July 1st is an important day for several countries: For Canada it is a birthday (149th to be precise this year), for Somalia, Rwanda, and Burundi it marks Independence Day and for Ghana it is this day in 1957 when it was declared a Republic. Historic to say the least.
While it may be fireworks that speckle the sky in celebration in some countries, it is the petrifying sight and sound of bombs in others – and with that (in addition to general loss of innocent lives) we continue to lose critical human resources in health – health care personnel with families and friends who need and love them, health care personnel with dreams and aspirations of their own.
As several countries celebrate their real (and perceived) freedom from colonial rule this July 1st, India commemorates its doctors – a cadre of health professionals whose contributions to individual lives and communities are celebrated on different days in various countries across the globe. In India, National Doctors Day is celebrated in honor of the physician, freedom fighter, and former Chief Minister of West Bengal Dr. B C Roy: July 1, 1882 – July 1, 1962.
On this day we remind ourselves of the many physicians in organizations who have sacrificed their own security and wellbeing to secure those of others. Of particular note are Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) with their efforts to protect medical facilities and personnel worldwide and Doctors without Borders (MSF) who deliver medical aid “to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, healthcare exclusion and natural or man-made disasters.” Regardless of the numerous abductions and kidnappings through which MSF has suffered (Haiti in 2010, DRC in 2012, Syria in 2016, etc.), its physicians continue to dedicate their lives and careers to provide medical care to those afflicted with illness and injury compounded, oftentimes, by humanitarian tragedies.
It comes as no surprise then that the UN Security Council passed a resolution last month sending a strong message condemning attacks against health personnel and facilities in conflict situations. But what difference do these grandiose resolutions make? Who has the power in the present day and age to enforce peacekeeping or ensure moral discipline? When the rules of war are constantly being disregarded as if they were just simple inconveniences, what hope do we have for civilian and humanitarian efforts of safety for those caught in a political game of power and philosophical extremism? Perhaps it is organizations such as MSF that go beyond their medical duties to take political stances such as boycotting the World Humanitarian Summit; and rejecting money from the EU (in protest of EU migration policies).
While many may deride (some) physicians (especially in the “West”) for being attracted to what is clearly a profitable profession – frequently associated with golf club memberships, exotic vacations, and fancy cars (not forgetting malpractice lawsuits!) – let us recognize and celebrate those who use their training and expertise to serve humanity and ease suffering often at the risk of their own physical, financial, social, professional and familial safety. This is exemplified in experiences of individuals such as those of Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, who gives a powerful recount of the stigma and fear she faced on her return to USA after dedicating time and service to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Dr. Salim Jivanji in the UK who performs voluntary cardiac surgeries in his home country of Kenya through UK based Healing Little Hearts, Dr. Sheila Lakhoo who has sourced funding to work with farmers in Kenya to reduce incidence of chronic diseases, and Dr. Zohray Talib who juggles strategies to strengthen medical education as well as health systems in low-resource settings with a focus on the global health workforce taking her to places such as Uganda and Tajikistan. She chronicles her experiences in her blog GlobalhealthMd. These are only but a handful of the thousands of doctors who exemplify the medical profession – people who are not only trained and licensed to treat sick and injured people, but who reveal an innate desire to serve with humility and to learn with curiosity.
With the world’s existing shortage of physicians, to lose more of these critical resources through no choice of their own, is particularly disastrous and clearly threatens the already dire situation of nations globally who struggle to meet WHO’s stipulated minimum ratio of 1 doctor:1000 persons. WHO’s Interactive map demonstrating the density of physicians in each country is evidence enough of this gloomy state of affairs. The potential solutions to this are beyond the scope of this piece and well documented in the literature and public commentary but suffice it to say that it is a problem that will continue to haunt us as long as we continue to lose lives that aim to save lives – the apt title of a recent CFR panel featuring Jason Cone, MSF; ICRC Director-General Yves Daccord; and Leonard Rubenstein, director of the Bloomberg School’s Program on Human Rights, Health, and Conflict.
So let’s all invoke another historic July 1st moment: let’s all broadcast the international distress signal – SOS – that was adopted on this day in 1908 and recognize doctors, nurses, public health professionals, and all other health care personnel globally who are fighting for social justice, humanity and dignity… SOS – save our (health care) soldiers. Save our (human) souls.