Nov 16 2010
by Lauren Eppinger
Vanderbilt School of Nursing
In a country so plagued by poverty, one would hope that the contrast between wealth and destitution would rile up people's desire for justice. But following conversations with my Guatemalan peers in the clinic, it has become apparent that the silent apathy has also become just as prevalent as the poverty that screams for our attention. Despite the undeniable contrasts, many people seem to view poverty as benign and even acceptable. Those who choose to acknowledge poverty here do not always know how to or take action against it.
It is not just apathy within the local community that can be so dangerous, but apathy within the global community as well. Apathy can be defined as a lack of drive to do or change things. In Guatemala it can be seen by the lack of involvement in social change with everything from education reform to recycling, and the overall contentment with the status quo. Admittedly, Guatemala's recent brutal political history probably contributes greatly to this condition, but passive resignation is essentially a form of active acceptance. There is general agreement that apathy is a sort of coping mechanism for those who experience frequent and poignant suffering and this form of psychological protection is very commonly utilized in Guatemala.
As I said, apathy here in Guatemala is alarmingly widespread. Some people have begun to recognize the gravity of this situation and have been campaigning for a change in the national attitude. Yesterday I saw a billboard defining patriotism as fighting for the wellbeing of the country. In the past I have even seen television commercials carrying the same inspirational message.
Despite these small efforts towards raising awareness of our power as global or local citizens, I have heard numerous people openly express their acceptance of their perceived powerlessness in the situation. Unfortunately, the struggles here seem to accumulate at least as fast as any efforts to relieve the suffering. Guatemala is a country with extremely low levels of education, literacy and health. Guatemala has the highest level of malnutrition in Latin America, and the fourth highest in the entire world. Healthcare is unattainable to many people due to many elements of access, and almost no one receives adequate primary care by the standards expected in the United States.
As an international volunteer working in a clinic in Guatemala, I do my best to pay attention to how my actions affect my environment. Naturally, I want my work here to be effective, and to help elicit positive change. I have heard my Guatemalan peers express strong support for the work being done by NGOs in Guatemala. This kind of acceptance of foreign aid is a good sign in a place where people are somewhat quick to resign themselves to a bad situation out of habit.
Although it may be easy to imagine that my job here is to work in the clinic and see patients as needed, I believe that I should be doing much more. It is my personal belief that people should use all of their available resources (knowledge, skills, etc.) for the greater good. My motivation for getting into the medical field was to be able to have concrete skills to offer and to be an effective agent of change. What makes apathy so dangerous is that it undermines the ambition and knowledge people could embrace to achieve change for the better.
A famous medical doctor known not only for his contributions to physiology, but also for his foundation of the idea of social medicine, Rudolf Vichrow, has been quoted as having said: Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale. Medicine, as a social science, as the science of human beings, has the obligation to point out problems and to attempt their theoretical solution: the politician, the practical anthropologist, must find the means for their actual solution.... The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and social problems fall to a large extent within their jurisdiction.
Although this statement was made over a century ago, the sentiment resonates with me and how I view my role and obligation in alleviating the cycle of poverty and its associated suffering. I interpret Vichrow's use of the word physician as being applicable to all medical professionals. Through our education and training we are given the tools to help people, and practice our science of "human beings," not only as a means to earn an income, but also to do justice to the science itself. If apathy gets the best of us, and we are unable to motivate ourselves to use the resources within ourselves, we cannot fulfill our duty and lives are left unimproved.
By using whatever resources we have access to, and working with the underprivileged, and advocating for their needs, we can indeed establish positive change in the global community. By recognizing this, we can begin to tackle some of the major obstacles, including the epidemic of apathy. Through the use of educational programs, casual conversations, passionate debate and positive examples of successful NGOs, we can appeal to the sense of hope within people and take our first steps towards achieving these goals.
As medical professionals, one of our most important resources is our understanding of the human body and the body's interaction with the surrounding environment and I feel we have an obligation to work with our patients in the clinic, but also advocate for the rights in the larger community. These skills and advocacy are our personal resources for establishing positive change, and that is what the medical profession is all about. The support of Hope Through Healing Hands, sending people and resources out into the world as well as instituting change can be an essential catalyst in alleviating some of the healthcare and social discrepancies globally and specifically in Guatemala.