The Swedes Who Saved Millions of Lives

Meet the Nils Bohlin and Gunnar Engellau, whose work at Swedish carmaker Volvo has helped save millions of lives worldwide.

Engellau, Volvo’s president and an engineer himself, helped push for a more effective seatbelt, after a relative died in a traffic accident due partly to the flaws of the two-point belt design—which was not even standard feature in cars at the time. This personal tragedy drove Engellau to find a better solution, hiring Bohlin to find a solution quickly.

There were two major problems with the historic two-point belt design, which crosses the lap only. First, because the human pelvis is hinged, a single strap fails to restrain the torso, leaving passengers vulnerable to severe head, chest and spinal injuries; positioned poorly, the belt can even crush internal organs on impact. Second, they were notoriously uncomfortable, so many people chose not to wear them. Bohlin’s innovation was to find a design that resolved both problems at once.

After millions of dollars and thousands of tests through the 1950s and 1960s, Volvo became the first carmaker in the world to standardize the three-point safety belt we now take for granted. More than that, Volvo pushed hard for the seatbelt to be adopted in its native Sweden, which like most places was initially resistant to having to wear seatbelts.

But Volvo didn’t stop there. While it patented the designs to protect their investment from copy-cats, the company did not charge significant license fees to rivals or keep the design to itself to give their cars an edge. Knowing that lives were at stake worldwide, Engellau made Bohlin’s patent immediately available to all. Having sponsored the costly R&D, they gifted their designs to competitors to encourage mass adoption. It is estimated that Volvo may have lost out on $400 million in additional profits, if not more.

Instead, literally millions of people have been spared injury and death by this now-ubiquitous seatbelt we take for granted. All because a couple of Swedes decided to put people over profits (which isn’t to say they didn’t reap any financial incentive, but proved you can do both).

The Poorer Nations Standing Firm Against COVID-19

It’s been heartening to see that many poorer countries or regions are faring a lot better than expected. For all the death and suffering that’s occured, it’s important to acknowledge the deaths and pain that haven’t—and to derive some important lessons, since these are places that don’t have our wealth and resources.

Costa Rica has had one of the most successful pandemic responses in the world. It was the first Latin American country to record a case—which is actually indicative of its open and efficient monitoring—and citizens have been able to lean on its universal healthcare system, on which it spends a higher proportion of its GDP than the average rich country (and subsequently has one of the world’s highest life expectancies). It implemented nationwide lockdowns and tests quickly, and has done a good enough job that it stared partially lifting restrictions as early as May 1st—albeit with strict restrictions (only a quarter of seats can be filled in sporting venues, while small businesses are limited in the number of customers they can serve).

Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado has been transparent: “We have had relative and fragile success, but we cannot let our guard down.” Hence the borders will remain closed until at least this Friday, while restrictions will remain on driving to keep the virus from spreading: Driving at night is banned and drivers may only drive on certain days depending on their license plate number.

Ghana and Rwanda—which hardly come to mind as world-class innovators—each teamed up with an American company to become the first countries in the world to deliver medical aid and tests via drones to out-of-reach rural areas. Doctors and health facilities use an app to order blood, vaccines, and protective equipment that get delivered in just minutes. Rwanda, which has become a little known but prominent tech hub, started using drones as early as 2016 for 21 hospitals; now the drones are used to serve close to 2,500 hospitals and health facilities across Rwanda and Ghana.

Vietnam (pop. 95 million) and the Indian state of Kerala (as populous California), both learned from previous outbreaks and acted quickly and decisively to contain the outbreak. As the Economist magazine put it, despite their poverty, they have “a long legacy of investment in public health and particularly in primary care, with strong, centralised management, an institutional reach from city wards to remote villages and an abundance of skilled personnel.” Lack of wealth did not stop them from making the necessary investments.

Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic that’s hardly a household name, has become an unlikely pioneer in remote learning. Two days after implementing its lockdown in March, the Ministry of Public Education announced an unprecedented plan to roll out virtual courses and resources for its 6.1 million school students. In a matter of days, it made available over 350 video lessons to go live on national TV channels; the lessons are available in the dominant languages of Uzbek and Russian as well as sign language. Free data access has been granted to educational platforms, making them accessible for all school students and their parents. An average of 100 video classes are being prepared daily.

