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Innovative approaches to relief

Robert Goldberg, Ph.D.
Washington Times
January 12, 2005

Sir Harold Evans wrote that innovation is the distinguishing American quality. Nowhere is this more evident than in the American response to the tsunami tragedy. Last week the massive relief operation for tsunami-hit areas in Aceh, Indonesia, which is Ground Zero for the tragedy, was on the brink of chaos. No one was in charge of directing the distribution of aid. With tons of food rotting in storage facilities, the flow of aid came to a halt altogether when a Boeing 737 cargo plane hit a stranded water buffalo and skidded off the runway at Sultan Iskandar Muda airport, the hub of humanitarian programs for Aceh.

Enter the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, and special lifting equipment brought in by helicopter which found a way to remove the cargo plane and water buffalo. Elsewhere, a flotilla carrying Marines and water-purifying equipment was bearing down on Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, a former staging base for B-52 bombers in Thailand roared with the take-offs and landings of giant cargo planes. All told, 14,000 military personnel from all branches of the services have reinstated food, communication, transportation and medical systems throughout Southeast Asia. They have established power systems, hospitals and counseling centers overnight and have shuttled the sickest survivors to care centers in Japan.

Liberals, who measure compassion only in terms of dollars committed and frequent shows of sympathy, called the initial response of the Bush administration to the disaster stingy. They were outraged at the initial (and it was only meant as immediate cash assistance) government donation of $35 million. But as the heroic work of the USS Lincoln's crew has made clear, without having a system of distribution in place, the pledges of money amount to nothing more than aimless dumping of donations that are likely to be stolen or diverted to corrupt officials.

In a similar fashion, the administration has often been criticized for doing nothing to respond to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the developing world. The critics have measured the Bush HIV/AIDS plan only in terms of how much is being spent on drugs. However, the major obstacle to better treatment of infectious disease in poor countries is not the lack of affordable medicines but the lack of pharmacists, nurses, clinics, clean water and lab facilities. The administration has given a lot of the money in its emergency HIV/AIDS plan to local organizations who are using the money to expand infrastructure. If you haven't heard about it, it is because the grants are given without the usual compassion fashion show that liberals like to give for the media. But it makes the delivery of affordable medicines possible.

Similarly, crises have a way of quickly separating those who create or produce for a living from those who just complain for a living. So, just as it is not surprising that while United Nations bureaucrats were doing publicity fly-overs of the devastated areas, Americans have been stepping up to the plate to set up sustainable relief operations. We also shouldn't be shocked that U.S. pharmaceutical firms have been among the first American firms to provide private-sector relief support. American drug companies such as Merck, Bristol-Meyers and Amgen have contributed more than $50 million in cash and products, more than many countries have given. More important, pharmaceutical firms were the first to respond to what people on the ground actually needed, instead of dumping donations to generate publicity. Pfizer Inc. is donating $10 million in cash and $25 million in medicines. Its employees and medical personnel in Thailand, India, Malaysia and Indonesia are delivering medicines to hospitals and local governments directly. In an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week, Martin Smith, spokesman for Map International of Brunswick, Ga., a nonprofit organization, said that "pharmaceutical companies are asking what we need. They are not telling us what they have available. It's extraordinary," Map International plans to airlift 10 cargo containers of medicines and supplies to help tsunami victims.

According to the Inquirer, Glaxo-SmithKline has had its antibiotics airlifted to Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia by AmeriCares and has given nonprofit relief agencies a $7 million line of credit to choose products such as antibiotics, anti-parasitics and anti-ulcer drugs to keep in charities' warehouses, available to ship immediately in any disaster. "It's unprecedented for us to see that kind of line of corporate credit," according to an AmeriCares representative. Unprecedented, but only because it is an innovation to meet urgent and extraordinary needs. Thoreau observed, "You must have a genius for charity as well as for anything else." The collective effort of our military, pharmaceutical firms and non-profit organizations to establish and sustain public health systems in Southeast Asia in the wake of the tsunami disaster is yet another unique product of American exceptionalism.

Robert Goldberg is director of the Manhattan Institute's Center for Medical Progress.
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