THE BLOG

Why Don't Wars Get the Same Empathy as Natural Disasters?

12/05/2013 06:14 EST | Updated 02/04/2014 05:59 EST

No sooner had Typhoon Haiyan, the most powerful storm ever recorded, swept across the Philippines than everyday acts of courage and humanity surged forth in response to its aftermath. On the ground neighbours pitched in to dig loved ones from the rubble, doctors rushed to the towns most affected, and ordinary citizens brought food to those in need. Around the world, humanitarian organizations scrambled to send relief supplies. Aid workers volunteered and everyday citizens responded with empathy and support. The work was led by determined and experienced disaster responders in the Philippines, who had responded to four typhoons in 2012.

Working with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), I felt the same empathy and desire to respond as many of you. I wished I could have been on one of the 13 flights of medical and relief cargo that MSF sent to the Philippines. This included three planeloads of relief supplies (tents, blankets, kitchen kits and water purification tablets) which we secured from the Canadian Government.

We are right to empathize and feel compelled to act in the face of such suffering. This is one of the core features of our humanity -- empathy and a desire to care for people we have never met. With over 200 doctors, nurses and support personnel, staffing four hospitals and many more mobile clinics, MSF is doing its best for the people of the Philippines. Our donors gave generously and we are grateful for their support. Yet we also struggle to rebuild our core emergency funds, depleted by the needs in Syria and the Central African Republic.

Humanitarians must respond according to need with complete impartiality. But the outpouring of support, media coverage and political preoccupation with conflict situations seldom corresponds to the scale of suffering and needs we witness on the ground.

For me, the needs of families caught up in a civil war or the aftermath of a natural disaster are the same. People need the basic building blocks of life -- food, water, medical, care, shelter and safety.

I have often described how, in a conflict like the ongoing civil war in Syria, people struggle to feed their families, care for their children and earn a living. They must push thoughts of loss, death and an uncertain future out of their minds in order to go about the everyday business of surviving.

Typhoon Haiyan's winds and high waters washed people's lives away in minutes, leaving them forever scarred. Yet they had international attention and care to help pull them from the rubble, feed and clothe them and to help them start the painstaking task of rebuilding their lives.

In Syria, such assistance is most often absent and even the possibility of escaping the rubble and seeking medical care is denied to civilians. In fact civilians have been placed at the centre of war. Bread lines, schools and hospitals are regularly targeted and bombed.

Healthcare and civilians are under fire, as are MSF's medical teams. As a result we have had to establish underground clinics and semi-clandestine hospitals, some of which are further from the front lines than we would like. Civilians are forced to travel long, circuitous routes to get there, for fear they will be detained or disappeared.

Another factor which may be inhibiting our collective empathy for the Syrian people is the sheer scale of the needs. With two million refugees, four million people displaced inside Syria, and one million homes destroyed, the task at hand may seem overwhelming. Where to begin?

Adding to this challenge is the complication of conflict. While we can all imagine those caught up in a typhoon to be faultless, in a conflict we are less sure.

We hear of rebels, infighting, jihadists and chemical weapons, all of which complicate the picture and interfere with our natural empathy. As we struggle unsuccessfully to understand the conflict, we turn off and turn away. We forget that basic lifesaving needs are simple to understand: healthcare, shelter, clean water -- the same basics we are delivering the world over wherever there are families in need.

I have accompanied MSF's teams and the Syrian people on two missions this past year, and despite the challenges I can tell you that delivering humanitarian aid is possible. MSF is running six hospitals inside Syria, offering surgical care, maternity wards, a burn unit and chronic care.

Our reach extends further -- we are also supporting 30 hospitals across the country with drugs, equipment and training. We provide reconstructive surgery, healthcare, mental health and sanitation to Syrian refugees in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Syria was a middle income country whose people enjoyed a good standard of living. Now they have lost everything: their homes, their loved ones, and their dignity. Most never imagined a conflict in Syria, nor that they would one day become refugees.

With Typhoon Haiyan we have together risen to the occasion. But in Syria, we as an international community are failing the civilian population.

It shouldn't and needn't be that way. Much more can be done. MSF has redoubled its efforts and we intend to continue our medical work in Syria and the surrounding countries for as long as we are needed. But we do not hold the solution. For that, political leaders must assume their responsibilities.

Most know that MSF's primary goal is to save lives, but we also have a second duty to bear witness on behalf of the populations we serve. By reading my blog you help me live up to my responsibilities of bearing witness, of giving voice, of building empathy. Together we can ensure that relief is delivered impartially -- where assistance is most needed -- and help to remind political actors of their collective responsibility to resolve humanitarian catastrophes, wherever they may be and whatever the cause.

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