GHN's Top Global Health Stories of 2020, Part 3

A protester flees as police use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd near the White House, June 1, 2020. Image: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty
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A protester flees as police use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd near the White House, June 1, 2020. Image: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty

By March, COVID-19 had taken over much of GHN—but other global health problems did not rest, and many were worsened by the pandemic. Today and tomorrow, we’re showcasing some of the excellent reporting that kept these issues from fading out under the blaze of COVID coverage.
Feel free to send me any more stories you have that deserve a spotlight; I’m at dkerecm1 [at]
We’re especially keen to recognize non-US sources, like the piece on injuries in Bhekisisa. And, pieces that were open access—like the article on leprosy in Brazil, one of many Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting projects that helped ensure coverage of a wide array of non-COVID global health issues continued during the pandemic (while also helping sources like Science magazine remove their paywall on COVID coverage—a move we appreciated greatly, as we try hard to stick to open sources).—Dayna Kerecman Myers


A Summer of Police Brutality 

The clash between police violence and COVID-19 was one of the defining dichotomies of 2020.In Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, and Kenya, police enacted brutal, often deadly crackdowns on people allegedly violating COVID-19 prevention measures, Deutsche Welle reported in April.  Dozens of civilians ended up dead. Demonstrators demanded reform and rights groups took legal action against “indiscriminate mass violence” by police. 

And in the US, police violence and COVID-19 converged in a string of protests this summer, solidifying each as a public health crises in their own right.  

“The link is systemic racism, wrote Brian Resnick in Vox

The pain of police brutality ripples across society, yet often overlooked are victims’ own fathers and father figures, mythologized as absent from the Black American family. For GQ, Mosi Secret spoke to 5 such men who faced those stereotypes while having their lives “transformed by the worst kind of news,” and were then forced to grieve under the public eye. 

The Most Perilous Journey

This PBS Newshour series we featured in August is still unforgettable.
Journalists Nadja Drost and Bruno Federico joined one of the world's most dangerous migration routes: the Darien Gap—“a wild, lawless stretch” of jungle between Colombia and Panama.
Thousands from Yemen, Cameroon, Haiti, Pakistan and elsewhere brave the journey every year as they flee conflict at home.
On this perilous leg of their route to the US, travelers lose loved ones, encounter bandits, and the skeletons of those who didn’t make it.
For those lucky enough to reach Panama, the challenges continue at the intersection of Panamanian/US bureaucracy. And this year, COVID-19 has left thousands stranded in camps indefinitely. 


Screening Away Down Syndrome 

Another non-COVID story that stood out in a sea of pandemic reporting: Sarah Zhang’s exploration of the ethical minefield of in-utero screening for disabilities, published in The Atlantic and featured in GHN last month

One of the first conditions to be screened for in utero and one of the least severe, Down syndrome is regarded as the “canary in the coal mine” for selective reproduction. 

Denmark has universal Down syndrome screening, and 95% of those who get a positive test choose to abort. 

But what does it do to society—and to people with disabilities—to selectively scale back special needs?


The Sweet Spot for Physical Therapy 

In South Africa, access to rehabilitative care for traumatic brain injuries is lacking, particularly for rural populations. And for those who can get them, 1-hour monthly sessions often don’t cut it. 

In response, a Cape Tape hospital revolutionized rural rehabilitation—building therapies around home life, and creating a model that could help people in low-resource settings anywhere. Joan van Dyk captured the intriguing details in Bhekisisa, showing how everyday movements—like pinching laundry pegs—are the tricks of the trade.

“At university, you are taught how to deal with sports injuries from running or cycling,” says physiotherapist Adri Burger. “But not how to rehabilitate muscles you use for rubbing cow dung into the floor of your hut.”


The Race to Curb Leprosy in Brazil 

While much of the world focused on the desperate search for COVID-19 treatments, Anton L. Delgado for The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting gave us a riveting take on a long-neglected disease that has a cure—yet Brazil hasn’t been able to shake. 

Delgado introduced us to Denise Almeida, who had to visit 5 doctors in Belém, Brazil, to get an accurate diagnosis: leprosy. 

Now, she’s recovering. But untreated leprosy can cause devastating damage—and the disease has returned with a vengeance in Brazil, the only country failing to reach the WHO’s standard for leprosy elimination. As medical students have gravitated toward other specializations, the country is shorthanded on experts. 

“The time has passed for people to still be struggling with leprosy,” Claudio Salgado, president of the Brazilian Leprosy Society—which estimates Brazil needs ~2,000 more leprologists to beat back the disease, told Delgado.

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