While it is too soon to tell what’s in store for these nations in the long term, they have proven that you don’t need lots of wealth and power to develop an effective and humane response to crises. If anything, their poverty and historic challenges have made them more resourceful and decisive, thus providing useful lessons for the rest of the world.

The School Under the Bridge

A shopkeeper in Delhi, India has been running a makeshift school for hundreds of poor and homeless children beneath a metro bridge for over eight years.

“The Free School Under The Bridge” was founded and run by 49-year-old Rajesh Kumar Sharma, the sole breadwinner of his family of five who operates a small grocery store nearby. He dropped out of college without completing his bachelor’s due to his family’s poor financial condition.

His idea started with just two local children in 2006, and has now grown to over 300, including slum dwellers, ragpickers, rickshaw-pullers and beggars, most of whom live nearby.

Sharma believes no one should be deprived of education due to poverty or denied his or her dream, so to that end he dedicates over 50 hours a week to the children — for free.

“I am driven by my selfless goal of educating these poor and underprivileged children whose smile is more than enough for me.”

He now runs two shifts: one from 9-11 AM for 120 boys and the other 9-4.30 PM for 180 girls, aged between four and 14 years. The open house school has the Delhi metro bridge as its roof and five blackboards painted on the wall, with some stationary such as chalks and dusters, pens and pencils. The children sit on the ground covered with carpets and bring their own note books, which they often share or study with in groups. The location is relatively far from traffic, and passing vehicles hardly get noticed by the students.

In addition to a standard curriculum, Sharma also teaches students practical skills like hygiene, which is difficult to maintain in such abject poverty. He’s installed separate toilets for boys and girls.

Fortunately, his example has attracted seven other volunteer teachers from the community, as well as some support from locals.

“Some people visit the school occasionally and distribute biscuit packets, fruits, water bottles and packaged food. Some youngsters celebrate their birthdays with the children, cut cakes here and have food together by sitting beneath the bridge. “Such occasions make them feel that they are also the part of the society no matter where they live or what background they belong to,” he said.

In addition to teaching full time while running his shop, Sharma also ensures students get enrolled into the nearby government schools. He ensures hey devote sufficient time to their education and conducts attendance; if a student is frequently absent, he checks in with their family.

“Sometimes, some children get absent for days as they have to assist their families due to extreme poverty. No child wants to discontinue his or her studies but they also have to make their ends meet. “They come to my school fighting hunger, extreme poverty, adverse weather and sometimes resistance from their families. They all dream big. You can see the smile on their face while they study here,” he said.

Source: Hindustan Times

The Japanese Diplomat Who Saved Thousands of Jews

Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara was a Japanese government official who, as vice consul of Japan in Lithuania, helped over 6,000 Jews flee certain death during WWII, risking his career and his life. Hundreds of Jewish refugees arrived in Sugihara’s consulate, trying to get a visa to travel to Japan. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese Empire had very strict immigration procedures, requiring applicants to pay large fees and to have a third destination lined up to exit Japan. The dutiful Sugihara contacted the Foreign Ministry three times for instructions, being told each time that he could not issue the visas.

533101_10151430822115472_1457010455_nAware of the mounting danger Jews faced, Sugihara ignored his superiors and issued ten-day visas to Jews. This level of disobedience was highly unusual – and risky – within the stringent culture of the militaristic Japanese government. With the Soviet Union occupying Lithuania – though not yet at war with Japan – he persuaded Soviet officials to allow Jews to travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would take them to the Pacific near Japan. He reportedly spent 18-20 hours a day handwriting visas, producing a typical month’s worth of transit documents daily. These were to heads of households, which allowed entire families to leave via a single visa. The exceedingly polite diplomat had the refugees call him “Sempo”, a variation of his name that was easier for them to pronounce. Continue reading

Nobel Peace Prize 2019 Highlights Sexual Violence and Those Who Fight It

Today’s announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize winners for 2019 made my day, not only because it is extremely well deserved, but also because it brings attention to a sadly relevant problem. As the BBC reports:

The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize has gone to campaigners against rape in warfare, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege.

Ms Murad is an Iraqi Yazidi who was tortured and raped by Islamic State militants and later became the face of a campaign to free the Yazidi people.

