Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bottleneck at the Port-au-Prince Airport When Every Plane is the Most Important One

Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) put out a press release this afternoon regarding their difficulties getting medical supplies to their workers on the ground in Haiti.  A plane carrying supplies to Port-au-Prince has been denied landing 3 times since Sunday night.  In all, 5 MSF planes carrying 85 tons of supplies have been diverted to the Dominican Republic since last Thursday.  In the release, MSF quotes one emergency coordinator as saying,
We have had five patients in Martissant health center die for lack of the medical supplies that this plane was carrying.
MSF also posted this release to their Facebook page and highlighted this quotation.

If you've been following the news, you know that there has been a stubborn bottleneck at the Port-au-Prince airport since shortly after the earthquake.  Port-au-Prince is a relatively small airport and a very large number of planes are trying to land.  The United States military took over operations there last week and delays were reported to have decreased.  However, reports today indicate that the United Nations directed that priority be given to landing U.S. troops, and that this has caused relief supplies to be delayed.

I have no doubt that Martissant health center did die for lack of supplies, and that those supplies were on that plane.  That is a tragic situation.  It is easy to get caught up, as it appears the press did today, in the details of MSF's difficulties.  MSF is the good guys, and the good guys are trying to do good things, and they can't.  That's bad. 

The problem is that MSF's press release is only one view of a very complicated situation.  We can be pretty well assured that while MSF's planes have not been able to land, that is because someone else's planes were landing.  Without knowing for sure what or who was on the planes that did land, it's hard to say that MSF's planes should have been allowed in first.  For example, what if one of the planes that did land carried supplies that saved 50 lives?  The impression left by the military getting priority is that security is coming before medicine, but that may well not be true.  For example, U.S. troops are tasked with getting shelter and water to survivors.  Is that less important than medical supplies?  I'm glad I don't have to make that call.

In a crisis, it is natural to see very clearly what needs to happen right around you.  You know what you need, and what you need to meet the needs of those you know you can help.  It is understandable that people in a tense situation where time is of the essence demand that they get what they need, for themselves or others, quickly.  This is one of the big reasons why, particularly in a major incident, someone not on the ground needs to be given the job of seeing the whole picture and making the tough calls.  Everything is important, but not everything can happen.

Every plane landing in Port-au-Prince right now is critically important.  Undoubtedly some bad calls will be made, and undoubtedly some calls that seem bad now will turn out to be good, and vice versa.  The simple fact that a certain number of lives could have been saved by a decision being made a different way does not by itself mean that decision was wrong.  All we know for sure is that, once again, the limitations of time, space and resources are causing suffering.

Note:  As you know if you've been reading the Quarterback over the last week, MSF is one of my favorite charities.  It still is.  I don't mean in any way to be disparaging of them or their point of view.  It was just a very good example of what often happens in a crisis, and so I chose to use it for illustrative purposes.  I hope you'll continue to support MSF and the many other organization scrambling to save lives in Haiti.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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