UN Hosts International Journalists for Press Fellowship

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DSC 0997From January 11-18 - The United Nations in Viet Nam hosted a group of eight international journalists. These reporters, who came from a variety of countries and media outlets, had been selected to participate in a press fellowship led by the United Nations Foundation. The goal of the week-long fellowship was to give them an opportunity to see first-hand the health challenges and successes in the country, with a particular focus on child health and immunization. The UN Foundation coordinated closely with the UN communications team to get approval for the trip from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The teams also collaborated to develop an agenda that gave the journalists a wide-ranging look at Viet Nam’s health system, from the national level all the way down to the commune level.

The week’s activities included: two separate briefings with the Minister of Health; two briefings with heads of UN agencies, the RC and other UN technical experts; a visit to the National Hospital for Obstetrics and Gynaecology; and a visit to the POLYVAC vaccine manufacturing facility. The group also spent three days in Dien Bien province, where they were able to meet with local authorities, visit the provincial hospital, and later split into two groups and observe various health activities in two rural communes.

The journalists unanimously agreed that the trip was a fantastic experience, and the group – including the staff from the UN Foundation – was incredibly grateful for the support provided by the UN in Viet Nam. Please see below for some of the journalists’ reflections on the trip.

Journalists:
Frances Sellers, The Washington Post (US)
Leslie Roberts, Science Magazine (US)
Kara Vickery, The Sunday Times (Australia)
Kim Mackrael, The Globe and Mail (Canada)
Laris Epatko, PBS Newshour (US)
Tom White, Press Association (UK)
Esha Chhabra, Freelance (US)
Patrick Adams, Freelance (Turkey)

What was the most interesting thing you saw/heard/learned during your time in Viet Nam?

Frances Sellers: Much of what I witnessed was a stark visual reminder of things I had read about – from the dangers of open cooking stoves, to the transition from foot traffic/bicycles to motorbikes and the implications for NCDs, or the problems that come with lower middle-income status. But if I have to pick one thing, I think it was the tension between communism and capitalism as it plays out in people's approach to care – the notion of more prosperous people paying to vaccinate their kids, for example, out of the feeling that what's provided for everyone may not be the best; and the pros and cons of social media with its ability to offer alternatives from the official government message but also to spread distrust.

Esha Chhabra: Visiting ethnic minorities in Viet Nam was the most interesting experience for me.  I didn't realize the diversity of the country.  

Patrick Adams: It was encouraging to learn that the government is targeting hidden communities and particularly injection drug users, who face even more stigma than PLWHAs, with new interventions. Another thing I found interesting was the new funding situation Vietnam faces, and how the health system has to cut costs, increase revenue, and operate more efficiently as donors withdraw. Hence the importance of immunization and ARVs, as investments that safeguard population health, prevent the spread of diseases, and alleviate pressure on already overburdened facilities.

Larisa Lepatko: It was most interesting to hear from the Vietnamese people about their issues and concerns, especially on the health front, as they transition into a middle-income country and all of the consequences it brings.

What surprised you the most during your visit to Viet Nam?
 
Kim Mackrael: I found it surprising and fascinating to learn more about how things work under Viet Nam's communist government, including the extensive protocol we followed during our visits. I gained a lot of insight into restrictions faced by the local press through this process, which I think is important to contextualize criticism of journalists' work there. I also found it useful to see how the UN manages its relationship with a government like Viet Nam's.

Leslie Roberts: I was surprised by how “Communist” the country is, how closed to open debate. I was also surprised to learn about Viet Nam’s population policy and that the country has a thriving IVF business.

Patrick Adams:  Before coming to Viet Nam, I was not aware of the stark divisions between ethnic minorities and the majority Kinh population. I was particularly struck by the fact that the cultural differences between the two pose a greater obstacle than even their physical remoteness from urban centers where modern care is concentrated, contributing to the country's considerable health disparities. Figuring out how to cost-effectively close that gap seems to be Viet Nam's most important challenge going forward.

What is the most memorable experience you had during the press fellowship?

Esha Chhabra: Witnessing the official dinner (and drinking) in Dien Bien Phu – a unique cultural experience.  But also the whole excursion to Dien Bien province; I'm glad that we were provided that contrast to Hanoi.  It really illustrated the inequity that still exists in the country (despite the positive statistics and improvements).

Frances Sellers: The most memorable – and saddest – experience was sitting in a family house after spending time at the commune health clinic. Of course I've read about open cooking stoves, but I had never before sat in a room with a four-year-old-child who was the size of an 18-monthold, unable to crawl and with his chest heaving for breath as soot hung in the air and stuck to a plastic bag of iodized salt.

Tom White: I think sitting down with the group of recovering heroin addicts and hearing about the transformation that methadone has made in their lives will stay with me for a long time, it was amazing to hear their stories first hand. And of course Ha Long Bay was very special.

What do you consider the “biggest story” in Viet Nam right now, in terms of health?

Kim Mackrael: I think it is absolutely the country's transition to middle-income status and the impact that shift is having on donor funding. I thought it was useful to consider the kinds of challenges that this sort of transition can create, such as the problem of low quality condoms flooding Viet Nam's markets after donor agencies stopped providing them for free, and concerns about whether the government will do enough to serve some of its most vulnerable populations as donors reduce the flow of funds.

Leslie Roberts: Hard to pick just one, but for the broad picture, the economic transition and move to a middle-income country – what happens when the donors leave. Also the immunization gap and loss of faith in the health system.

Tom White: It’s tough to say which is the biggest, but the issue of funding is one that sticks out for me. It’s clear there are conflicting views on how serious the crisis is, but there’s no doubt that many people rely on the clinics, treatments, etc., and the funding gap needs to be made up otherwise they will lose out.