"It remains up to us as individuals who believe in extending care to people made vulnerable by crisis and conflict to work harder than ever to alleviate human suffering wherever it occurs. That’s why it’s important not to dwell on what lies outside of our control, but to instead step back and look at the impact our medical teams and our supporters can have on the lives of people in need. It’s also why, despite the challenges we faced, I draw hope from the work we did together last year."
By Stephen Cornish, Executive Director of MSF Canada. A version of this editorial was originally published in Huffington Post.
Every December, we take the opportunity to not only look back on the past 12 months, but to find reasons for hope heading into the new year. It’s by no means an easy task, especially when focusing on Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)’s work on the front lines of humanitarian crises around the globe — which by its very nature can often highlight seemingly unending conflicts and growing needs.
In this light, the scale of the needs and scope of the emergencies that MSF responded to 2016 was no different. The brutal and tragic ongoing war in Syria, conflict and deprivation in Yemen, terror and malnutrition in northeastern Nigeria and record numbers of people around the world forcibly displaced from their homes were just some of the crises that required our intervention last year.
But it was the violence against civilians, humanitarians, medical professionals and hospitals — all of which went from being collateral damage in conflict zones to being direct targets — that tested our resolve and nearly stopped us in our tracks. Despite international protestations and our combined outrage, attacks against hospitals, doctors and aid convoys continued unabated and became normalized in 2016. These violations of international humanitarian law not only often went unchallenged, but were in some cases carried out by leading member states of the international institutions who are supposed to uphold and enforce the rules. This unraveling of the post-war global humanitarian consensus represents a massive political failure, and our colleagues in the field and the patients we serve often paid for it with their lives.
It is up to us to make a difference
It would be a mistake, however, to allow the governmental and military failings above to destroy humanitarian principles and undermine our resolve. In fact, the above failings only increase the reliance of long-suffering people in crisis on humanitarians to bring lifesaving aid, and to accompany them in their times of need. Furthermore, it is only through our direct presence in crisis zones and first-hand witnessing of the horrors on the ground that we can hold political decision makers to account. So, while mindful of increasing risk and seeking to mitigate its occurrence, it remains up to us as individuals who believe in extending care to people made vulnerable by crisis and conflict to work harder than ever to alleviate human suffering wherever it occurs.
That’s why it’s important not to dwell on what lies outside of our control, but to instead step back and look at the impact our medical teams and our supporters can have on the lives of people in need. It’s also why, despite the challenges we faced, I draw hope from the work we did together last year.
In Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, an epidemic of yellow fever in 2016 threatened to send the entire central African region into a deadly health crisis. But the outbreak failed to reach the tipping point, despite the fact there is no cure for yellow fever, and its spread can only be contained by vaccination. Thanks to quick action and an effective early warning system, MSF was able to partner with authorities to vaccinate more than one million people —370,000 people in Matadi City, and more than 710,000 people in the capital city of Kinshasa in 11 days — so that a potentially disastrous health catastrophe was contained.
In Haiti, when Hurricane Matthew struck last October, many feared the worst. But MSF — who was already on the ground in Haiti, where we run a number of health facilities, including an emergency obstetrics hospital — and other agencies were quick to reach many of the areas hardest hit by the storm and to deliver vital care to some of those most affected. In the two months that immediately followed, our teams treated more than 4,500 patients and set up multiple cholera treatment centres, responding to hundreds of possible cases and helping to prevent mass outbreaks of disease.
And this past fall, thanks to the tireless efforts of our supporters here in Canada and around the world, the pharmaceutical giants GSK and Pfizer agreed to lower the price for the pneumonia vaccine in humanitarian emergencies. Pneumonia kills more than one million children around the world every year, and the two companies are the sole producers of the only vaccine that can prevent those deaths from happening. At the start of 2016, MSF was paying $68 per dose for the Pfizer drugs it needed to vaccinate refugee children in Greece; now, the same vaccine is available for $3.10 per dose for humanitarian organizations working in emergency settings. This is a massive step forward, and will have an immediate impact on our ability to save lives and reach more people at risk from preventable disease.
Millions of individual lifesaving acts
These highlights are by no means the only examples of what can be achieved when we commit to humanitarian action. Last year, MSF teams provided more than eight million medical consultations to people in need around the world. They treated more than two million cases of malaria, helped deliver 200,000 live births and rescued 23,000 refugees and migrants from drowning at sea. The numbers for 2016 are not yet finalized, but we know they will be similar, if not higher. Each of these, and the millions of other patient interactions our teams engaged in, represent an act of care, and a single, life-changing instance of positive impact on someone afflicted by hardship and suffering.
These acts, in themselves, can of course never meet all the needs, nor be a substitute for political inaction and callousness. Fitting a war-wounded Syrian child with a prosthetic leg will help her walk again, but cannot stop the bombs raining down on Aleppo; treating a malnourished infant in Niger won’t stop others from dying while they flee violence in neighbouring Nigeria. But as humanitarians, we firmly believe every life is worth saving and everyone deserves dignity; furthermore these individual personal acts of care and humanity give reasons for hope and help populations persevere, knowing they are not abandoned and alone. And they point to how with determination we can continue to meet the challenges we face in delivering dignity and care to people who need it most.
Canadian MSF nurse Laura Puteris had a personal encounter with the collision between hope and tragedy that defines much of MSF's work.
A bittersweet story from our recent fieldwork, seen in the video above, I think encapsulates the above sentiment in a way that fails me and my poor diction. It comes from Laura Puteris, a Canadian nurse who recently returned from her assignment with MSF providing maternal healthcare in Haiti. One night, Laura and her team received a woman who had been burned beyond all recognition by an exploding fuel canister. The woman was eight months pregnant and sadly on arrival had very little chance of surviving her ordeal. It fell to Laura and her colleagues to try to save both mother and child. Tragically, the woman succumbed to her injuries. But Laura and her team gave her a fighting chance, accompanying her in dignity in her last hours and, thankfully, saving the life of her newborn child.
It was an emotionally complicated moment, one that caused Laura to reflect on what differences we can make on the front lines of human tragedy. “We had two lives at risk,” she recalled. “We only managed to save one. That’s not always in your control. But the fact that we were there and able to help that one life … counts a lot. It means that child, that person that will be, will have the capacity to change the world. That one person could make a huge difference in someone else’s — or for thousands.”
In a world beset by conflict and crisis, in which hard-won measures to protect the most vulnerable may themselves now be at risk, it is worth remembering that individuals matter, and that simple acts of caring — even single, solitary gestures — can still make a difference.
Thank you for all your support in 2016. We look forward to providing hope, care and dignity to all people who need our help together with you in 2017.
Stephen Cornish is Executive Director of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).