Dr Mukwege is a Congolese gynaecologist who, along with his colleagues, has treated tens of thousands of victims.

Some 331 individuals and organisations were nominated for the prestigious peace award this year.

The winners announced in the Norwegian capital Oslo on Friday won the award for their “efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war”, Berit Reiss-Andersen, the Nobel committee chair, said.

The pair both made a “crucial contribution to focusing attention on, and combating, such war crimes”, Ms Reiss-Andersen added.

I learned about Murad years ago, when Islamic State suddenly swept through Iraq and Syria, stunning the world with its rise, brutality, and genocidal aims.  However, I had not appreciated how she persevered against the unfathomable suffering she endured, using it as a source of strength to motivate her activism:

Ms Murad did not just lose her mother in the genocide. She endured three months as a sex slave at the hands of IS militants. She was bought and sold several times and subjected to sexual and physical abuse during her captivity.

After escaping, she became an activist for the Yazidi people, campaigning to help put an end to human trafficking and calling on the world to take a tougher line on rape as a weapon of war.

Ms Murad described her escape in a BBC interview in 2016, detailing how the women who were held captive were treated by IS.

She was awarded the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize by the Council of Europe in 2016 and called for an international court to judge crimes committed by IS in her acceptance speech in Strasbourg.

Ms Murad, the first Iraqi to win the award, was named the UN’s first goodwill ambassador for survivors of human trafficking later that year.

I am eager to learn more about this incredible woman, in particular through a documentary about her life and activism highlighted by the LA Times:

There are miles of mass graves, millions of refugees. Only some are heard. But Murad, whose power comes from a brokenness inside, will not let her people in northern Iraq be forgotten.

She is a reluctant heroine, a young woman of unflinching conviction and rustic grace. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — sharing it with Denis Mukwege, a Congolese doctor — on Friday for her work to end sexual violence in war zones. Murad was kidnapped and made a sex slave when Islamic State fighters overran Yazidi villages and towns in Iraq in 2014. She escaped months later and made it to Europe.

The new documentary, “On Her Shoulders,” which opens in Los Angeles on Oct. 24, is an evocative portrait of this unwitting activist who lost family, endured rape and torture and became the eloquent if at times overwhelmed voice of 400,000 Yazidis, a religious minority, driven from their homes. Hers was the poetry of witness in a land of atrocity, a tale carried by a seamstress to the world’s capitals.

Directed by Alexandria Bombach, the film follows Murad for three months as she calls attention to her people’s plight, traveling from Berlin to New York to Canada. Her mother and brothers had been killed; at least 3,200 women and girls remained in captivity. This was her story, unfolded in weary persistence to politicians and ambassadors, many of whom praised and photographed her but could do little to stop the carnage.

The disquieting truth of “On Her Shoulders” is Murad’s gradual realization — as if layers of a bitter fruit exposed — that a village girl, even one with Amal Clooney as her lawyer, cannot quickly budge the world’s bureaucracy and cruel political designs. This point is crystallized when she is told that it will be a decade before destroyed Yazidi towns are rebuilt and refuges return home, a time when her village will be a place of no men and widows dressed in black. She cannot fathom this.

An incredible human being who is a testament to the courage and tenacity of oppressed peoples everywhere.

Dr. Mukwege is equally inspiring, prompting me to write a blog about him over four years ago, when he was still being touted as a potential prize recipient. I invite you to read more about his life and work, and to donate to his medical foundation (which now proudly displays a banner announcing his Nobel Peace Prize win).

Dr. Mukwege founded Panzi Hospital in his native town of Bukavu in 1999, just one year after the start of the Second Congo War, Africa’s deadliest conflict, and one in which the incidence of gang rape was systemic. Located near the heart of the conflict zone, the hospital was strained by increased demand for both general medical services and gynecological surgery; Dr. Mukwege remains the facility’s only gynecologist, and one of only two doctors in all of eastern Congo specializing in reconstructive surgery.

Over the past 16 years, the hospital has treated over 30,000 women, many of them repeat visitors; many patients arrive right after being gang-raped, “sometimes naked, usually bleeding and leaking urine and faeces from torn vaginas” according to Dr. Mukwege’s own horrific testimony. Due to the still-high demand for his service, he often performs up to 10 surgeries a day during his 18-hour shifts (though the war ended in 2003, lingering and related conflicts continue).

