Responding to Ebola

AUSTRALIA has agreed to support a 240-strong medical team to fight the Ebola epidemic in West Africa after striking a deal on medical evacuations. The assistance will take the form of funding for a 100-bed field hospital in Sierra Leone, staffed by up to 240 volunteer health workers, including an unknown number of Australians. Prime Minister Tony Abbott today announced a $20 million commitment to the mission, which will be managed at “arm’s length” through a private operator, Aspen Medical. Mr Abbott said it was anticipated that Canberra-based Aspen would have some staff on the ground in Sierra Leone within days. The British-built Ebola treatment centre would have 240 staff, he said. “Most will be locally engaged, and it is likely some of them will be Australian.” Aspen Medical’s website was already advertising for medical personnel this afternoon.

Julie Lambert, Medical Observer, 5 November 2014

After my last blog, it was encouraging to read this article recently in the medical press. It was published 10 days ago and how far the process has come since then I don’t know, but it responds to an urgent need, and it looks as though Aspen Medical is not wasting time. I worked for Aspen briefly some years ago, in Australia. Since Aspen provides medical services to the Australian Armed Forces, the company was my employer when I did a four week locum job at the Cairns naval base in tropical North Queensland. My brief contact with the organisation was positive. It is encouraging to see that they are willing use their expertise and experience with medicine in remote locations to coordinate the deployment of volunteers as well as their own staff. They are certainly the right people for the job in Sierra Leone from an Australian perspective and will hopefully be able to provide a quality service to the people of West Africa at the same time as keeping their own people as safe and secure as possible. Maintaining the health of people (usually military) in remote locations is their specialty.

It is heartbreaking to read the reports of the Ebola epidemic coming out of Sierra Leone and West Africa. Our time with Mercy Ships back in 2001-2003 gave us some insight into just how much suffering has afflicted the people of that part of the world, and though our contact was fairly superficial we still feel some kind of connection to West Africa. When we arrived in Freetown at the end of 2001 on board the Anastasis the country was coming out of a decade of civil war. The war ravaged city bore the marks of a suffering people. UN vehicles were a common sight, the sound of helicopters overhead frequently broke through the buzz of the city streets. We were moored alongside a British ship, a fleet auxiliary vessel that served as a dormitory for British soldiers. Despite all this and the fact that most of our work was on board our hospital ship, we had frequent opportunities to disembark during our 3-month stay, and get to know the city and its beautiful surroundings, not least some of the wonderful beaches.

Now, after only a decade of relative peace, Sierra Leone is once again plunged into chaotic upheaval, but this time the enemy is not armed conflict but infectious disease. Sadly, Mercy Ships has neither the experience or the expertise required to respond to this kind of medical emergency, and has been forced to revise its planned outreach this year to Guinea, sailing instead to Madagascar. Other organisations have thankfully made a huge impact, notably Medicins sans Frontiéres which has, as usual, provided an astounding contribution, though they too have been quickly swamped by the need. It is encouraging to see governments around the world responding at last, even if slowly.

Meanwhile, the local health services are doing their best in an overwhelming situation. One inspiring example for me has been Dr Sandra Lako, another ex-Mercy Ships doctor, who has made Sierra Leone her home, working now as a medical coordinator for the Welbodi Partnership. Freetown is perhaps not the epicentre of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone but even there cases turn up regularly, and fear runs rife in the community, as Sandra’s blog bears witness to.

It is hard to know how to respond for those of us who for one reason or another can’t go to Africa to help in the response to this crisis. We can give our money, we can be interested by reading the updates that appear in the press, we can raise awareness by simply talking about the issue in our workplaces and homes, and we can pray. Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea… they are all places of great beauty and wonderful people, but just now places of fear and suffering. How can we help?

Our view of Freetown at sunset, 2002
Our view of Freetown at sunset, 2002
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Australia and Ebola

I read the following statement in an article in an Australian medical newspaper (Medical Observer) this morning:

THE US and Britain have made specific appeals for Australia to send personnel to fight the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, despite the government’s insistence that it won’t send Australians into harm’s way.

