A Physics Lesson for Global Health

Anita Datar: a force that covers distance

While I’ve forgotten almost everything from high school physics, the one thing I somehow managed to remember has actually proven to be useful. As a disclaimer, this piece is not scientifically about physics, but rather subjectively about the following equation.

force X distance = work

This equation is true to physics, true to the state of the world, and true, from my perspective, as a measure of progress. In the global health industry we try to measure the work we’ve done by changes in units like lives-saved, or disease trends, or costs-saved over time. We even try to model projections of the future to make sense of the work ahead of us.

While models only predict what we know, the uncertainties of this world cannot be accounted for; however I believe and hope we can accept that, from a health perspective, while our world has come a long way, we have a lot of distance to cover if we hope to get our work done.

From the physics I do remember, an arrow pointing in a certain direction typically represents force. This adds one more component to my subjective use of the work equation. The direction of force matters. A force that is directed in the opposite direction of another makes it that much more difficult to complete the work in front of us.

This whole notion of opposing forces does sounds like the language we hear in childhood fairytales. Yet the reality of the world today is complicated by multiple forces and agendas at hand. When I sometimes find myself desperately hoping to quickly get to another happy ending, I’m grounded in the reminder that physics is not for fairytales. If physics matters, we are in a reality where force, distance, and work are very real.

I became very aware of this reality just a few months ago when I heard the heart-wrenching news that a former-colleague, mentor, global health expert, source of inspiration, and above all these, mother, daughter, sister, and friend was killed in the Bamako, Mali, terrorist attack in mid-November. Anita Datar had been there with other Palladium colleagues from the US and Mali, trying to help the region do better in its HIV/AIDS and reproductive health response.

In the context I knew Anita, I know that her life was a force that covered so much distance in the global health work we have set before us. A force that I’m sure grew stronger from her Peace Corps experience, from her 11 years with Palladium, and from her dedication to equity, evident from her work in co-founding Tulalens, a non-profit devoted to improving the status and circumstances of women in India.

Amidst the all-too-common sentiments of intolerance, fear, and uncertainty pervading the world today, Anita’s force remains strong by the mere fact that her life of leadership inspires leadership, and whether she intended to or not, Anita inspired leadership well before her time with us came to an end.

This is the kind of leadership that grows from generosity and empathy; the kind of leadership that makes us feel like “leadership” is practical, accessible, even attainable by our own efforts; the kind of leadership that acknowledges that the distance we have to travel may not be covered in our own lifetime by the force of just one leader. This is the kind of leadership that strengthens the overall force needed to get our work done because this kind of leadership does not have just one arrow. To encourage leadership, it requires that while our overall force is directed at our goal, our actions radiate in more than one direction. This is the type of leadership I am sure everyone touched either directly or indirectly by Anita’s life can attest to, can find strength from, and hopefully use to continue to inspire generations of leaders.

The components of this physics work equation might not translate perfectly to the global health field. But by replacing force with leadership, distance, with the current state of the world, and if our ultimate work is global health equity, it seems very clear that it will take leaders like Anita Datar to help us cover the distance ahead of us.


*On January 28, 2016, a resolution honoring Anita Datar and the nine others killed in the Bamako, Mali, terrorist attack was advanced through the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The full story and full resolution can be found here.

Anita Datar

Ashley Kallarakal is a 2015–2016 Global Health Corps fellow at Health Builders in Rwanda. All GHC fellows, partners and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. There is a role for everyone in the movement for health equity. Join the movement today.