opting for air plane mode.]

I well remember accessing my email via main frame access when in graduate school. It was so simple and so utterly thrilling to see ‘new messages’ then. Not so much now, as the inbox glutter and spam take on lives of their own.

Funny how our vocabulary has shifted as well in the last 30 years to accommodate this not-so-new technology.

As much as online life can annoy and rile me, particularly when viewing the news these days, it still thrills me.

Chatting with a friend or family on the other side of the globe in real-time. Organising events and rallying interest for one cause or another amongst strangers. Catching up with folks I’ve not seen in years. Planning meet ups in countries none of us live in. Bonding with individuals I’ve never met in person over shared interests and passions. Supporting causes and garnering support for issues that are important to me. And, work. Being able to work from literally anywhere at any time, as long as there is a stable internet connection.

It’s mind-blowing and brilliant. And necessitates new ways of both minimising procrastination and protecting myself from those workaholic and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

I love digital life, and all that affords us. I also fear it at times, mostly because of misuse by nefarious individuals and interests.

Whilst we all continue to learn how to safeguard the web and address the challenges online life presents us, we must also continue to ensure that everyone everywhere has equal, open and safe access to the internet. Just as individuals in the ‘real world’ face threats to their privacy, security and fundamental rights, those threats also affect the virtual world we now increasingly inhabit. 

Let’s also ensure that everyone enjoys the benefits of the web. Even if they’ll never know the annoying sound of the busy dial-up connection tone.

To safe guard the online community as a whole and demonstrate your commitment to an open web, get involved via A Contract for the Web

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The insanity of Helms-Burton today

The headlines this week are making my head hurt. This one in particular.
 
For 60 years, the US embargo against Cuba has not at all affected those in power; it has, however, impacted the average every day lives of Cubans. People like you and me. 
 
Having visited that tiny island nation of immense beauty and unimaginable and boundless kindness before, during and after President Obama’s attempts to normalise the relationship between DC and Havana, I can tell you, Cuban people’s lives were improving in the wake of that process. And, that change was coming from within and at the hands of Cubans, the very people who should, who MUST, decide the fate of their own country.
 
Senator Marco Rubio and his ilk know fuck all about today’s Cuba other than the bitter pill of one-sided history written by those who pilfered Cuba’s resources and enjoyed immense privilege and wealth at the hands of the poor and powerless before fleeing to Miami. Like them or hate them, resent them or respect them with a huge asterisk, those who inspired the Revolution brought education, healthcare and running water and electricity to those who previously did not enjoy such ‘luxuries’. Most Cubans today recognise the silliness within their own country, whilst simultaneously understanding that the Revolution brought things that they do want and now expect. Problems, of course, persist in Cuba. But, the Castros — Fidel and Raul, specifically — no longer hold the reins. For fuck’s sake, people, Fidel is dead.
So, can we please, move one from nonsense, ineffective and failed policies?!
Change is coming to Cuba, despite US sanctions and vilification. But, that change is coming at the discretion and based on the ideas of Cubans in Cuba — not from those who sit comfortably and bitterly in Florida pining for a country rifled by inequality. [Hmm… Irony is hilarious, eh?]
But, rehashing and rebranding 60 years of sour grapes will not hurt the Cuban government; it will hurt Cubans — every day, normal Cubans like my family and friends there. And, frankly, that pisses me off. 
 

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A taxi, driven by Dari, featured an American flag.