Kene Esom, policy officer, UNDP

Right On 5: Why are we failing to end AIDS? Engaging with the politics of data

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened public interest in health data and mathematical models used to set priorities and measure progress in global health, but as these experts agree, these tools can miss as much as they capture – when it comes to discrimination, stigma, criminalization, inequality and invisibility. The discussion is co-chaired by Meg Davis, author of The Uncounted: Politics of Data in Global Health and host of the Right On podcast, and Ryan Whitacre, a medical anthropologist and researcher at the Global Health Centre, Graduate Institute, Geneva.

Cal Biruk is Associate Professor of Anthropology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. Cal is the author of Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World (Duke University Press, 2018); the book draws on ethnographic work in Malawi to trace the social lives of quantitative health data collected by population scientists, and shows how data reflect and cohere new social relations, persons, forms of expertise, and economies. Cal is also the author of numerous articles that have appeared in journals such as Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Critical Public Health, Gay and Lesbian Quarterly, Medicine Anthropology Theory, Journal of Modern African Studies, and Critical African Studies. Cal’s research and teaching interests include: medical anthropology, critical global health studies, postcolonial science and technology studies, anthropologies of quantification and data, histories of anthropological theory, and queer studies. Cal is working on a few projects, including an ethnographic history that situates the knowledge-concept of ‘key populations’ in a longer history of population-making in Malawi, dating to the colonial period. In another, quite different project, Cal is bringing together queer theory, embodied knowledge, and critical data studies to think about fitness wearables and algorithms as queer technologies amid the datafication of health and bodies. Cal enjoys marine life, hiking, and gardening!

Kene Esom is a Policy Specialist with United Nations Development Programme [UNDP] focusing on Human Rights, Law and Gender. He supports the Joint United Nations Programmme on HIV/AIDS [UNAIDS]’s work on stigma, discrimination and enabling legal environments; coordinates the Secretariat of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law; and leads a new project on ethical and rights-based use of digital technologies in HIV and health.  He holds a master of law in human rights from the University of Pretoria and a certificate in global health delivery from Harvard University.

Ryan Whitacre (PhD, UCSF & UC Berkeley) is a medical anthropologist, and postdoctoral research fellow. He holds positions at the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute, and the Center for Social Medicine at UC Berkeley. Through multidisciplinary inquiry and collaborative research, he aims to sharpen theory in critical medical anthropology and improve practice in global health. His research is principally concerned with the ways political and economic processes over determine socioeconomic inequality and drive health disparities around the world. His current research examines financialization as a problem in contemporary life, with broad implications for global health. By centering financialization as a key problem for a wide range of health concerns, including the tools we have to address them, he intends to open paradigms for understanding how health is unevenly distributed, and how we might better work toward improving our collective wellbeing. 

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