That expression, “into harms way,” got me thinking. There is no doubt that the countries of West Africa that have been smitten with this epidemic are dangerous places to go. There is no guarantee of coming home alive. I am reminded of the missionaries of the nineteenth century who packed their belongings in a wooden box that could double as a coffin. Few expected to come home alive, and few did. The missionary call to Africa was a call for life, and in many cases a call to death. West Africa has never been an easy place to be.

Yet for millions of people it is home. Their home has become a place of fear and death. The epidemic that is raging there threatens to destroy the peace. People are frightened and desperate. But they have few resources to respond. It is easy to look down on the local people of Liberia and Sierra Leone as uneducated and ignorant. But they are just like many of us. One of my doctor friends told me the other day of a patient of his who would not go to the USA on holidays because there was Ebola in America! And we live in the highly educated and enlightened country of Sweden. If even people here can be so controlled by fear is it any wonder that Africans who are facing this threat daily can easily be overcome by their anxiety and begin to act irrationally.

“Into harms way” reminded me of a favourite film of mine, Behind Enemy Lines (see the trailer here). There is a wonderful scene on the deck of an aircraft carrier when a US general uses the same expression. He is giving a pep talk to a team he is sending into war torn Yugoslavia to rescue a pilate forced to eject from his fighter plane, behind enemy lines. It is a rousing speech, when he challenges the soldiers to be ready to sacrifice their own safety, even their own lives, to rescue a friend and comrade. (“Gentlemen, I intend to put you in harms’ way. Any man who doesn’t wish to join this mission, step away now!”)

This military connection made me think of the Australian government’s willingness to send soldiers to fight in distant wars, the most recent being the struggle against ISIS. Why is the government so ready to send weapons and military aid to fight against the evil of ISIS which is conceivably a much harder battle to win than the battle against Ebola? But content to wait for the Ebola threat to reach our shores before we act?

There are people willing to go, Australians as well as many others. But they fear for their safety. They need to go knowing they have the support of the Australian people and the Australian government, knowing that they won’t be abandoned.

Today I signed a petition calling on the Australian government to commit money and medical resources to the battle against Ebola. Maybe that is odd for me, since I live in Sweden. Sweden has committed lots of money, more than Australia if I understand correctly. The subject is discussed daily in the medical and general press here. Volunteers are not exactly pouring out of the woodwork, but they are coming, and they are celebrated as heroes, as they should be. But I am Australian and proud of that fact, even if I live on the other side of the world right now. I don’t want people to think that my country, with far more resources than Sweden, is sitting on its hands. I want to see us as Australians responding to this threat with the same commitment and enthusiasm that we have committed to so many other worthy causes over the years. Why should we wait for Ebola to come to the Asia Pacific? There is a battle to be won now, a pre-emptive strike that we need to launch.

You can sign the same petition on the Get Up website here.

Penny Bridge

Örebro-kommunOur Swedish home is in a town with the unfortunate name of Örebro – unfortunate because few of our Australian friends really know how to say this word. The letter ö is pronounced like the “ur” sound in burn (for Australians that is, who don’t generally pronounce the “r” in such words). The second syllable of the word sounds like the word “brew” in ozzie speak. So for an Australian to pronounce it correctly they would need to read it as urebrew.

But what does it mean? It is a composite of two words: the first is öre, which is the Swedish name for the smallest currency denomination, which in Australia is called a cent, but in England is called a penny. The word öre can also be used for a pebble. The second word in the name is bro, which means bridge. I have read that Örebro is situated where it is because there was a ford with a pebble bottom in the river here – a “pebble bridge” – and it was easy to cross back in the days before there were constructed bridges.

However, lately I have seen the word pennybridge used in various contexts. Today for example, there was an advertisement in the paper for the Pennybridge Tattoo Mess – a tattoo exhibition/fair to be held in Örebro this weekend. There is also an Örebro company called Pennybridge which is a website where individuals can donate money to a long list of participating charities, among others Mercy Ships and Operation Mercy, both of which have a special place in our hearts.

We were in England in the summer and spent a week in the Lake District. On one of our last days there we drove through a village with a familiar name. We couldn’t help stopping for a photo!

