Baby steps

15 Mar 2017

Sally Wright, DTMH January 2017

My experience at LSTM thus far has been a fairly unique blend; it’s certainly been social, interesting and inspirational, and has thrown up a whole host of opportunities. At times the possibilities seem endless, and at others it’s been somewhat overwhelming – information overload kicks in on a seemingly daily basis. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has thought at some points:

Where do I even begin?

This isn’t just about revision for the impending exams (though the sheer volume this week has certainly focussed the mind), but more about the magnitude of health systems, reform, funding, infrastructure etc etc. How can these behemoths be tackled? Who will tackle them? Is it possible? Where do I fit in to all of that?

When feeling overwhelmed, I like to scale things down. Bitesize chunks both metaphorically and literally. I would be lying if I didn’t say I’ve recently utilised a) GCSE BBC bitesize to recap cellular biology, and b) the Newsround website as an intro as to what’s happening in Yemen. It seems writing aimed at teenagers sits at about my level (take from that what you will). However, getting a good handle on the basics allows me to build up.

On 10th March Stephen O’Brien, the UN Emergency Relief Co coordinator, briefed the UN security council following visits to countries at risk of famine. In this briefing he pieced together some key phrases to get the world’s media listening.  If his words were concerning, the numbers to follow them up are almost incomprehensible in their magnitude.

“We stand at a critical point in history” he said. “(We) are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the UN”. This echoes the call for ‘strong and urgent action’ issued by the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres last month. Reports are that at least 4.4 billion dollars are needed to avert a catastrophe in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. 4.4 billion US dollars for more than 20 million people, including 1.4 million children, spread across four countries. And that’s just those at risk of starvation. Inevitably mortality from infectious disease, morbidity related to poverty, sanitary conditions and malnourishment will impact on millions more. Not to mention the future repercussions in terms of infrastructure, economic growth, employment and more. No biggy.   

It doesn’t get any better either; according to Stephen O’Brien, this famine is man-made. While it could be argued that to some extent famine is often heavily influenced by the action (or inaction) of humanity, this appears to be an entirely different beast.

Mr O’Brien followed this up with further, rather damning, clarification;

“Parties to the conflict are parties in the famine - as are those not intervening to make the violence stop.”

At least he can’t be accused of mincing his words. While this was directed specifically at instances in South Sudan, to my mind it is also particularly relevant in Yemen. Here alone there are an estimated 14 million people at risk of starvation. This problem hasn’t come about overnight, and yet thanks to the eyes of global press looking elsewhere, this may have come as a surprise to the wider public. Alongside this, countries throughout the world are involved to some extent in the conflict in Yemen. Where does humanitarian crisis fit in with foreign policy, diplomacy, trade, arms dealing etc? In this case probably at the back of the queue.

This post wasn’t intended to turn into a comment on the media or world leaders though. More on the question on how little old me (or indeed any one of us) can fit into this monumental picture. The numbers of this crisis make it incomprehensible, insurmountable. It is a statistic. The important point to remember is that Stephen O’Brien is just one man who, if nothing else, has galvanised the world’s media into reporting on this issue. Something that has been sorely lacking up to now.

What happens now is anybody’s guess. I suppose we must start at the beginning, or at the bottom, or anywhere really, and go from there. Think bitesize; look at individuals first, then a family, then a community and so on. As experience tells us, inaction can be as damaging as a negative action.

This is also true for exam revision.

So, let’s get busy.