Lord Ara Darzi (Aram Arkun photo)

Universal Health Care Activist Lord Darzi Named Head of Aurora Prize Committee

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YEREVAN – As the first Armenian serving in the British parliament, Lord Ara Darzi expressed his joy at the vote on the Armenian Genocide resolution in the US House of Representatives and in a November 6 letter (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/06/recognising-the-armenian-genocide) called on the British parliament to do the same. A few weeks earlier, he was in Armenia to participate in the Aurora Forum events (see other coverage in the Mirror-Spectator). Darzi joined the Aurora Prize Selection Committee at the end of 2017 and was appointed as its chair at the Aurora Forum this year.

Health Policy Leader

Aside from being in the House of Lords, he is an important figure in the field of global health policy, helping design healthcare systems throughout the world. Dr. Darzi serves as Director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London, hold the Paul Hamlyn Chair of Surgery at Imperial College London, Institute of Cancer Research and Executive Chair of the World Innovation Summit for Health in Qatar, and is a Consultant Surgeon at Imperial College Hospital National Health Service (NHS) Trust and the Royal Marsden NHS Trust. He was a health minister for Great Britain from 2007 to 2009. He has been a member of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom since June 2009 and was awarded the Order of Merit in January 2016.

He has published more than 1,000 peer-reviewed research papers to date and continues to work actively as a surgeon, specializing in minimally-invasive and robot-assisted surgeries.

On October 17, Dr. Darzi gave a keynote speech on “Converging Technological Innovations into Medicine,” as part of the second annual Global Innovation Forum (GIF) called “Transforming Intelligence,” organized by the Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology (FAST) at the Dvin Music Hall in Yerevan. FAST (https://fast.foundation) wants to spur technological innovation and scientific advancement in Armenia and beyond, while GIF’s stated goal is to act “as a platform to bridge academia, industry, governments, policymakers, international organizations and financial institutions, assembling the brightest minds and executives from diverse worlds to shape the future of scientific and technological transformation.” Armenia benefits as the host of this interaction.

Lord Ara Darzi speaking at the Global Innovation Forum in Yerevan (Aram Arkun photo)

After his formal talk, Darzi explained why he is on the board of FAST: “I sit on many [board]  in life but I decided to sit on FAST because I believe in what FAST is trying to do. I believe in the founders of FAST. I think they have really gone out of their way to make a huge commitment, not just financial commitment but intellectual commitment, in building this country [Armenia] in areas of science and innovation. It is a great privilege to be part of that…very, very busy sets of people, people like Noubar [Afeyan] and people like Ruben [Vardanyan], who could have millions of other things to do, are putting all their efforts and resources into getting FAST and its programs off the ground.”

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He spoke more specifically about developing Armenia’s health system, which faces all the challenges that lower- and middle-income countries face, declaring: “I think what Armenia is doing, what I have seen of it, is that they are looking for leapfrogging through some disruptive technologies that are becoming available, which may get them to the endpoint quicker and cheaper. That is really what I think will be potentially the most accelerated way in developing a health system here.”

He gave an example which he used in his formal GIF speech of looking at behavioral sciences to increase the uptake of cancer screening, which has been dismal in Armenia. He said, “My understanding is that certainly in one cancer program they have increased the uptake by about 30-fold. That is huge. They are looking, as you will know, through the partnership of the FAST foundation, at technology like AI [Artificial Intelligence], and what its role is in terms of healthcare delivery, because you can again leapfrog some of the big challenges being faced, like having a trained workforce here.”

Darzi was optimistic, saying, “I have seen a lot of good leadership, a lot of good will. The resources are limited, we know that, always limited, but the use of disruptive technology to leapfrog is the way forward. Finally, all of these things come down to leadership and commitment. What I have seen, certainly from the health minister, who is a public health doc[tor], and also his cabinet, is that there is a real focus in this new government on improving the health of the nation.”

When asked whether he thought a public or private type of health care system would work best in Armenia, he replied that he does not see a difference between one or the other. Instead, he said, “What I think is critical to have in a health care system which is going to become mature is universal health care coverage. I think the moral duty we have is to provide coverage to everyone.” Within that coverage, he said, one could have a mixture of private and public and the voluntary or non-profit sector, and such diversity would be healthy.

For him, the ability to access health care irrespective of ability to pay is the most important moral principal of a health care system. He said, “Armenia is moving towards universal health coverage. I have certainly seen the Armenian minister’s passion is this. He is working with the WHO [World Health Organization].”

