【Newsletter】MSF hopes pandemic to bring humanity together

    28 Oct 2020

    Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is the acknowledged global leader when it comes to fighting epidemics and infectious diseases, having been on the frontline during the cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010 and the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014.

    This time around it’s fighting a truly global adversary in Covid-19 and one of its key Hong Kong officials says he hopes that if there is a silver lining to come out of this pandemic, it will be the realisation that as humans, we are all in this together.

    Rightly or wrongly, infectious disease outbreaks have often been dismissed as developing world problems that affect the poorest and most disadvantaged in the global community. Covid-19 has been the great leveller, leaving not an area of the globe untouched and in the majority of cases having the worst impact on the richest countries with the most developed health infrastructure.

    “Let’s hope there is an equitable distribution of everything and a lot of acceptance from people towards each other in terms of how difficult it is for everyone,” says Gert Verdonck, MSF Hong Kong Interim Director of Operations Support Unit.

    Collaboration leads to improved outcomes

    ©️Ali Lapetina

     “ We asked flexibility from everyone and that was one of the main jobs we needed to learn.”

    MSF Hong Kong Interim Director of Operations Support Unit Gert Verdonck

    MSF was the inaugural winner of LUI Che Woo Prize for World Civilisation in 2016 for Welfare Betterment for its fight against infectious diseases, chronic illnesses and epidemics. A central plank of the Prize’s philosophy is that the problems of the human race aren’t solved in isolation and coming together to share knowledge and ideas will help us overcome our challenges.

    From the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, MSF has been working to ensure that its guiding principles are met, helping to provide healthcare and supplies to the areas most at need, from the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, through to migrant shelters in the Greek Islands and war-ravaged hot spots, such as Yemen.

    Every crisis brings its own unique challenges to be overcome and those presented by Covid-19 are manifold. Each national jurisdiction has its own set of rules and protocols to battling the crisis, air travel has been severely disrupted, limiting movement and medical equipment and supplies, at least initially, were scarce.

    For example, it was virtually impossible to gain air access to Yemen at the beginning of the crisis.

    While the problems facing MSF were manifold, Verdonck said a standout area of concern was the safety of its workers. The organisation has a lot of young staff, based on location, but they are supported by a team of international experts for more specialised fields, such as surgeons and anaesthetists.

    A lot of the more experienced team members are over sixty and therefore in a high-risk category themselves if they caught the virus. One of MSF key takeouts in managing the ever-changing global situation was the need to be able to adapt.

    “We asked flexibility from everyone and that was one of the main jobs we needed to learn,” he said. “Some were staying longer, some couldn’t leave and then we needed to adapt on the ground.”

    MSF projects press ahead

    ©Médecins Sans Frontières

    However, the upside of this approach was that very few projects were put on pause because of the internal measures that were taken. For the most part, MSF approach in having its projects on the ground be run by national staff and supported by international expertise worked as it was intended to do.

    The problems were particularly acute in the world’s migrant camps. Social distancing is virtually impossible in cramped living conditions, while encouraging basic sanitation such as hand washing was also unrealistic, with about 300 people sharing one water tap.

    These camps were a problem even before the crisis and now it has become even more acute. Although MSF is strictly non-partisan, it has been willing to champion the cause of the underdog.

    In 2016 for example, it said it would no longer accept funding from the European Union due to the failure to tackle the migrant crisis within its borders.

    During this latest crisis, MSF has called for equitable access to medicine, vaccines and supplies and also urged that the plight of migrants not be forgotten.

    MSF helps fight Ebola

    ©Olmo Calvo

    This crisis is also one where countries unexperienced with dealing with large outbreaks could learn from areas where epidemics tend to be recurrent events.

    Verdonck said he believes there is a wide combination of factors at work, but key among those is long experience in dealing with infectious diseases. The nations are used to track and trace systems and even the most local healthcare clinic will have well-established protocols for handling outbreaks.

    The Democratic Republic of Congo has been coping with Covid-19 at the same time as another bout of the far more deadly Ebola virus, which kills on average half of all those affected.

    In June, the country declared its 11th bout of Ebola. As before, MSF is on the ground supporting community surveillance and are providing rapid treatment to patients living in hard-to-reach areas, in order to curb the spread of the disease.

    Verdonck says it’s likely that 2021 will still be a year very much dominated by Covid-19. However, we should be moving towards a vaccine being available, with 160 candidates currently being developed.

    Ensuring equitable access

    ©Enri Canaj

     “ Equitable distribution concerns us very much. It means where the needs are there needs to be the vaccine.”

    MSF Hong Kong Interim Director of Operations Support Unit Gert Verdonck

    Not all will be successful and those that are developed by big-name brands are likely to be expensive. MSF will be fighting hard to ensure that the areas that need the vaccine most will be the ones who get it, rather than those that have the most cash to pay for it.

    “Equitable distribution concerns us very much. It means where the needs are there needs to be the vaccine,” he said.

    The organisation will deploy its powers of advocacy to create awareness and bring pressure to bear on governments to call for fair distribution and access.

    It has had success in the past by lobbying for reduced prices for drugs for HIV and tuberculosis especially in Southern African countries.

    “But that’s a long-term effort and it takes a lot of resources,” he said. “I’m not sure how it will work with Covid-19. It will depend on a lot of the different entities involved.”

    Still, it’s clear that MSF will persevere in its efforts to bring about more equitable access to healthcare services and this willingness to push on against all odds is another element that is highly valued by the LUI Prize.

    “Getting acknowledgement of what you’re doing is always a big help,” Verdonck said of the award. “To know there is certain support is very important as that’s what drives us, believing what we do is what we’re supposed to do. When you get rewarded it strengthens your effort and belief in what you’re doing.”


    【Newsletter】Fast Covid-19 tests may be pandemic game-changer

    【Newsletter】Showing how impossible becomes I'mpossible