Aid Being Deployed to Morocco in Partnership With Local NGOs

Jacques Cofard

September 22, 2023

The 6.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Morocco is certainly one of the worst catastrophes the country has seen, leaving nearly 3000 dead and 5530 wounded, according to recent official reports. It was followed 20 minutes later by an aftershock that measured 4.9 on the Richter scale.

Sadly, the numbers of dead and wounded are likely to rise. Some 380,000 people live within a 50 km radius of the epicenter of the earthquake in the mountainous High Atlas region, which is situated less than 80 km southwest from the heavily populated city of Marrakesh.

The rescue mission for survivors is ongoing, and destruction on a huge scale has been seen from Marrakesh to the High Atlas region. In mountain villages, the roads are blocked by landslides, making access to those still trapped very difficult.

Triaging the Wounded

On the scene, Moroccan doctors are working together to first try to triage the wounded. "The walking wounded are treated and sent to centers ready to welcome families and provide psychological support," said Nada Damghi, MD, emergency care physician, in an interview with Le Monde. "People who are seriously wounded are receiving lifesaving and emergency treatment on the scene. Some have had surgery and are under observation. Others have been transferred to one of our partner hospitals in Marrakesh, to the Mohammed VI University Hospital or to the Ibn Sina military hospital."

Damghi came to Tahanaout, the capital of the Al Haouz province, with a mobile medical team. This area has recorded more than 60% of all deaths from the earthquake. Marrakesh and Agadir's University Hospital facilities have been pushed to the limit but are not yet at breaking point, even though doctors have had to open new units to cope with the influx of wounded patients.

"Lots of private doctors have offered their help, but it's okay. For now, we're coping," said Damghi. More than 100,000 children have been affected by the earthquake. They have been taken to Marrakesh's University Hospital, among others. Many of them experienced orthopedic and abdominal trauma, and several have head trauma.

It's not just the vivisible wounds that need addressing. Morocco is also trying to respond to the psychological distress caused by this national crisis. A listening service has been set up.

Hachem Tyal, chairman of the national mental health federation, who was in Marrakesh on September 8, plans to send a team of psychiatrists to the region over the course of the next week. These professionals will visit community clinics in the region, Le Monde reports.

Although the situation in Marrakesh and Morocco's large cities seems to be under control, it appears to be more difficult in rural, mountain villages.

"Isolated villages in the High Atlas region that are nearly completely cut off have been badly affected or, worse, completely wiped out by this very high intensity earthquake, which is as bad as the one we saw in Syria and Turkey. I have visited several villages. They need aid in the form of food, tents, blankets, and medical supplies. Any medical, humanitarian aid is welcome," said Zouhair Lahna, MD, humanitarian doctor on X (formerly known as Twitter). The medic, who is a partner of France's eastern branch of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, has witnessed the aftermath in Marrakesh.

Although Morocco has restricted its aid, it's highly likely that it will accept help from several other countries once the first phase of the emergency response has passed.

"Morocco hasn't refused aid or help from anyone. It's not helpful to frame things like that," said French Foreign Affairs Minister Catherine Colonna on France's 24/7 rolling news channel, BFM TV. France has so far committed to donating €5 million, and the European Union has committed to donating €1 million.

A Joint Response

Since September 9, several countries, including the United States, Algeria, Belgium, Hungary, Spain, India, Turkey, and even Ukraine, Russia, and France, have expressed their sympathy and have lent their support to Morocco.

Despite this support, Morocco announced on Sunday that it would only be accepting aid from four countries: Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and the United Kingdom.

Why has the offer of support from other countries so far been rejected?

For France, several reasons have been proffered: some observers have pointed out that diplomatic relations between France and Morocco have not been consistently good. Morocco has found fault with the restoration of France's diplomatic relations with Algeria, as well as the reduced number of visas granted to Moroccans by France in 2021.

But diplomatic relations, good or bad, don't tell the full story. A massive, uncoordinated influx of humanitarian aid could cause more harm than good, as was the case in 2010 in Haiti following the earthquake there.

Ismail Hassouneh, the national secretary of French nonprofit organization Secours Populaire, which has just committed to donating €100,000 in aid to Morocco, explained the situation to the Huffington Post. "In the first few days, it's really very difficult. The government needs time to organize itself. During the first 3 days, it put in place what's called the 'initial plan,' which must include an assessment of the situation and its needs. It's only then that it actually starts to consider foreign aid offers."

The current silence from the Moroccan authorities has not stopped voluntary organizations from offering their support. Indeed, Secours Populaire reached the scene of the earthquake on Monday, September 11, and has for now chosen to give aid to its Moroccan partner nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), rather than send large numbers of French aid workers.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies sent workers to the region shortly after the earthquake to provide first aid, to participate in search and rescue operations, and to support local authorities in assessing their aid requirements.

For the United States, the High Atlas Foundation and CARE, among other NGOs, are supplying food, water, and shelter to families in the High Atlas region that have been displaced by the earthquake. The High Atlas Foundation also seeks to support the long-term recovery and reconstruction plan in the region.

In addition, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), otherwise known as Doctors Without Borders, has sent an emergency response team to the area. "MSF does not operate in Morocco, but we are in the process of making contact with the local authorities in order to deploy rapidly to assess the country's needs and determine if our support is needed," said Michel-Olivier Lacharité, head of MSF's crisis response team in Paris.

Lacharité described MSF's main priorities for disasters of this type. "In the first few days after this type of disaster, we need to treat the wounded and quickly provide medical care and treatment, particularly surgery, but we also need to prioritize restoring dialysis treatment, which can be difficult when local healthcare capacity is reduced by a disaster," said Lacharité. "The distribution of essential items and helping healthcare services get back on their feet are also priorities."

Conversely, the Belgian organization Médecins du Monde has been in Morocco since 2013. Following the example of Secours Populaire, they decided to work in partnership with local NGOs in Morocco while also sending teams to the region to assess what's needed. "Teams from Belgium's Médecins du Monde and its partners are preparing to send workers as part of a fact-finding mission in upcoming days. The purpose of the mission is to determine the specific needs of the disaster-stricken population in terms of physical and mental healthcare in remote villages and mountain regions affected by the earthquake," according to the organization.

This article was translated from the Medscape French Edition.


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