Saturday, January 16, 2010

UN Shuts Haiti Medical Center – WTF?

The news out of Haiti last night was too much to believe. CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta was reporting from a small, makeshift medical center operating out of a tent in Port-au-Prince where more than two dozen badly wounded Hatians were finally receiving at least some medical care. That is until a group of UN peacekeepers arrived and ordered the doctors to abandon the field hospital over concerns for their safety. They were ordered to take the doctors away, but not the patients, who apparently were suppose to fend for themselves.

Dr. Gupta was dumbstruck, so too were CNN’s Anderson Cooper and retired General Russel Honore, who helped to bring order back to New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina. To his great credit, Dr. Gupta stayed as the other medical staff were evacuated to tend to the patients they left behind, he even enlisted his camera crew to serve as healthcare aides. They had no problems with “security” during the night (seriously, with the entire city crying out for medical care, why would anyone attack one of the few places providing it?)

By morning, there was a change of heart somewhere and the medical staff was allowed to return to the medical center. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon even issued a statement saying that the UN had not ordered the medical staff to leave, blaming the evac order on “other agencies” – Ban’s story is hard to believe though since the medical staff specifically told Gupta they were being ordered to leave by the United Nations, the CNN film crew has video of a UN-marked vehicle arriving at the tent site and of UN peacekeepers talking with the staff.

I have to say that I support the mission and ideals of the United Nations, and I know that they employ many bright and compassionate people. But incidents like last night at the clinic in Haiti give credence to some of the biggest criticisms of the UN – for example that it is such a massive bureaucracy that it often undermines the good work it is trying to do. Granted, the UN headquarters in Port-au-Prince was destroyed in the earthquake, killing many members of the staff and plunging the UN mission into chaos (it was the largest single-day loss of life ever suffered among UN staff). But Haiti is a disaster-prone nation, in addition to the threat of earthquakes, Haiti is often struck by hurricanes – it was hit by four tropical storms in less than two months in 2008 that caused widespread damage. It would only make sense then for the UN to have had a contingency plan in place should the PAP headquarters be knocked out (the northern city of Cap Haitien for example was not affected by the quake).

Another critique the health clinic debacle is bound to bring up again is the charge that UN peacekeepers are often little more than blue helmeted bystanders. Rather than evacuating the doctors, why couldn’t a few UN peacekeepers have provided security for the clinic instead? It’s worth noting again that Dr. Gupta and crew passed the night without incident in this allegedly “dangerous” place. Surely a few peacekeepers would have been more than enough of a show of force to keep order and it is hard to argue, given the health care situation in Haiti at the moment, that they could have been better used elsewhere.

The bottom line is that United Nations projects and programs do great things in many neglected corners of the world. But if they are overmatched in Haiti – and given the losses at their headquarters it’s understandable that they may be – and they are more of a hindrance than a help, then they should step aside and let those who can provide aid in these very difficult times do just that.
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