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Autumn colours

DSC_5574Something happened to the summer… it was glorious while it lasted, but autumn is here and soon the darkness will return. But autumn colours bring moments of happiness despite the anticipation of the freeze that lies up ahead…

Christian solidarity in Örebro

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The events in Iraq over recent weeks have shocked the world and cries out for action, for response, but it is easy to feel helpless as we observe from a distance the slaughter of innocents, Christians, Muslims and Yazidis. We look to our governments to react but in Sweden at least there has been a noticeable lack of comment at a government level. In the last day a few headlines have caught my attention, amongst others an article about the deportation of a Yazidi man, an asylum seeker who the Immigration Department has decided to send back to Iraq because they have assessed the situation there to not be of sufficient threat to his safety, and because they believe there are adequate safe havens in Iraqi refugee camps (see http://www.svt.se/nyheter/varlden/migrationsverket-fortsatter-att-utvisa-yazidier). This seems extraordinary in light of the constant reports in the media of the aim of ISIS to wipe out this people group, effective genocide. One wonders just how dangerous it needs to be in a country to justify asylum in Sweden. The Swedish government has said that they will respond to the crisis with humanitarian aid (though I am not aware of any forthcoming yet), but they have no intention of getting involved militarily. The Kurdish forces that seem to represent the only significant military resistance on the ground in Iraq need arms, but despite the fact that weapons represent a major export in Sweden there appears no intention of Sweden to even provide this kind of assistance, let alone actual troops.

DSC_5543Örebro is home to thousands of Assyrian Christians, families who have fled from their various homelands in Turkey and Syria. They speak a language close to Aramaic, the native tongue of Jesus. They are, unlike many Westerners, proudly Christian, and unashamed of their allegiance to the Syrian Orthodox Church in this country where it is regarded as somewhat inappropriate to speak publicly about personal faith. These Assyrian Christians have a heritage of persecution and genocide. The events of 1915 are still fresh in the minds of many even if they happened long before contemporary Assyrians were born. The Assyrian community in Sweden has been shocked by the events unfolding in Iraq in the last few weeks. Although many Swedes (and not just Swedes, but Westerners in general) seem to find it relatively easy to turn a blind eye, possibly even to think things can’t be as bad as the media is making out (think of the reaction of the Immigration Department), Assyrian Christians have no illusions about just how bad things can be. They are acutely aware that if ISIS means to wipe out Christians (not to mention Yazidis and even Muslims of other persuasions) then they will do it if no-one stops them. They are also acutely aware that the ambitions of ISIS are not limited to Syria and Iraq, but to the whole Muslim world and beyond.

Today we joined the Assyrian church (St Marias kyrka) in a march in central Örebro to demonstrate solidarity with the threatened peoples of Iraq and opposition to the ISIS terrorists. The march was a quiet affair – indeed it was meant to be silent, symbolising the response of the Swedish government to the crisis, the seeming reluctance of people in power in Sweden to denounce ISIS. It was a privilege to walk with thousands of Assyrians through the streets of our city. Most of the churches of Örebro joined in, and even some secularists – the Humanism Society – supported the initiative. At the end of the march we gathered in Olof Palmes Torg to listen to various speakers, from both the Swedish Christian communities and the Assyrian Christian community (as well as a few politicians). We were reminded that what is happening in Iraq at the moment represents the plans of a very powerful group of terrorists to eradicate ancient Eastern Christianity from the earth. Many see this church as the cradle of Christianity, even as the cradle of what we know as Western civilisation. It was sobering to reflect on the events unfolding in the world today.

At the end we walked back to the car and crossed the big square in town, Stortorget, where various political groups were speaking on their soapboxes. There is an election in Sweden in a few weeks time and the political parties of the nation are presenting their visions for a better Sweden to the populace. There have been signs around town advertising the rallying cries of various party representatives. These vary from the usual things such as job creation and school reforms to some which are blatantly ridiculous. Perhaps the most embarrassing is the picture of an aspiring politician with the words beneath, “Scrap TV fees.” In the context of the times we are living in can there be anything more trivial?

