Responding to international emergencies following natural disasters gives health-care workers knowledge and skills that are crucial in a crisis. They are uniquely prepared for the unpredictable conditions that follow disasters.
In Haiti after the disastrous 2010 earthquake, I was working as a physician with a medical team from the International Federation of the Red Cross. When a young woman joined us for hospital rounds one day, I noticed her Canadian accent.
Afterwards, I asked her who she was. She was a medical student from Saskatchewan who had decided simply to show up and help. She’d flown to the Dominican Republic and hitchhiked to Haiti. It was very unsafe for her to have done this alone, and without previous experience or training there was little for her to do but go back home.
It was clear she’d come out of a sincere desire to help, but had no idea what was really required, nor how disaster relief is organized.
Unique skills and experience
In 2004, I was working with an International Red Cross team in Aceh, Indonesia, after the catastrophic tsunami. I recall realizing how little I could have done without the many skills and deep experience of my colleagues, who quickly set up an independently functioning field hospital on a soccer field, complete with its own clean water supply. Without them, I’d have been as helpless as that medical student I’d meet later in Haiti.
Such skills and attributes can be learned on the job, and many Canadians have already learned them though international experience. We need to do much more to prepare ourselves for increasingly frequent domestic disasters and emergencies by identifying, organizing, improving and utilizing the resources we already have.
I have had the opportunity to serve in many international humanitarian crises, and I learn from each one. I learn from other people who do this work and the attributes that make them successful, whether through the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders or other NGOs that respond to the world’s disasters.
They have learned to be relentlessly practical, endlessly adaptive and resilient, and to see themselves as individual parts of highly integrated, efficient and well-organized teams, ready to work as soon as they land.
Once a response transitions from emergency to recovery, we all return to our “day” jobs across Canada and around the world. In my case, that’s serving as a family physician in Hamilton and teaching at McMaster University’s Department of Family Medicine and Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine. Since the next call could come at any time, I think about what we’ve learned and how we can use these lessons.
Disasters at home
We are very fortunate to live where we do, in relative prosperity, peace and safety, but recent history has proven disasters do happen here.
Consider the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the strain on Canadian hospitals, including shortages of equipment and personnel and the logistical challenges of moving tests, personal protective equipment and vaccines to where they were needed.
Our various levels of government did their best to respond to the pandemic, but their responses may have been faster and better if they’d made use of people who had worked through similar crises abroad.
Our experts go out into the world and gain incredible experience, then go back to their regular jobs, as doctors, nurses, logistics planners, engineers, security experts or water engineers. As a country, we don’t do enough to catalogue their skills and experiences so we can be ready when the time comes here — as it has, and as it surely will again.
Abundant expertise and experience
Some colleagues and I recently published a paper in the Canadian Medical Association Journal Open describing how lessons from the field can help in Canada. Our paper was based on interviews with people who had been deployed on multiple international crisis missions — some of them dozens of times.
The results showed how international deployment had acted as a real-life training setting by helping clinicians and team members acquire or refine specific skills, including agile decision-making, communication and collaboration during high-stress situations.
The research participants noted that being part of a disaster response team puts an individual in a very challenging environment where it is crucial to learn attributes like assessing complex situations quickly and reaching well-considered decisions. Experiencing broken infrastructure, limited resources and chaotic environments in disaster settings taught the participants to be “able to think outside the box.”
The participants said that understanding the aims and context of the local community is important for dealing with the challenges of the work and addressing problems effectively. They emphasized the importance of cultural sensitivity during international deployments, including learning about and accepting other cultures, countries and languages. They noted that when responding to a disaster or emergency, engaging and truly partnering with the local community ensures an effective, culturally appropriate and sustainable response.
That kind of learning is highly valuable, and we should be feeding this spark.
The main lesson is this: Canada has abundant expertise and experience here at home, but we don’t use it well — perhaps because we simply don’t know what we have.
Before the next domestic disaster, it would be ideal for governments to create, maintain and use a central bank of expertise and contacts related to humanitarian and disaster response, featuring people who have learned to work quickly, pragmatically and, above all, in teams.
Canadians are good in disasters. I have seen it.
We need to realize, especially after this pandemic, that disasters don’t only happen “over there.” Let’s put this on the front burner and improve disaster preparedness at home.