Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hospitals running out of basic supplies, desperately short of ventilators. Clinical staff risking their lives to treat patients. Doctors forced to make agonizing decisions between who lives and who dies.
Dr. Amani Ballour endured those grim conditions and worse, long before they became a reality for medical personnel around the world battling the novel coronavirus. The Syrian physician—subject of the Oscar-nominated and Emmy-contending documentary The Cave—spent more than five years running a subterranean hospital in besieged Eastern Ghouta, a facility deliberately targeted for bombing by forces allied with Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad. A “normal” day’s casualties might include dozens of civilians mangled in aerial bombardments and children gasping for breath after chemical attacks.
“I don’t envy the tough path that lies ahead of medical professionals in this [COVID-19] war,” says Dr. Amani (as she is commonly called). “Many doctors and nurses will watch tremendous suffering and be forced to stand by, helpless. The same circumstances that make them heroes will haunt them forever. I know firsthand what this feels like.”
Dr. Amani’s experience in the trenches in Syria gives her a unique perspective on the coronavirus emergency, the struggles confronting medical workers, and what we—and our political leaders—should be doing in response.
DEADLINE: What advice would you give doctors and nurses on the frontlines of the coronavirus fight?
DR. AMANI BALLOUR: I always got this advice when I was in Al-Ghouta—of course I didn’t take it a lot, but it’s really serious. The medical workers and the doctors, they have to protect themselves before doing anything else, because if we lose them we can do nothing after that. We don’t know how long this pandemic will last so we have to be at our best all the time. I would advise them just to take care of themselves, to protect themselves.
DEADLINE: What practical steps should we all be taking to combat the emergency?
DR. AMANI: There is at least one clear way that we can help the doctors, nurses and other health care professionals as they battle this pandemic: stay home. Stay home so the spread of the virus can slow—and so doctors don’t have to face the burden of choosing who lives and who dies. It won’t always be this easy to help, but while it is, it is truly the least we can do.
DEADLINE: For years you had to make life-or-death triage decisions about which patients to prioritize for treatment. We are hearing of doctors in Italy facing the same dilemma in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and there’s a potential for it happening here.
DR. AMANI: This is the most difficult thing I faced the whole time I was working [in the hospital]. After each massacre we treated a lot of injured people. Sometimes we had to decide to help one person over another because he has or she has a hope to survive more than this one… I chose to [prioritize] the children, and I chose the children who are next to me, but other children and other people died because we couldn’t help them. I can’t forget that and I will never forget that. I always think about that. I hope these [doctors] who choose now, I hope they can forget [eventually]… I really feel guilty because I had to choose, but there is nothing to do.
As doctors, we can [normally] classify the injuries, but in the chemical attack—I remember that very well, it was sarin gas—I couldn’t classify the people because all of them had the same symptoms. They were suffocating and I think it’s now the same situation with coronavirus. All the people have the same symptoms… they need ventilators. This is what happened with us. All the people have the same symptoms and they need very urgent help.
DEADLINE: What do you make of the U.S. response to the COVID-19 crisis? We now have more cases here than anywhere else in the world.
DR. AMANI: This is really shocking. I think that government leaders, they have to reconsider their policy. … They have enough missiles if there is a war but they don’t have enough medical supplies. … We will [overcome] this thing and we will get rid of this virus, but I hope they listen, they learn a lesson from what happened now. We don’t need more weapons in this world. We need more things to protect people, not to kill people.
DEADLINE: In your hospital you dealt with a constant shortage of equipment and medicine. You wrote, “Often the only anesthesia available for surgery was the soothing recording of an orchestra to distract the mind.” Here, we are facing a shortage of ventilators, as well as masks and personal protective gear for medical workers.
DR. AMANI: I’m really surprised what has happened [in the U.S.]—they don’t have enough resources, they don’t have enough ventilators. The most cases are in New York now. Can you imagine if it happened in Idlib [in northwest Syria]? This is what I think about. If a developed country couldn’t deal with this pandemic, how are [less developed] countries going to do that?
DEADLINE: You were forced into exile after the Assad regime crushed the last resistance in Eastern Ghouta. So far as you can tell, what is the situation like in Syria under the additional threat of the coronavirus?
DR. AMANI: The Assad regime destroyed a lot of hospitals. They killed a lot of doctors and actually most of the other doctors and medical workers left Syria. So there are not enough medical workers and doctors in Syria, no good healthcare system.
Three months ago, the Assad regime started a [bombing] campaign against Idlib and they destroyed three hospitals just in one day. Doctors there expect that about 100,000 people are going to die if the virus reaches them. The virus is now in the neighboring countries—in Turkey, in Jordan, in Lebanon. It’s everywhere around them. That’s why we’re very worried about the people there. The Syrian population could be ravaged by this disease: social distancing in refugee camps is virtually impossible, and the continued bombing of hospitals will be even more devastating as hospitals begin to overcrowd.
DEADLINE: You point out that the coronavirus pandemic has given others a better sense of what life has been like in Syria during the civil war.
DR. AMANI: Because now all the people have the same experience—to be afraid all the time from something. If you wanted to protect yourself, your family, your children, and you can’t find the resources. This is what all the world is experiencing now. I’m not happy because this happened. But I hope people [understand] how Syrians lived for about nine years without anything, in fear all the time. They couldn’t protect their children, couldn’t protect their families. If they flee from place to other place, the bombing follows them into the camps.
DEADLINE: You’re currently in Berlin, stranded there when travel restrictions hit to contain the spread of COVID-19. You were there on a fundraising tour for the Al Amal (Hope) Fund, which was created to honor your work in Syria. How difficult is it to be away from your homeland at this time of growing crisis?
DR. AMANI: I wish I can be there now but I’m in quarantine. I can’t move. Before I could do advocacy for them and fundraising for these people. This was my way to help them, but now it’s stalled. Working to help other people, that makes very, very beautiful feelings. I was happy when I was there because when you save a life, of course you’re going to feel happy in spite of all the circumstances, all the danger. I was happy because I was useful.
I see a lot of doctors and medical workers, they really risk their lives [fighting the coronavirus pandemic]. I can understand that very well, because we believe in humanity. I’m ready to risk my life anytime to help others. And this is our work as medical workers. This is what we want to do, why we study and we work in the medical field… I really respect them and appreciate what they do. And I think this is just because we are humans. If you can help someone, if you can do something to protect someone, of course you’re going to do it.
For more information on the Al Amal (Hope) Fund, click here.
Coping With COVID-19 Crisis
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