Stephanie Nolen – 2023 Hyman Solomon Award Honouree
Date: Thursday February 2, 2023
Photography by Riley Smith
Stephanie Nolen: “When you establish points of commonality with the people who are living through these experiences, then people start to be concerned”
Stephanie Nolen is the global health reporter at the New York Times and one of Canada’s most decorated journalists
When the Public Policy Forum caught up with Stephanie Nolen, the globe-trotting foreign correspondent and veteran of war zones and pandemic devastation, she was getting ready to fly off to Colombia. She’d been there before, as Latin America bureau chief for the Globe & Mail, covering civil war and narco-terrorism. This time, she’s going in her new capacity as global health reporter for The New York Times.
“I’m a complete disease nerd,” she confesses, when asked about the stories she’ll be working on. One is about leishmaniasis, a painful and debilitating parasitic disease carried by sand flies that’s still treated in much of the world with arsenic injections. “There’s some good progress coming out of the Global South on neglected tropical diseases,” she says, (the latter term being an official designation of the World Health). A less hopeful story on her docket is one on “survival sex” on the migrant trail. HIV and other sexually transmitted infections are spreading fast among migrants desperate to get to the United States. “Lots of women wind up trading sex for passage along that route, after they have been robbed of everything else they had to trade,” says Nolen.
Global health is a fairly expansive beat, it would seem, but then Nolen is a reporter with the talent and range to match it, and then some. She’s won seven National Newspaper Awards in Canada and countless international honours by going into some of the world’s most harrowing spots and bringing out stories of suffering and courage. Her hope, she says, is that writing about real people in impossible situations can make their problems real for readers, and maybe nudge policymakers into action.
She’s known she wanted to do this kind of work since her first part-time reporting gig on a community newspaper in Ottawa, at the age of 14. She went to journalism school at University of King’s College in Nova Scotia, then did a graduate degree at the London School of Economics and from there headed to the West Bank. Some classmates were moving to Ramallah and had a spare room to let. With no money to speak of, she shopped in the local markets, took local buses everywhere and managed to learn Arabic (one of her five languages). She was soon working as a stringer, mostly for The Independent of London and Newsweek magazine. “I covered my first war, well, my first few wars, while I was there,” she says.
She came back to Canada to work for Maclean’s and later, the Globe. She became a roving foreign correspondent just months before 9/11 and spent time over the next two years in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2003, she convinced the Globe to send her to Africa to cover the HIV/AIDS epidemic on a six-month trial. She stayed six years.
At the time, AIDS was killing 9,600 people a day in Africa. Antiretroviral drugs available in high-income countries were practically unavailable; Nolen met activists who were staying alive because contacts in North America were sending them expired medication. She got a glimpse of the impact her work could have after she wrote a profile of Stephen Lewis, the former politician and diplomat who was then the UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. “I wrote about him kind of coming mentally unglued because nobody was paying attention,” she recalls. “I think readers were able to connect with that story through the anguish of a person they felt they knew to some degree.” In the story, Lewis talked about starting a foundation to funnel money to grassroots organizations in Africa who could best make a difference. Within days of the story appearing, and long before any foundation was launched, cheques began pouring in. “They just started opening their front doors in the morning and finding these stacks of envelopes with cheques in them.”
Her next stops, New Delhi starting in 2008 and Rio de Janeiro in 2013, began with the idea she’d be covering newly dynamic economies that were pulling people out of poverty. But she found other stories that demanded attention. India’s economic modernization was real enough, but its society was still built on gender and caste discrimination. Nolen remembers chatting with other mothers at a play group who talked frankly about having sex selective abortions because they wanted only one child, and it had to be a boy. “These were super high-powered career women. So, you can have this rapidly modernizing, changing place and these ancient, other very entrenched forms of discrimination, which are not changing.” In Latin America, and then later in Mexico, she often put herself in harm’s way to tell stories of corruption and criminality, of mafias running illegal logging in the Amazon basin and drug cartels and paramilitaries going after environmentalists and Indigenous leaders in Colombia. Her last major project for the Globe was The Disappeared, a tragic tale of families in Mexico searching for the graves of their husbands and sons who’d been kidnapped and killed in the drug wars.
It should be said that Nolen is not all about death and desperation. She’s written about Dakar Fashion Week and new strains of hip hop in Tanzania, and many other things besides, but it’s the stories of real peoples’ struggles that have had the biggest impact. Her hope is that people can see a kind of common humanity in them. “The idea is to shake people out of the idea that it is different to have HIV in Swaziland than it is to have HIV in Toronto. The vulnerability is not different. Are you more tolerant of your child dying of vaccine-preventable measles in Niger than you are in Alberta? It is somehow less painful or difficult or traumatic?”
Making international stories “less foreign,” as she puts it, can also create public discussion and grassroots activism that can have an impact on public policy. “Those families in Mexico have had their lives torn apart because of a drug war, and because of American policy on illicit drugs,” she says. “And to think that somehow that doesn’t have anything to do with you, living in Saskatchewan or New Jersey, it’s not true. Until a few years ago, if you were a weed smoker in Canada, you were part of this story.” She recalls reporting from hospitals in Tanzania at a time when International Monetary Fund loan restrictions meant a freeze on public sector spending. Hospitals couldn’t hire doctors or nurses; meanwhile, Canada was actively recruiting nurses to staff our hospitals. “When you establish points of commonality with the people who are living through these experiences, then people start to be concerned. You see people starting to engage with those issue in terms of how their own countries’ policy decisions have an impact.”
It’s perhaps fitting that she took on the new challenge as global health reporter in the middle of pandemic, when access to health care has been a critical issue. There’s been progress on that front, she notes, insofar as there was a lot of concern about vaccine equity almost from the start. “Health stories are about the most intimate aspects of peoples’ lives — can you care for yourself, for your family? What is shaping your ability to access care — is it where you live in the world, is it your gender, your caste, is it the kind of health-care system you live under? And that’s about how we structure society, and what we value and who determines who gets what. They are about power — always.”
“For me,” Nolen says, “it’s a kind of natural lens to put on the world.”
Profile by Mark Stevenson