The Rising Humanitarian Tide

by John Pringle

(version français à la suite)

“Every ship is unsinkable, until it sinks” (Crawley, 2010). So it is with human rights: inviolable until they are denied. The right to protection from war, the right to maritime rescue, the right to seek asylum, the right to life’s necessities, the right to health care, and the right to be treated humanely and with dignity: the words are failing the very people they were written to protect. Who would have thought, that in the 21st century, we would have to argue defensively for pulling drowning people from the sea. The humanity principle – that people are entitled to assistance and to be treated humanely simply by virtue of being human – is not and never has been a given. Lives are not valued equally, some not at all.

That human lives are undervalued may come as a shock. Unless you are an aid worker. As an aid worker, you may have seen a child die for lack of a ten cent measles vaccine – measles kills about 400 children every day (WHO, 2015). You may have seen a patient suffer for lack of an available treatment – diseases of poverty are invisible to pharmaceutical companies (Access Campaign, 2015). As an aid worker, you will have witnessed how the global economic system values people for their wealth. And it values profit. Apart from that, it sees nothing of value (Patel, 2010).

The Global Refugee Crisis is a stark reminder that we live in a world of disparity. The old mantra, “a rising tide lifts all boats”, argues that what is good for the economy is good for everybody. But in the context of a Mediterranean graveyard, the rising tide cliché is not just ironic but grotesque. After decades of neoliberal economic policies, the tide has lifted only luxury yachts and military patrol vessels.

An Outbreak of Outbreaks: Humanitarian Epidemiology in West Africa

by John Pringle

I was disappointed that I couldn’t go to West Africa sooner. The Ebola epidemic was at its peak in the fall of 2014, the same time that I was preparing for my doctoral defence. I watched “Ebola Frontline” which conveyed tragedy and urgency. The documentary followed Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) doctor Javid Abdelmoneim as he cared for Ebola patients in Sierra Leone.[1] It was graphic and raw, something out of Dafoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. That people had to be turned away from Ebola treatment centres was profoundly inhumane. That traumatized aid workers had to turn people away because treatment centres were overrun, to watch helplessly as people died agonizing deaths in cars or on the ground—was yet another searing reminder of our collective failure, that there is no shared responsibility for global health, and that our notion of ‘international community’ is more dream than reality.