Ramona Sunderwith, an American volunteer doctor and trainer says: “I’m a physician, who long ago decided to work in resource-constrained settings with disenfranchised populations.”
Serata Silla, a nurse born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and who lives in Britain, says that information is a key factor to combat Ebola. “I felt compelled to stay and help,” says Idris Fornah, a psychosocial coordinator.
These are some testimonies from some first responders to the Ebola outbreak which mainly hit Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in the past months. They form part of International Medical Corps (IMC), a global humanitarian non-profit organisation which assists persons in urgent need of health-care related emergency services around the world.
IMC was established in 1984 by volunteers in the medical field and it has provided $1.8 billion worth of assistance to millions of people in 70 countries. These include victims of earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and war, from Afghanistan to Haiti, from Vanuatu to Syria.
Its non-sectarian approach means that it does not allow political considerations to prevent its humanitarian goals.
IMC and other similar organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are active participants in an ever-expanding transnational civil society in the field of humanitarian assistance. Where governments fail to intervene because of reasons such as lack of resources, political stalemates or too much bureaucracy, civil society is at times more prompt to provide urgent assistance in a myriad of situations.
This is not to say that state institutions, business and global institutions should diminish their role and responsibility in assisting humanitarian causes. But it shows that in many instances, bottom-up approaches are more efficient, equitable and just in their assistance to those in need. To give one example, IMC was on the ground with assistance just 24 hours after the Indonesia tsunami some years ago.
Going back to the Ebola issue, it was only a few days ago that the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Liberia to be free from Ebola. In the words of WHO, the country was reporting between 300 and 400 new cases of Ebola per week during August and September 2014. Monrovia, the capital city, witnessed horrific scenes: Patients dying on hospital grounds, corpses that remained uncollected for days, and overflowing treatment centres.
They risk their lives to assist others. Yet, to them, solidarity comes before other considerations
When such tragedies take place, one can really see the selfless dimension of humanitarian assistance. Organisations such as IMC collaborated with international and government health officials and local volunteers to take care of those in need. Medical staff and volunteers are still present so as to help efforts in recovery and reconstruction.
These persons are the unsung heroes of tragedies which take place in our planet. They risk their lives to assist others. They might get infected by a deadly disease, they might get injured in a dangerous site, or they might be shot be warring factions. Yet, to them, solidarity comes before other considerations.
Most of us onlookers and commentators do not have the verve to carry out such heroic deeds, but we can show solidarity in different ways.
Indeed, anyone can assist organisations such as IMC through the click of a mouse by means of an online donation.
Some puritans, cynics and armchair critics would argue that, by making such donations, one is simply paying to keep one’s conscience at ease and that this process is heavily influenced by a simulacra of photos and film of the victims assisted by the ‘do-gooders’.
Arguably, one may indeed provide interesting critical analysis and insights of the PR methods of humanitarian campaigns. But when one is speaking of accountable organisations which help achieve tangible results, I do not buy into the arguments of those who thrive on cynicism.
Indeed, one may argue that were it not for transnational civil society, there would be much less consciousness and assistance on humanitarian issues. In a digital age of information technology, we can all be first respondents through our assistance, small as it may be.
The selfless heroics of those engaged in today’s humanitarian activism would have fitted perfectly in existential literature such as that of Albert Camus.
In one of his classics, The Plague, one reads of mass death, lack of trust, panic, confusion and repression in an Algerian Mediterranean city, Oran, which is transformed into a prison camp in the State’s attempts to combat the ‘invading’ plague.
Amidst this turmoil and desperation, one reads of Rieux, who helps victims in line with his work ethic. As the novel’s hero puts it, such acts provide answers to people’s hope. And it is thanks to people such as Ramona Sunderwith, Serata Silla and Idris Fornah that hope still remains a key aspect of human existence.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.