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Blue mountains

West of Sydney are the Blue Mountains, spectacular and of major significance in the history and development of European colonisation of NSW. West of Örebro there is a range of low lying hills which is also sometimes called den blåa bergen – the blue mountains – which is of significance in the history and development of Sweden in the 18th and 19th centuries. For Australia the Blue Mountains represented a barrier to westward expansion from the sea, where the colony of Port Jackson had been founded. For Sweden, the blue mountains, being part of Bergslagen, represented rich deposits of iron ore which were of a major source of wealth if only it could be got out of the ground.

But nowadays Örebro’s blue mountains are mainly a recreational area, and yesterday morning in the crisp Spring sunshine I went for a few hours hike up into the hills, in the area around Klockahammar and Lockhyttan, up to one of the most spectacular viewpoints, a rocky outcrop called Rusakulan. I parked the car at Blankhult, where there is a stuga (lodge) for vandrare (hikers) and headed northward along Berglagsleden (the Bergslag trail). The track, mostly dry but in some places muddy, first skirted around a wooded rise, among birches just bursting into leaf. The sun was warm on my shoulders and although the temperature was not more than 5 or 6 degrees I was soon unzipping my cotton jacket to cool down. 

The gatekeeper
The gatekeeper

A wooden sculpture appeared ahead, vaguely menacing, an image of a woodcutter strategically placed where the trail suddenly dropped steeply down, down into a darkly forested gully, the so called Trolldalen (troll hollow). I read the plaque nailed on the tree stump on which he stood – “Portvakten” – the gatekeeper. I descended the trail, into the forest glade, glimpsing a tiny lake through the trees to my left, and at the bottom crossed a rough bridge of birch trunks over a crystal clear beck. There was not a troll in sight. The lake, I discovered, was one of many dams built some time in the far past to provide a steady water supply for the forest industry surrounding the getting of iron.

The track then climbed through darker woods of towering firs and pines. The forest floor was soft with moss, the track mostly dry, as I hopped over roots and rocks, winding between the endless trees. Another lake appeared on my right – Stora Klockahyttesjön – the water glittering in the morning light. A sign marked the location of a former kolbotten (coal bottom) where once men worked to produce charcoal for the smelting of iron. There were thousands of these dotted throughout Bergslagen at one time in history, when the processing of iron ore required vast quantities of fuel. I tried to imagine the life of a charcoal burner, living out here in the forest, cutting wood, living in a little hut with maybe one companion. These men were crofters – they paid the rent for their croft in charcoal – so this was an important part of their daily existence, but by no means the focus of their lives, which was to produce enough food for their families. The old wooden houses – “torp” – of the crofters are still to be seen all through Kilsbergen, which is the name by which the blue mountains are known here outside Örebro. 

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Trolldalen

Eventually I found the steep winding track up to Rusakulan and climbed panting up and out of the trees to the rocky top. I had not passed another human on the way, but there on the top were two men who had come up by another way, on motorbikes. One of them recognised me – it seemed odd to be greeted by name out there in the middle of the wilderness – and we chatted idly as we gazed out over the vast landscape of the Närke plain. In the distance we could see Örebro and the big lake of Hjälmaren, but closer we spotted the spire of Närkes Kil’s mediaeval village church. Tysslingen lake also glinted in the sun, and all around the fields lay brown and ready for the growing season ahead – a tractor was ploughing with a cloud of dust behind.

I descended the stony knoll on the other side and came eventually back to the track I had come on. Back through the forest and the troll gully, across the whispering beck. Past the gatekeeper I took a different route, upwards over higher country where the forest had been cleared and the land was covered with stumps and new growth. Clusters of tiny white flowers – vitsippor – quivered in the gentle breeze, one of the “signs of spring.” Some old towering pine trees had been left, standing lonely in the barren landscape. I found myself thinking of “lone pines” and battlefields of WW1. It was Anzac Day after all, though no Swedes I had asked knew what that was. I descended to where the car was parked and drove back into town, refreshed and energised by my few hours in the blue hills.

Rusakulan
Rusakulan