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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Nov 23, 2011, 10:43 am

Health Workers Deliver First Aid to Protest Movements

BY Michelle Chen

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Doctors treat teargassed protestors in Tahrir Square (AFP/Getty)  

Warning: Defending your rights may be hazardous to your health. Potential side effects can include rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons wielded with impunity.

The recent uprisings around the world illustrate the physical risks involved in intense street protests. At the same time, movements are also discovering the connection between health and activism in another way, through medical workers joining the front lines to deploy their skills and their conviction.

Amid the brutal clashes with security forces at Tahrir Square, barebones field hospitals have held the line, thanks to a grassroots network of Tahrir doctors. One volunteer, Ahmed Adel, who has been aiding wounded protesters since January, told Ahram Online, "Treating the injured protesters here again makes me feel the revolution is about to be completed."

But hospitals are by no means safe havens. Mohamed Fatouh, a leader of Tahrir Doctors, told the LA Times, "The people are refusing to go to the ambulances because they think they go to the general hospitals, and from there they go to the police.”

The Jerusalem Post reported on a brutal assault on a field hospital:

A force of military police swept in like a fury, striking and beating doctors and patients alike. In less than a quarter of an hour this field hospital, one of three set up around Tahrir square, the epicenter of the protests, had been totally evacuated. Eyewitnesses called it a “crime against humanity.

Physicians for Human Rights reports that in Bahrain, Syria and other countries swept up in mass uprisings, authoritarian rulers have directly targeted doctors for doing their jobs.

Doctors in Bahrain have been under siege for helping casualties of clashes with security forces. Earlier this year the government sentenced 20 Bahraini doctors on charges of supporting the pro-democracy movement--part of a broader sweep that led to mass arrests and detentions, as well as abuse and torture. Although authorities have since agreed to allow new trials for the doctors, other health workers continue to face criminalization and suppression.  PHR told In These Times, “To make ends meet, some of the doctors have re-opened their private clinics. However, they have received calls from the ministry ordering them to close these clinics.”

Meanwhile, PHR is pressuring the government for accountability in all cases of alleged torture and human rights violations and the "Dropping of all politically motivated charges against medics." An independent commission's formal investigation of the crackdowns could force a turning point, but the fate of the pro-democracy movement remains unclear.

PHR published a report in April describing even more systematic abuses of health workers in the tiny Gulf Kingdom, which, curiously enough, has enjoyed the military and political backing of Washington:

[T]he beating, abuse, and threatening of six Shi’a physicians at Salmaniya Hospital; government security forces stealing ambulances and posing as medics; the militarization of hospitals and clinics that obstruct medical care, and rampant fear that prevents patients from seeking urgent medical treatment.

The military takeover of healthcare facilities may be the most egregious tactic of all, in that it not only aggravates the brutality but violates a basic principle of medical care as a humanitarian right.

For medical workers operating in war zones, PHR has pushed Congress to pass the Medical Neutrality Act, which would, at least in theory, protect doctors and other health workers “from attack or interference” and ensure nondiscrimination and open access to medical treatment in the midst of armed conflict.

Besides the danger of getting tangled in violent crackdowns on protesters, state oppression stifles the the entire profession of medicine. In Iran, where resistance to the regime takes more nuanced forms, two physicians who had pioneered innovative educational programs for HIV/AIDS prevention, brothers Arash and Kamiar Alaei, were just recently reunited after being imprisoned for years on charges of "co-operating with an enemy government," apparently due to their international work.

Within the healthcare infrastructure, workers are channeling social struggles into their practice. In India and Australia, medical workers have launched strikes and protests calling for decent pay, adequate supplies, and sustainable staffing levels.

As the Occupy movement grows more intense and in some cases, violent, volunteer medical aid personnel have provided care at protest sites, sometimes coming into direct confrontation with police. Maureen Miller with Physicians for National Health Program reported in early November (while the Zuccotti Park encampment was still going strong) on an ad-hoc healthcare operation to protect demonstrators and develop new ideas about social medicine .

[T]here is a lot we can learn from the ambitious project going on right now in Zuccotti Park. Medics attend to the occupiers around the clock; full-time practitioners moonlight with them. The time I spend at the park is what I can offer between clinical commitments — which, granted, is not much. But I am hoping to pick up some habits from the Occupy Movement to take to my classmates.

The last time I went to the park, on Oct. 23, I put it this way on a dorm-style dry erase board:

I am a med student.
I support Medicare for All.
I am studying for my surgery clerkship, yet I am here.
Do I need a CT scan?

Though medical workers are just one facet of a multifarious movement, they occupy a unique role, challenging from within a healthcare structure that profits from the malaise of the 99%. Their involvement is a step toward reclaiming a public trust. And after the system is smashed, at least a few people will be qualified to help start the healing.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the "Belabored" podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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