Former head of Doctors Without Borders joins front lines in coronavirus fight

Dr. Liu in conversation with Global News national correspondent Michael Armstrong.

The Canadian doctor who headed up Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) for six years says health-care workers in this country fighting the novel coronavirus should be readying themselves for the worst-case scenario.

Dr. Joanne Liu, 54, was the international president of MSF over two terms from 2013 to 2019 and has spent time on the front lines battling Ebola in Africa. She says the best strategy is to over-prepare.

“There’s no forgiveness in a pandemic,” Liu says. “There’s just no forgiveness and most of the time the cost is life.”

Credit: Doctors Without Borders.

Liu says the Canadian government is doing “fair, but not great.” One of the biggest challenges, she says, is the lack of experience in the Canadian health-care system fighting something like COVID-19.

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“We have to be aware that many of my colleagues, and many people in this sector, are scared,” Liu says. “And they’re right to be scared.”

Liu says governments owe it to health-care workers to ensure they’re protected, and so far there have been shortcomings. At times, some provinces have said they were only days away from running out of important protective gear like N95 masks and gloves. Liu says the idea that premiers have asked doctors and nurses not to overuse PPE is a catastrophe.

“There are limits to what you’re ready to do if you don’t feel that you’re protected the right way,” she says. “And that’s absolutely legitimate.”

After wrapping up her term at the helm of MSF, Liu was on sabbatical writing a book about her experiences. Her writing residency has been put on hold by COVID-19, so she’s decided to return to work early and join her former colleagues at Montreal’s Ste-Justine children’s hospital.

Dr. Joanne Liu is returning to work at Montreal’s Ste-Justine children’s hospital after heading up Doctors Without Borders.

Liu brings with her experiences in epidemic outbreak management and hopes to put them to use.

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One of the practices she suggests is the use of spotters when putting on and removing protective gear. A person walks the doctor or nurse through each step from a safe distance away.

Liu also suggests separate COVID-19 facilities. At Montreal’s Notre-Dame Hospital, Liu says doctors have built “a hospital inside a hospital.” She says that was an idea pushed by another former MSF doctor who’d worked at an Ebola centre in the past.

Mental health is another big concern for Liu. She says support is needed for health-care workers and anyone else on the front lines in fighting COVID-19. Even people like grocery store cashiers and bus drivers are under stress now and could face PTSD as the crisis winds down.

“We are overlooking that,” Liu says. “I think there should be a hotline. People should be able to debrief about their fear. They should have that kind of support 24/7.”


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