Doctors Without Borders Bring Their Experience Back to Italy

Doctors Without Borders Bring Their Experience Back to Italy


Gabriele Eminente speaks with the voice of a practical person, who quickly gets to the point. And so it must be, given that Gabriele, a Bocconi alumnus who graduated in Business Administration in 1988, has for seven years been general manager of the Italian chapter of Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontières – MSF), a non-profit that is as sizable as a medium enterprise, with a 100-member staff and €60 million raised annually from donors, thanks to private donations coming from individual citizens and companies. Gabriele, who after 15 years working in for-profit organizations, worked for as many years in non-profits (before joining MSF, he was at Amnesty International for a few years), tells how his organization is helping tackle the pandemic.

As Director General of MSF Italia, you are now at the forefront of the Covid-19 emergency

Internationally, our organization has intervened since the first signs of the epidemic in China, sending supplies to Wuhan and then dispatching a mission to Hong Kong. But immediately afterwards the most important front became Italy, so we ended up with having to deal with an emergency at home. Now we are also working in Spain, Belgium, Greece and France.

Unusual areas of operations for you

Doctors Without Borders operates in about seventy countries and in most cases these are poor countries with very fragile health care systems. Now, it is a matter of bringing help directly to our own country and others that have much more developed public health systems, contexts where we usually do not need to intervene. In poor countries, we usually work in tandem with a mix of stakeholders, which is usually 10% international and 90% composed of local actors. Today, in Europe, there is no such distinction. In short, a very different intervention paradigm, where our work is integrated into the much wider response to the crisis by local institutions.

How has MSF Italia intervened in the coronavirus crisis?

We immediately coordinated our moves with the government's task force and the Civil Protection Service. We realized that our experience in managing health emergencies such as those related to the Ebola or Measles outbreaks could be very useful.


Because in an epidemic, it is essential not only to treat individual patients, but also to combat the epidemic as a whole to prevent it from spreading, starting with hospitals, local medical networks, and nursing homes for the elderly. As Italian institutions mounted a huge response, we understood that our know-how could provide additional value, to be shared through training and education. We have also started operating in three facilities in Codogno and we are expanding our scope of action to other provinces and regions. All this, while being well aware of our limits facing the enormity of the emergency.

What is the main difficulty in managing this pandemic?

I would say the high number of infected health workers. Everything must be done to ensure that health workers do not get sick. This is typical of violent epidemics when there is no drug or vaccine. We found ourselves in the same situation five years ago during the Ebola emergency in Africa. In addition, congestion in hospitals should be avoided and hospitalization should be limited to the most severe cases, by supporting the network of family doctors and operators of facilities for the elderly, in order to avoid the further spread of the virus.

You mention other health emergencies. What are the similarities?

Although we are dealing with two completely different pathologies – and I emphsize this because I do not want to be misunderstood – the comparison with the Ebola outbreak is pertinent in more ways than one. Also then and there, we were confronted with an epidemic which had no vaccine, but we could give supportive treatments to the sick. In the case of Ebola, too, public health actions beyond hospitals was fundamental to modify people's habits in order to contain the infection. Something – although in a totally different context, I repeat – which is happening today in Italy and globally.

So what we should do then?

Right now it is essential to continue supporting the incredible work done by thousands of medical and humanitarian workers across the country, and that is what MSF Italia is doing: we are doctors committed to saving lives together. On the other hand, each of us must do our part in respecting the basic rules to avoid further contagion, primarily by practicing social distancing.


by Andrea Celauro
Translated by Alex Foti

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