A change from the usual Clayton campus, today's Torque module was convened in the picturesque Library at the Dock, along the Yarra River. Both medical and non-medical students were present to learn more about war, its devastating social implications, and ways to help effect positive change.
Our first two speakers were both representatives from The Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) (MAPW). Dr Margaret Beavis, the current MAPW President, opened the module with an overview of the impacts of war, both direct and indirect. She put abstract statistics into perspective - billions and trillions are just a number until you realise the amount spent on the Iraq war is equivalent to 50 years of our total national health budget, and the 65 million people displaced globally, from their homes, is equivalent to the populations of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada combined. It is a pressing global concern, albeit one many of us are fortunate not to directly witness. She spoke passionately on change required on the political front, beginning with reallocating more funding to foreign aid and diplomacy, rather than raising military expenditure. Australia's foreign aid contribution, as a proportion of the budget is heading south--towards 0.2%, in contrast with the UN's recommended target of 0.7%, versus the whopping 2% invested in defence. Not all is doom and gloom though. 122 nations recently voted in favour for the July 7 Nuclear Treaty negotiations, which Dr Beavis attended.
Dr Jenny Grounds, past president of MAPW, further elaborated on a more obscure aspect of war--its environmental impact. Beyond the immediate casualties and loss of human life, war destroys precious natural resources. Unexploded landmines and cluster ammunition are still huge problems in post-war countries such as Vietnam. This compounds the existing global crisis of climate change, which in turn exacerbates conflict: the Syrian conflict which started from 2011, has been postulated to be partly precipitated by frustration over a severe ongoing drought from 2006-2009.
Dr John Cooper, a consultant psychiatrist, then shed light on the psychological impacts of war, which are often unseen and unsaid. He spoke of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the classic but surprisingly not most common illness in returning veterans. The more insidious conditions of depression, anxiety and substance abuse are equally common in people trying to cope with psychological distress after exposure to death and despair. This mental trauma can be experienced by victims and perpetrators alike. Dr Liam Hannon, a Emergency registrar with experience working with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), wrapped up the sharing with his personal stories in South Sudan and Yemen. He spoke of the very different living conditions experienced abroad--restricted movement and travel, limited network connectivity, and the fear of kidnappings and airstrikes. Surprisingly, the danger that he feared most was not a bombing, but the daily peril of a commute on poorly-built roads, with the risk of landslides and unexpected road blockages. He reminded us that the main victims of the war are not the soldiers on the frontline, but the civilians--the children, elderly, pregnant and poor, who have to adjust to the serious deprivation of basic needs such as clean water and education.
The mini-workshop on presentation of war in the media, and the interactive panel discussion at the end, allowed participants the opportunity to share their thoughts. Many of us were keen to take action, to do our bit in the face of this global complexity that is war. What emerged from the discussion was to reframe war from a political problem, to a health issue, and perhaps even a personal challenge. How might we think globally by acting locally, whether it is to find out more about the challenges, raise awareness by speaking to others (keep Torquing!) or crafting a handwritten letter to a local organisation or political representative? How can we keep this in mind, whether as health professionals treating veterans and refugees, or just an ordinary person making an ANZAC day donation? Although the problem may seem insurmountable at times, perhaps our voices and advocacy can help relieve the suffering caused by conflict.
Dolly Png is a second year medical student at Monash University (2017).