Fighting the Ebola crisis in Liberia or delivering aid to the Ukraine is not for the faint of heart.
Despite the risk of disease, kidnapping and death by beheading, humanitarian workers around the world continue to offer their services in danger zones far from their comfortable homelands. Are they braver than the rest of us, more foolhardy or simply mankind’s truest altruists?
The first week in October saw the latest senseless aid worker deaths, the brutal beheading of British hostage Alan Henning by ISIS jihadists, and the death by shellfire of Swiss ICRC worker Laurent DuPasquier in the Ukraine separatist town of Donetsk. According to UN statistics released earlier this year for World Humanitarian Day, 2013 was the most dangerous year on record for aid workers, with 155 deaths. This year’s count is fast catching up. Given Geneva’s crucial role as the global hub for humanitarian relief, the issue of aid workers is close to many who live here.
Henning and DuPasquier are not the first aid workers to put their lives on the line by going into danger zones to help others and they won’t be the last. ISIS is now threatening to behead US aid worker Peter Kassig, a convert to Islam, if allied bombing does not stop. Last month David Haines, an aid worker from Scotland, was beheaded, as were two American journalists in an attempt to get ransom money to finance ISIS operations.
Then there is the danger of disease, long faced by aid workers but never as dramatically as this year with the spread of Ebola. First came the killing of health workers in Guinea by the very people they were trying to help, while others continue to be evacuated after contracting the deadly virus.
“It’s true we go into very dangerous places,” said Aude Thorel of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Geneva. “If there are no risks, then there’s no reason for MSF to be there.” Thorel returned in late September from Liberia, where a French aid worker was evacuated after being diagnosed with Ebola at the MSF treatment centre. Happily the worker made a complete recovery.
With 13 years experience behind her in Africa, Turkey and Iraq, Thorel said MSF is not looking for heroes, but rather for people with specific professional skills, whether doctors, nurses, psychologists or technicians. MSF also looks for genuine commitment and for people who know what they are getting into, “Certainly not naïve adventurers, although a sense of adventure can be a good motivation.”
Six years after returning from war-torn Bosnia, UK-born Doune Porter gave up her comfy life in Geneva to go to South Sudan for UNICEF in 2013, just before civil war broke out.
“It may sound trite, but what I value about working for the UN is that the ultimate goal isn’t profit, but improving the lot of mankind,” she said. “When things get tough it helps to remind myself that our beneficiaries are not wealthy shareholders.”
Money is rarely the motive for aid workers, whether with the Red Cross, CARE, Catholic Relief or the International Rescue Committee, to name only a few. Listing some kind charity on one’s CV is seen as a plus by many businesses, but Thorel said this does not apply to MSF. “Those just out of university don’t have the experience we need. We often say that the field is not a training ground. People must be experienced.” After a brief stay in Geneva, Thorel has returned to Liberia. Asked if she would go back to Juba after her home leave, Porter replied, “Absolutely!”
Caring for the carers
According to the WHO, Ebola does NOT spread through the air like flu and is not infectious until there are clear symptoms, which means there is little risk that returning aid workers will infect others. MSF deputy director Aude Thorel was subject to the same medical precautions and follow-up procedures required for all workers returning from Ebola-affected countries. For example, all treatment centres in the field must provide a clear separation between high-risk and low-risk areas, sufficient lighting, secure waste management and regular cleaning and disinfection of wards.
Controls restrict the number of people allowed inside high-risk areas and they are restricted on how long they can stay. This limits the staff that could potentially be exposed. International workers are rotated every four to six weeks to ensure they are not too tired, which helps reduce risk. Isolation and medical evacuation are recommended in cases of suspected symptoms. But even for those with no symptoms, a medical follow-up is mandatory after 21 days at a hospital having the means to handle Ebola cases.