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International Red Cross /Red Crescent Movement: behind the scenes at the Shanghai World Expo

22-09-2010 Feature

Inside a small and plain room, Dr. Wang Xin Yu waits silently, patiently. For now, he and his first-aid post remain unnoticed by the boisterous, camera-toting group streaming by at the World Expo, which started in May in Shanghai, China. The ICRC’s Cynthia Lee and Francis Markus of the International Federation sent this report.

  ©ICRC/ C. Lee    
Visitors throng the Red Cross/Red Crescent pavilion at the Shanghai Expo in China.    

  ©ICRC/ C. Lee    
Shanghai Expo, China. A mosaic comprising photos of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers from around the world.    

  ©ICRC/ C. Lee    
Shanghai, China. A young student is captivated by striking visual imagery in the Red Cross and Red Crescent pavilion.    

  ©ICRC/ C. Lee    
Shanghai, China. Singer Wang Lihong performing at a concert hosted by the Chinese, Japanese and Korean Red Cross Societies.    

  ©Red Cross Society of China    
Shanghai, China. One of many first-aid stations run by the Chinese Red Cross at the Expo.    

The mundane scene is a stark contrast to what most people imagine to be the work of the world’s largest humanitarian network. There's no flood, no heart-wrenching scene, no destruction, no refugee, no danger.

It isn't that Dr. Wang is a stranger to that kind of action, either. After a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit China’s Sichuan province in 2008, he was part of a team dispatched by a Chinese Red Cross hospital to the area to set up a mobile hospital in partnership with the German Red Cross. As a member of a rescue team, he also carried out first-aid activities and cared for local villagers in Anxian, Mianyang.

“Although we were the second group to arrive, by which time dead bodies had already been recovered and evacuated, we shared the sadness of the local people,” Dr. Wang explains softly. “It was sad to see. As members of one big family, we felt that we should do what we could to help.”

But he is well aware that his role today at the World Expo – in which 189 countries are participating – is sedate and behind the scenes.

 165 Red Cross volunteers and doctors  

First-aid posts at the Expo have 165 Red Cross volunteers and doctors on rotating 16-hour shifts. It is one of the ways in which the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is actively involved in one of this year's major international events.

Each of the five Chinese Red Cross first-aid posts is part of an official Expo medical statio n offering a range of services: triaging the needs of people who fall ill while touring the fair, expected to attract 70 million visitors. According to first-aid staff, sunstroke and blisters are among the commonest ailments suffered by visitors. 

“Our work here involves minor services, such as providing bandages or lending out wheelchairs. But owing to the large numbers of people we are seeing, we often have to make snap decisions,” says Dr. Wang, who works fulltime in the infectious diseases unit of Shanghai’s Red Cross Huashan Hospital.

He doesn’t view what he is doing today as unrelated to his experience in assisting victims of the Sichuan natural disaster, which left more than 87,000 dead.

“Our work at the Expo is not comparable in terms of urgency or scale to what the situation was in Sichuan. But the Red Cross spirit of selfless devotion is the same. We are providing a service and making life easier for visitors.”

There is further evidence of similar dedication elsewhere on the Expo site. At the International Red Cross and Red Crescent pavilion, visitors are greeted by volunteers who, for six months, will work from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on alternate days.

The simple exterior design of the pavilion, inspired by the basic white tent commonly used in relief efforts, belies the multimedia showcase of striking visual imagery inside. Reflecting devastation, hope and the resilience of humanity, the images portray situations that call for humanitarian assistance and the diverse ways in which the Movement responds.

Many of the pavilion greeters are first-time Red Cross volunteers and, for them, the experience has been an enlightening one.

" It has made me mature because, I'm after all just a college student and I don't know much. I am now aware that there are many people who need help,” said Lu Wei Y ao from Shanghai. “We as human beings need to learn how to communicate with each other. "

In anticipation of the influx of visitors to the six-month Expo, another 2,000 trained Red Cross volunteers are operating first-aid stations in 148 parks across the city.

