Champion of social justice walks the talk

A Rwandan couple pays to have their children shot rather than allow enemy forces to hack them to death with machetes.

Dr. James Orbinski

LACOMBE — A Rwandan couple pays to have their children shot rather than allow enemy forces to hack them to death with machetes.

A salesman wears long sleeves to hide the number tattooed on his arm.

A young man in Malawi will die because profit-oriented drug companies want $15,000 a year to treat him.

Delegates from seventy-seven countries walk out on Canada’s presentation on climate change because they see Canada as a part of the problem.

For nearly an hour on Tuesday evening at the Lacombe Memorial Centre, Toronto-based physician and medical researcher James Orbinski held captive the hearts and minds of more than 300 people — mainly medical professionals — who wanted to gain insight into his challenges and victories as a leader of social change.

President of Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) when it won the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize, Orbinski, 49, said there was no single event behind his decision to become a champion for social justice.

Rather, Orbinski concluded early in life that people have the power to right the wrongs around then, and then set out to walk the talk.

When one person accepts a stranger as an equal, a bond of solidarity forms that allows that person to help resolve the stranger’s suffering, Orbinski said.

“For me, the humanitarian act is rooted in the experience of compassion, as solidarity is. Too often . . . we choose to take pity on those who suffer and sometimes, we take charitable actions towards relief. However, when one literally sees the other as equal . . . it’s solidarity that takes human suffering seriously and refuses to accept the unacceptable.”

Orbinski and fellow members of Médecins sans Frontières raised the alarm when they discovered the unspeakable horrors facing families in Rwanda. One girl told him how her mother hid her in a latrine when enemy soldiers came to her home. She watched through a hole as they hacked her mother to pieces.

When they learned that the cost of the drugs was keeping thousands of Africans from seeking treatment for HIV-AIDS, Orbinski and his compatriots founded a Dignitas International, a group that was able to purchase large quantities of generic drugs from a number of different manufacturers. They were able to drive the cost of treatment from $15,000 (US) a year to under $200.

“The needs of poor people do not translate into a return on investment for profit-making companies,” said Orbinski. Because of that, there has been no research into treatments and medicines that would help deal with disease and infection in developing countries.

“This is both a failure of the market and a failure of public policy. In response, we created DNDI — the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative.”

Orbinski told the crowd that the world is heading into a crisis at multiple levels, including shortages of food, fuel and fresh water; widespread disease; economic failure, and climate change.

Yet he is both hopeful and optimistic that ordinary people who have compassion for others can find the solutions necessary to create a better world and head off a disaster.

“The International Criminal Court came into being because of the outrage of citizens like you and me, who listened to what was spoken by the (non-government organizations) like Médecins sans Frontières, OXFAM, Amnesty International and literally thousands and thousands of other organizations who met in churches and schools and community clubs . . . and community halls like this,” he said.

“If you can’t find an organization that reflects your values and your choices, . . . start one. And if you can’t find a political party in which you find a place or a voice, start one. Don’t hesitate.”

Orbinski was invited to Lacombe to give the second-annual lecture presented by the Murray Martin Memorial Foundation, created in memory of a Lacombe physician who died late in 2007.

The lecture series is a joint project of the Murray Martin Memorial and Red Deer College Foundations.

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