Darzi believes that universal health care coverage could and should be achieved everywhere. He emphasized that “I think health care and education are universal human rights.” The United States too, he said, is moving in this direction, and said that as the richest and most powerful country in the world it certainly should be able to achieve it.

People should not fixate on bureaucratic obstacles to public health care, he said, as “bureaucracy is always there. What you need to articulate is the right vision. You need to have significant amount of engagement with the stakeholders. If you get in the buy-in of the stakeholders, and you have the right vision, then everything follows…It is about building consensus, and that is what democracy is all about. It is about setting up what this thing looks like. If it makes sense to many people, they will follow that.” He pointed out that in Great Britain, such a system was established over 70 years ago by a politician named Aneurin Bevins, and the system he said, is “probably healthier than it has ever been.”

Armenian Commitments, Humanitarian Work

Darzi was born in Baghdad but went to medical school in Ireland. He is descended from survivors of the Armenian Genocide. When asked whether he has time to remain involved in the Armenian community in England, he responded, “Well, I’m Armenian. The answer is yes. I have many Armenian friends, as I have non-Armenian friends. I don’t see it that way. I am very proud to be Armenian.” He added that he is very proud to be British and also to work with many people around the world.

Lord Ara Darzi speaking at the Aurora Prize ceremony in Yerevan’s Freedom Square (photo Aram Arkun)

While he works in Qatar, he said that he does not get involved in Middle Eastern politics. When he works on international issues, he said, “The UK government is well aware of what I do internationally or globally. They are always informed of what I do. They have been exceptionally supportive. I am very proud of what I do and I am very proud to be doing it in some cases on their behalf and in most cases on my behalf.”

His prominence in the international medical field at times has led to other types of humanitarian work. This is what happened in Myanmar, where he serves as a member of the board of trustees of the Rangoon General Hospital Reinvigoration Charitable Trust. In 2017, he was appointed a member of the International Advisory Board that was established to oversee the implementation of the recommendations on the future of Myanmar’s Rakhine State made by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.

In May 2019, his efforts at negotiation, together with those of Amal Clooney, on behalf of two imprisoned Reuters reporters, helped lead to their pardon and release from prison. The journalists had been investigating the massacre of 10 Rohingya men prior to their arrest. Darzi also called for the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees to their homes in Myanmar.

Concerning ongoing violence and genocide in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, he said, in a general sense that “My own views about this: it is always tragic to take value out of life, and the only way to address wars, conflicts and difficulties is by reconciliation, sitting around the table and addressing your problems, and that requires leadership. It saddens me when that does not happen.”

Darzi is continuing his efforts at recognition of the Armenian Genocide in Great Britain. He wrote on November 17 that as Britain was in the midst of a general election and parliament is in recess, the issue will be reexamined after the general election to determine the best path possible. He said, “The memories of the victims are in the memory of every Armenian, and every non-Armenian that I know of, around the world.” Darzi also felt that while it is important to remember, Armenians must also move on and think about the future.

He is beginning a new role as head of the Aurora Prize Selection Committee, and noted that it is too early to say what changes, if any, he might bring to it. However, he said, as “Aurora has had a remarkable impact so far,” he planned at the least to keep the momentum going.

Lord Ara Darzi (Aram Arkun photo)

He spoke about the difficulty of the selection process as he has experienced it so far, stating, “It is virtually impossible to differentiate between people who have made huge sacrifices in their life to help mankind. That is my starting point. Ultimately there has to be one winner because that is what we said. But in my books, when I leave any meeting, any CV or any application that I have read, from my perspective, that person is a hero. Between heroes it is very difficult to identify the big hero, but I follow consensus with many of the other trustees, but it is always a difficult decision.”

Darzi can be outspoken in his opinions, and resigned in July 2019 from the Labour Party, along with two other members of the British parliament to protest anti-Semitism in the party. He said, “I had to think very hard about this and I did it with heavy heart, but there is no way I could tolerate anything, when it comes to anti-Semitism.” He added, “It is not just anti-Semitism, but includes others, like Islamophobia, which is another big issue. I decided that I do not want to be a part of that. I waited about a year to see if any changes would happen.” He remains an independent in the House of Lords, and continues to make his contributions. He said, “I tend to vote with my conscience and what I feel is right or wrong.”

When asked what may lie ahead for him, whether in politics or health care, he answered, “The only thing I have discovered is that there is no endpoint in terms of creating value or in terms of creating health value. We are living in very exciting times in terms of technology and innovation. My full energy goes into that and in helping my patients. That is really what matters. That is what I wake up in the morning for.”

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