 Honouring millions of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers  

Wei Yao is one of 100 million Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers in 186 countries who are being honoured in a special section of the pavilion. A " great wall " covered with portraits of volunteers from around the world pays respect to the central role they play in the Movement.

This colourful mosaic caught fourth-grader Ge Fei Fei’s eye when her class visited the World Expo.

" I think the Red Cross is really great!” said the girl clad in a blue school uniform. “We all need the Red Cross to help take care of and protect us. "

The bright student from Wuxi City in neighbouring Jiangsu province adds that when she grows up, she wants to join the Red Cross.

The Movement is present at the Expo thanks to the Chinese Red Cross, the ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

From behind-the-scenes services that make the Expo experience safer to poignant displays of the humanitarian spirit, these activities " enrich the Shanghai World Expo and illustrate its theme of'Better city, better life', " said Chinese Red Cross spokesperson, Wang Shitao.

" Through the International Red Cross and Red Crescent pavilion, we demonstrate the role of humanitarian actors in building a better life. We hope that visiting the pavilion will help the public understand the spirit, principles and work of our Movem ent, and that more people will contribute in their own ways. "

 Theme days  

At Expo, some of the Movement's special theme days, which reflect its varied activities, are being honoured officially.

Expo celebrated World Red Cross Red Crescent Day – on 8 May –with the formal inauguration of the pavilion and with special events. This kick started activities countrywide to mark World Red Cross and Red Crescent Week.

A summit forum on the theme “City, disaster and relief” explored the topic of urbanization – which is both the focus of this year’s global campaign and Expo’s motto. The forum was addressed by Red Cross leaders from Sichuan and Yushu, the site of another devastating earthquake, which killed more than 2,000 people in April 2010.

But the highlight of the day’s proceedings struck a considerably lighter note. An evening concert jointly hosted by the national Red Cross societies of China, Japan and the Republic of Korea conjured up a genuinely international flavour.

For the Chinese fans, the main attraction was clearly the American-born Chinese singer Wang Li Hong. But the presence of stars from Japan, such as Judy Ongg and Takuya Komatsu, and Lee Jung-hyun from South Korea, underscored the cross-border feel of the occasion shared by the national Red Cross societies of three countries whose history has been closely and often painfully entwined.

On World Blood Donor Day, 14 June, some 200 Red Cross volunteers were mobilized for the theme " Young Donors. "

The Chinese Red Cross also marked Public Welfare Day, 9 August, with performances.

The expo hosted the final match of a national first-aid competition to commemorate First Aid Day (11 Sep). About 300 peop le participated in first-aid skills demonstrations and other lively activities, including song and dance performances.

World Disaster Reduction Day, on October 2, is also marked on the Expo calendar.

 700,000 visitors, and counting  

As of early September, 700,000 people had visited the pavilion. Chen Li Juan from Taiwan and her friend Katie from Hong Kong visited the pavilion after reading about it in a magazine.

" We participated in Red Cross programmes while at school, " said Li Juan, adding that during her childhood she visited orphanages, hospitals and old people’s homes. For her part, Katie donates blood occasionally.

The two friends said they were very touched by the photographs in the pavilion's gallery and the short film introducing audiences to the Movement’s activities around the globe.

" The whole world works together to save lives, regardless of race and nationality, and that's really moving, " said Li Juan.

The visit wasn't an entirely solemn experience for them, however. When asked about their favourite pavilion feature, their serious-looking faces suddenly broke into giggles.

" That was fun! " Li Juan said, pointing at their own photo, which had just been added to the portraits of other Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers via a special interactive webcam.

And while the more sombre, moving images on display at the pavilion are closer to the reality faced by Dr. Wang two years ago, he is dedicated to his present quiet work at the first-aid station.

Sporting a pristine white physician’s coat, he takes a few moments to calmly look after each patient that comes through the door. It is quite a con trast to the lively commotion just a few hundred metres away at the wildly popular China pavilion.

“What we do here is commonplace, but it needs personal devotion,” he concludes.