Volume 16 Number 2
Voice for People Power
01 April 2003

David Swann is a medical doctor who has become known in Canada for sticking his neck out on points of principle. He talked to Gordon Legge at a moment when the debate about war with Iraq was at its height.

When Canadian physician David Swann was in Iraq last November, he attended a birthday party. An elderly Iraqi woman looked at him and said, 'We look to you [in the West] for leadership. I hear you want to bomb us. Yet you say, very few Canadians support that. We're not insects. We have a loving vision for ourselves, our families, our children. I thought you lived in a democracy? How can you let your leaders do this?'

'There was anger and tears in that question,' Swann, 53, recalled in an interview after his return to Canada. He had travelled to Iraq as a representative of Physicians for Global Survival to assess the country's disaster preparedness. What he found was a nation whose health, educational and basic infrastructure of water, electricity and communications was crippled by 12 years of economic sanctions.

In his report entitled, Dying for peace in Iraq - disaster preparedness on the brink of war, Swann opens by quoting a retired Baghdad engineer, 'First you tell me I have a headache, and then to relieve me, you decide to chop off my head.'

Then he lists several specific indicators:

* The physical environment (air, water quality and sanitation, vehicle and building safety) is poor and threatens everyone, especially the disadvantaged;
* The economic conditions for more than 50 per cent of the population are desperate and cause widespread anxiety and stress, particularly when unexpected expenses rise, such as healthcare and household maintenance;
* The entire health sector, once the pride of the Arab world, has been profoundly degraded over the past decade;
* Social problems have increased during the last decade in association with increased unemployment (43 per cent for men; 10 per cent for women) and falling literacy rates (57 per cent in 1997 from 90 per cent in 1985).

Among Swann's conclusions: 'There is a high probability of a major loss of life, including that due to a spiral of civic violence, both in Iraq and in the surrounding countries, if there is a war. This would quickly overwhelm the existing resources and capacity to support life in Iraq.'

Within days of his return in mid-December, Swann was taking every opportunity to speak out - in community halls, college classrooms, churches and mosques - articulating a thoughtful and impassioned opposition to war in Iraq.

Yet Saddam is threatening the world with weapons of mass destruction, and supports international terrorism?

'Yes, there are many brutal dictators in the world that need to be challenged but not by duplicating what they have inflicted on others,' says Swann. 'There is very little evidence that Saddam poses a meaningful threat even in the Gulf at this time. We have international law (the UN Charter and Geneva Conventions) and we know that to be on the receiving end of war is terrorism.

'Iraq has a unique historic, religious and political context in the Gulf, in relation to Israel and other conflicts and must be addressed by the Gulf States themselves under the UN auspices - not through war.'


In fact, Swann took his opposition to the war a step further. If you listened closely, Swann was also issuing a clarion call by one ordinary individual to countless other ordinary individuals across the world to bring about change and regain the reins of democracy.

'This feels like a watershed to me,' says Swann, a tall, thin man who could be mistaken for a modern Man of La Mancha - except his intellect is too sharp, his answers too disarmingly honest ('I don't have all the answers... that is a horrendous regime'); his idealism too tempered by realism. From where Swann stands, the war call is marshalled by a global triumvirate of Big Business, Big Government and Big Media. It sets the agenda for the international community. That agenda is leading to political, economic and environmental degradation, along with increased militarization of the planet. 'Nothing is going to stop it except the power of the people.'

Swann believes he has no choice but to speak out. 'How much of a difference have we made with our silence during the last decade?' he asks. 'In my silence, by not having spoken out, I have contributed to the deaths of 1.5 million people (in Iraq) during the last 12 years.

'My voice, united with millions of others around the world, can actually renew our democracy and make our politicians accountable to what we stand for: truth, humanity, compassion, human development and the equitable distribution of the Earth's resources,' he says. 'One person speaking the truth encourages many others.'

It's a lesson Swann learned quickly last year. Before his trip to Iraq, Swann gained national recognition in Canada for publicly supporting the Kyoto Accord, by which governments agree to reduce their country's greenhouse gas emissions. In taking the stand he did, Swann, a public health officer in the Canadian province of Alberta, found himself in direct opposition to the region's provincial government, which opposed the accord. He was fired from his job. After a public outcry, Swann was offered his job back. He decided not to take it. Instead, he decided to focus on the Iraqi situation.

'Through the Kyoto thing, people called me from all over the country,' he said, sitting in the kitchen of his modest, two-storey home across the river from downtown Calgary. 'I received e-mails from Europe. What they said was that I was encouraging them. Democracy, unless it's lived, is just a word, a thought.'

Moreover, he says, it comes with a cost. 'If we can't make our politicians accountable here, we're not only letting down our children and our grandchildren, we're letting down the developing world.' When people don't have a voice, corruption reigns, he says.

Swann didn't always find it easy to speak out. He was a shy student at medical school. He describes himself as having 'a saviour complex', believing that science and technology were the answers to humanity's many woes. It wasn't till he worked as a physician in inner city clinics and undertook an elective in impoverished Haiti that his views began to change. 'I started putting the pieces together during the course of the next 10 years,' he says.

He spent three years working on a medical mission in South Africa. Then he went into family practice in southern Alberta, where he found himself at odds with the medical establishment which set a quota for the number of patients he treated during any given day. He began realizing that he was treating the symptoms rather than the root causes of illness. In the mid-1980s, he decided to study public health medicine because it focussed on prevention.


In the late 1980s he went to the Philippines for two years. That was his Waterloo. 'In South Africa, if you spoke up, you ended up in jail. In the Philippines if you spoke up, you ended up dead.' What he found was that if he spoke up against the corruption he witnessed, he'd destroy a project and harm thousands of families; if he didn't speak up, he lived a lie.

It raised a fundamental question. 'What is the cost we're willing to bear for the truth?' Swann was profoundly depressed when he returned. Then the 1991 Gulf War began, a conflict that left him in despair. He reflected on the words of Carmelite monk Father William McNamara. 'If you love, it'll kill you. If you don't love, it'll kill you.'

With grace, time and the nurture of his family, Swann began to see the way ahead again. 'It became more and more clear that I wanted to go out speaking the truth.' As a physician, he began looking at social problems and societal issues, searching for the root causes rather than focussing on the symptoms; by asking different questions rather than trying to diagnose the answers. As a public health officer, he started publicly voicing his concerns about social issues and their impact on health and healthcare - smoking, air quality, gun control, factory farming and the Kyoto Accord.


'Since my firing, I've felt a stronger call,' says Swann. 'War in Iraq is about much more than Saddam Hussein and his oil. It is about us, in the free world, what we stand for and what kind of a world we want for our children.'

Moreover, Swann, who became a Christian while in South Africa, senses there is a strong spiritual force behind his activism. Fuelled by principles of love, truth, purity and unselfishness, Swann tries to take time every day to pray and read scripture. 'This is kind of a gift from God. This has really strengthened my faith. I've needed God much more profoundly than in the past. I feel so much energy. This is the ultimate in preventive medicine. Contributing to stopping a war is the ultimate in saving lives.'
Gordon Legge

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