johnBaird healthcareSecurityEnsuring that the millions of people affected by instability, armed conflict and natural disasters have safe access to critically needed health care services has never been easy, but in much of today’s world, the obstacles can seem even more challenging.

In countries experiencing conflict, like Syria, Somalia or Sudan, violence is often inflicted against patients and the health care personnel trying simply to save lives.

Ongoing insecurity compounds the problem of poor access to health care. Health care professionals struggle to reach the most vulnerable people, particularly those in rural areas, which, in turn, impedes our ability to reach our Millennium Development Goals of improving child and maternal health and eliminating diseases like polio.

Then, there are catastrophic disasters, such as the 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti, a country whose ability to provide much needed health care services was already stretched. The International Committee of the Red Cross recognizes these issues as some of the most pressing humanitarian challenges of our time.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada has emerged a world leader in development assistance in some of the world’s most unstable regions.

Security-related health care challenges demand leadership and concerted action, both in terms of urgent short-term crisis assistance, and in addressing long-term health care and security issues globally. Canadians can be proud of the vital role we play in responding to these needs.

In June of last year I had the opportunity to travel to Libya and meet with the leadership of the National Transitional Council.  What I saw was devastating. The Gaddafi regime had ruthlessly targeted its own people, using rape and torture as a sick and twisted method of intimidation.

Despite the best efforts of the international community and medical volunteers—some of whom were Canadian—the lack of access to emergency health care was shocking.

In addition to the timely resources provided by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to agencies working in Libya, I delivered on behalf of all Canadians hundreds of much needed trauma kits to Benghazi.

Unfortunately, the Libya example is not unique. In Syria we have watched the Assad regime perpetrate a campaign of terror against the Syrian people, killing thousands, while denying access to basic medical and emergency humanitarian assistance for its people. Hospitals are routinely targeted with attacks, and the wounded often choose not to seek treatment for fear of detention, torture or worse, death. Health care workers continue to risk their own lives for the sake of saving others.  

Again, Canada has responded. We have imposed the toughest sanctions in the world against the Assad regime, while still providing the Syrian people $7.5 million to address the urgent humanitarian crisis.

In Somalia we see the disruption of humanitarian assistance far too often. Al Shabaab, a terrorist network, has cut off assistance to large portions of the Somali people—a population suffering from acute famine and food insecurity. In 2009 a suicide bomber took the lives of 20 people (mostly doctors) at a medical school graduation ceremony in Mogadishu. This one act symbolizes the tact of this cowardly organization. The combination of conflict, violence and crushing poverty only deepens the demand for serious action.

The Government of Sudan has restricted international efforts to deliver urgently needed food aid and health care in the conflict-ridden states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

These examples underscore the challenges we face, as well as the importance of supporting humanitarian and medical workers whose goal is simple—to save lives and alleviate suffering.

Canada is practical in its approach and strategic in its vision. Operationally, we support efforts to strengthen the availability of immediate health care needs. Canada is providing much needed financial support to humanitarian organizations working around the world to help those affected by conflicts and natural disasters. We have developed, in partnership with the Canadian Red Cross, a deployable Canadian Red Cross field hospital. And in extraordinary circumstances, such as the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, we have deployed the Canadian Forces Disaster Assistance Response Team to help meet immediate medical needs.

We also recognize that certain health care challenges are systemic and long-term, and that healthy mothers and children are critical for the well-being of families and communities. Concerted international leadership is required, and when applied, can deliver tangible results. Under the guidance of Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada assumed a leadership role within the G8 of advancing a global agenda for improving maternal, newborn and child health.  My colleague, Beverley Oda, Canada’s Minister for International Cooperation, is diligently overseeing Canada’s investment of $1.1 billion in support of this initiative over five years.

Canada has led efforts to eradicate polio in Afghanistan.  We have made critical investments to combat malaria, HIV/AIDs and tuberculosis and were early proponents of ensuring children get access to vitamin A. The correlation, however, is clear: despite all the good that Canada offers the world, when security is at risk, health care suffers.  

In December 2011, Canada joined member states from around the world to endorse a resolution by the International Committee of the Red Cross to bring greater attention to the issue of health care in danger. We now need to ensure practical and common sense solutions overcome the challenges we face. Our responses must be decisive. Our commitment must be for the long term.

Politically, we will condemn and isolate those responsible for reprehensibly denying access to health care while working to find sustainable solutions to the challenges the world faces.

Canadians are a naturally generous people.  Our government only intends to extend that same sentiment around the world.