His diligent and desperately needed work would be more than enough, but he has also used his firsthand experience to bring attention to this crisis and call for an end to the rampant rape that persists, often to dehumanize victims and traumatize families. According to the BBC, he saw the award as an opportunity to show rape survivors that “they are not alone”.

103726897_tv049778342

Whenever I find myself losing faith in humanity, I will just think of these two and the millions of others like them.

The Rare Privilege of Education

Fewer than 7 percent of the world’s population (6.7 percent) has a college degree of any kind. (This is up from 5.9 percent about two decades ago.) An even smaller proportion of this population has earned a degree beyond a Bachelor’s, and an even tinier fraction of those people have attained a degree from a reputable or good quality institution.
 
As much as I obviously lament student debt, the financial inefficiency and inaccessibility of our education system, etc., I must acknowledge that I am still extremely privileged to be able to pursue a fulfilling career at a fairly prominent law school. I am fortunate to have been born in the right time and place where such opportunities are available; I am lucky to have enjoyed relatively good health, no major family tragedies, good parenting, and an overall stable socioeconomic environment that facilitated my educational attainment and development up to this point.
 
I must never forget how much good luck played a role in where I am today. It is a humbling and effective motivator for working hard and not squandering this rare opportunity, by global and historical standards. (And also a good cause of action to help more people get access to these opportunities..)

Ringing in the New Year With Gratitude and Purpose

I know 2017 was a rough year for many people across the world. That makes me all the more grateful that it was overall kind to me. I got engaged to the love of my life, finally started law school (after nearly seven years talking about it), and got to travel to almost a dozen new places. I made a lot of great news friends while fortunately still remaining with the same tried but true ones. I continued struggling with my physical and mental health, but made a lot of progress on those fronts, too (due in no small part, as always, to my incredible support network).

So, on balance, I could not have asked for a better year. Things do really seem to be getting better with time, and I am really thankful for that. The cosmic dice were rolled in my favor, and for no other reason than raw luck, I find myself in such incredibly good circumstances. I hope that in the coming years, I can give back accordingly, both through and beyond my legal career. I hope for the best for everyone else and promise to do whatever I can to be there and help out, even if I am not the most available or reliable. (Something I am continuing to work on, promise!).

Finally, if it is any consolation, for all the horrible things still going on in the world, each passing year of 21st century is seeing a consistent improvement in everything from poverty reduction to increases in longevity. Progress is somehow still marching on, and there is a good chance that there will be many great things ahead on the horizon, however many bad things may still be there for us to resolve. Let’s keep the moral arc going in whatever way we can.

The War that Never Happened

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the relatively under-reported fact that over the summer, China and India — nuclear-armed states with nearly 3 billion people and 4 million troops between them — mutually disengaged from a military standoff along their contested border that was quickly escalating towards war (as happened once before, in 1967). Although the underlying border dispute remains unresolved, it is encouraging to see a cooler-headed precedent prevail (a similar incident in the 1980s was also descalated by both countries).

For all the awful conflicts that have transpired just in our lifetimes, let alone throughout history, it is worth acknowledging and celebrating the conflicts that never happened. Fortunately, this is becoming a trend:

ourworldindata_wars-after-1946-state-based-battle-death-rate-by-type-750x536

The End to Malaria

Malaria has been a scourge of humanity for thousands of years, and as recently as a century ago, was a problem in almost every country. The GIF below shows how far we have come towards completely eradicating this debilitating disease:

shrinking-the-malaria-map

Courtesy of Global Health Sciences, University of California, San Francisco

As recently as the 1950s, developed countries like the U.S. and the U.K. were still dealing with malaria infections; by the 1970s, most wealthy countries had completely wiped it out. Today, over a hundred nations across both the developed and developing world are free of malaria, with nearly thirty others in the process eliminating it. Continue reading

The James Bond of Philanthropy

If you were a billionaire, how much of your wealth would you give away to charity? No doubt most people would donate something, albeit only a fraction of their total wealth. But what about giving nearly every penny you had — and doing so without any credit for your generosity?

As the New York Times reported, 85-year-old Irish American businessman Charles F. Feeney just finished giving away the last of his fortune, after promising five years ago that he would do so by the end of 2016, a commitment few would make let alone follow through on. Continue reading