Citing modern and historical human rights crises, Sheri Fink, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and University alum, challenged an audience of over 100 students and community members gathered Monday evening in the University of Michigan Museum of Art to consider how they would aid the most vulnerable members of society in an emergency.
Fink spent the majority of her lecture delineating how government agencies and response teams handled various emergencies, ranging from the Balkan Wars to Hurricane Irma, and subsequent effects on the critically injured and sick.
She noted emergencies function as a sort of test for the level of human rights in a society. The way individuals and organizations work together under extreme pressure, she argued, has the potential to have a major effect on the outcome of the crisis at hand.
“How much power do we have when our infrastructure is not what it should be? When we’re in situations that we can't control that have problems,” she said. “Even in these situations of extreme emergency, that individual decisions and the way organizations are setup to run, all of that can have a really big impact, a life and death impact.”
Fink, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for her reporting on doctors’ decisions during Hurricane Katrina and in 2015 for her work during the 2014 Ebola crisis, described the immense rationing of medical and comfort supplies that occurred inside the volunteer tents. She questioned the rationale used in the division of the supplies, and said Americans usually received a much higher level of care.
“Who gets access to the higher standard of care?” she asked. “Can you really set up an advanced treatment unit on Liberian soil for Americans when the Liberians are losing their lives?”
She stated hospitals have a difficult time procuring the highest attainable standard of health care during times of relative tranquility, so these disparities become especially pronounced in emergency due to the scarcity of medicine and intense need for health care.
Fink concluded by asking students to consider what they would do if faced with such a situation — once again noting the importance of thinking critically and responding rapidly in an emergency where hundreds of lives are at stake.
“That ability to retain flexibility, to think clearly about what your goals are, whether it's maintaining health care or promoting human rights or the best possible medical ethics, in situations of great stress and emergency — that these are possible,” she said.
LSA sophomore Jordan Brady said she attended the event as an addendum to her political science class, as well as its relevance to recent natural disasters and what she wants to study.
“Just discussing how we go about choosing who lives through these situations, and it really stuck out to me how hospitals and big organizations don’t really have a great plan until the last minute hits and then they’re panicking trying to help people and save people,” she said.
Ann Arbor resident Kenneth Smith further noted the relevance of the event — citing recent allegations against medical workers during Hurricane Katrina. He said he had recently seen Fink’s name on a book inside Barnes & Nobles, and wanted to hear an expert opinion on the subject matter.
“It really stuck out how during Katrina I hadn’t heard anything about the lawsuits going on with that, the euthanasia, as horrible as that is to hear, I had no idea that was going on,” he said.