See the latest vacancies and find out about working for MSF UKJobs in the UK
“I want to help your country’s hospitals”: How COVID-19 should change our view of aid
“Are you OK? Is your family safe? Is there anything I can do to help? I want to come and volunteer in your country’s hospitals. Do you know who I can speak with about this?”
If I told you a month ago that these emails, WhatsApps and Facebook messages between myself – currently living in one of the world’s richest countries – and my former South Sudanese colleagues whom I worked alongside in a remote medical centre – in one of the world’s poorest countries – I would have forgiven you for getting the direction of communication wrong.
However, in this unprecedented time of COVID-19, it is perhaps less surprising that it is myself who is inundated with offers of support from concerned colleagues in former projects.
I find myself just as confused as everyone else, just as overwhelmed and just as unable to pull myself away from the seemingly endless news updates.
"Calls from South Sudanese doctors, nurses, and logisticians offering all they can and more during the UK's time of need, whilst they themselves live under plastic sheeting in swamps, with insufficient food and no running water, should not only humble but remind us that the UK is not alone."
Experience of responding to crises in other countries is one thing but it is another thing entirely when it is on your own doorstep.
Looking out at the now empty streets, the closed shops, and the audible sound of birds tweeting – no longer drowned out by the din of passing traffic – I am overwhelmed by how surreal my normally mundane surroundings have become!
I moved to Truro, a town in southwest England, to start my new job (now on hold) the day the “lockdown” was announced.
My plan of getting my furniture out of storage, making new friends, getting to know my neighbours and becoming a regular at the local pub have all been put on hold for the foreseeable future.
My sparse surroundings and lack of company due to my ill-timed move has left plenty of time for me to reflect on the current situation.
In writing this piece I tried to come up with some eloquent way of making sense of all this, some grand observation that drew on my years of experience overseas.
But, despite having experienced some of the world’s most complex humanitarian emergencies, I find myself at a loss now that it is my own country that is no longer normal.
Yet, whilst I may not be able to make sense of all this (how could anyone), I feel that there is a positivity amongst the tragedy.
None of us would have chosen COVID-19, the ever-rising death toll and the upheaval of the very fabric of our society. However, we find ourselves inadvertently bearing witness to the future.
In recent years we have become increasingly isolated, distant, and fractured as a society. Yet, the lockdown has placed us at the logical conclusion of this path and we do not like it.
Despite my current lack of physical community, I find myself arguably more connected than I have been since leaving South Sudan and possibly ever:
Shouting to my neighbour through our open windows to see if he would like to share a large bag of potatoes; calling instead of texting loved ones, and making conversations with strangers as we awkwardly walk to the opposite side of the street to ensure sufficient distance between us on our single walk of the day.
I feel I am being given a somewhat surreal glimpse of the community spirit of years gone by, and I like it.
We are not alone
The changes to our society will be far-reaching and not just on this micro, personal level but on a national and conceptual one as well.
Whilst COVID-19 achieved the seemingly impossible and made us in the UK stop talking about Brexit – be you leave or remain, Europhile or sceptic – our relationship with Europe, and indeed the rest of the world, has changed forever.
I am reminded of our bonds with other countries when my friend and former colleague, an Italian nurse currently working overtime in Lombardi, finds time to regularly call and plead with me to follow the advice on social distancing.
Her small way of saving the UK from the same fate as Italy.
Calls from South Sudanese doctors, nurses, and logisticians offering all they can and more during the UK’s time of need, whilst they themselves live under plastic sheeting in swamps, with insufficient food and no running water, should not only humble but remind us that the UK is not alone.
A global community
Not only should the hand of friendship and solidarity from some of the world's poorest people fundamentally change our Western-centric notion of what we understand a humanitarian to be, but it should also serve as the answer to the question: “Why we should help other countries?”
Understanding aid as a transactional process is fundamentally flawed. We should not help others to even up an exchange, but because of the intrinsic value of other human beings.
This offer of assistance from those who, according to the unequal power dynamics of the global political economy, are seen only as recipients of aid and not expected to offer assistance, should serve as a reminder of our global community.
A reminder I hope we do not forget when we finally come through the other side of this crisis.