Friday, October 14, 2011

People behind the numbers

This post is about four courageous men: Mr. Mkoko, Mr. Sagati, Mr. Ndlagamandla and Mr. Mahaba.

It’s also about the remarkable thing they did that allowed me to find out about them: they all agreed to be featured in Jonathan Smith’s documentary film, They Go to Die.

The four men worked as gold miners in South Africa, and all contracted tuberculosis (TB) and HIV while working. After they were declared unfit to work, the mining hospitals discharged them to their homes in rural South Africa and Swaziland.

The problem? The mining companies sent them home without further treatment or provision for their future care. And they returned to areas with inadequate health care and resources that would help prolong their lives. Sent home to die – hence the film’s title, “They Go to Die” – which actually comes from public health references to the all too common practice of sending miners home when they become too ill to work.

Smith was an epidemiologist from Yale doing research on TB and HIV infections in the South African gold mining industry when he decided to make the film. He wasn’t a filmmaker, but he realised that decades of studies and statistics weren’t making any difference in the outcomes for miners – miners were still becoming infected, and they were still dying, and the industry practice was still continuing.

So Smith asked Mkoko, Sagati, Ndlagamandla and Mahaba if he could tell their stories, and they and their families agreed. They invited Smith to live in their homes and film their daily lives. Not only did they agree to open their homes to him, but they did so when they and their families were going through very difficult times.

By doing so, they’ve allowed Smith to put a human face on a shockingly neglected situation in which unacceptable numbers of miners contract TB and HIV as a result of their work, yet receive no compensation or care. Says Smith, “these men were my friends, and they died of a preventable, curable disease. But they were by no means outliers. In fact, they were representative of tens of thousands of men each year.”

Smith is now working to complete the film. He’s looking for resources and partnerships that can help him finish it – and help prompt industry and government action to prevent and deal with the epidemic. Part of this effort includes crowdsourcing to enable others to support the film, through a Kickstarter page. (If you do nothing else, please check it and the film trailer above out.) It also includes finishing the film in time to screen it at a meeting of mining sector CEOs and decision-makers later this year.

Smith notes that despite the film’s topic, this is not a film about death and disease. Its focus is the men and the relationships that sustain them, and the power of human connections. And it’s not just a film. Smith intends to use it to call for mining companies, unions and governments to be held accountable for mineworkers’ health and health care.

Statistics can be powerful. Studies show us, for example, that mineworkers are infected by TB at 28 times the rate of a WHO-declared emergency. Yet the numbers alone aren't changing the situation. Smith believes that if people understand how individuals have been affected, they’ll respond: “If we turn an epidemic into an emotion, then we motivate change.”

It’s an ambitious and important undertaking. Please check out Smith’s website, and his crowdsourcing site (before October 24, 2011 if you can). You’ll find out more about Mkoko, Sagati, Ndlagamandla and Mahaba and their families. And help lend a voice to people affected by this tragic and preventable situation.

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