27 May 2013

You Call This First Aid?

...one, two, three....pause....one, two, three...
Remember those high school gym classes when some handsome volunteer fireman would come and show us how to administer emergency first aid? We learned CPR, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (with lots of blushing and giggling, of course), how to tie a tourniquet, how to apply direct pressure and "elevate the area." And whether or not any of us have ever used these skills, we learned that running to help someone who’s hurt should always be your first response. In fact, it’s not for nothing that the new name for emergency personnel is First Responders. Thanks to the First Responders in Boston last month, the death toll was held to the initial three victims, because in an emergency you don’t have time to think, you just act. What else is first aid if not the aid you give first?

That’s why I’m obsessed by the absurdity of a new law in the State of São Paulo. This new law, promulgated in January 2013, prohibits police from assisting people injured in serious crimes. The police must keep civilians away from the victim, too. Everyone must stand back and wait for an ambulance to show up, while some poor guy bleeds to death, or dies of shock. I mean, think about this law in practical terms, particularly in a country where the ambulances come when they come. Last week in São Paulo a college student was walking home from evening classes when he was assaulted by an armed robber. The student immediately handed over his cell phone, but was shot anyway. Police arrived quickly, but the ambulance took 29 minutes. For 29 minutes the student lay on the cold, hard asphalt, bleeding and in pain, all the while surrounded by police and witnesses. Nobody was allowed even to staunch the blood. To me, this is not only absurd, but inhuman and criminal. (The following video is grainy, but shows the moment of the assault. The kid was finally taken to a hospital and to this day his condition remains serious, unsurprisingly.)

Folha de São Paulo's reader poll
What is the idea behind this nonsense? Well, the reasons are twofold. First, the São Paulo authorities say they want to offer quality care to the victim, the quality care that only trained medical personnel can provide. After all, the police might aggravate the injuries, right? And civilians, goodness knows what a mess they might make. So let’s all just wait — and wait, and wait — for the ambulance. The second reason given by the authorities is the need to ensure that no one interferes in a crime scene, neither police nor civilians. Really, I think people are watching too much CSI. I can’t imagine I’d prefer bleeding to death so as to preserve a crime scene. And I’ve found that I’m not alone in my outrage. The newspaper Folha de São Paulo conducted an online poll which found that 85% of the poll’s participants were against the new law.

Let’s not even mention that this new law contradicts Article 135 of the Brazilian Penal Code, which states that any failure to assist someone in need (omissão de socorro) is a crime. A classic damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation. All I can do is shake my head and plan to steer clear of São Paulo. I’m a product of my upbringing, and I’m used to laws that speak to a citizen’s duty to rescue, or duty to act, as well as Good Samaritan laws that protect those who offer emergency first aid. Remember Seinfeld? That show was syndicated in Brazil, and was wildly popular. Doesn’t anyone in São Paulo remember the show’s famous finale? The four protagonists find themselves with a few hours to kill in a small Massachusetts town, where they are arrested under a Good Samaritan law for failing to help someone in need, and are later sentenced to one year in prison. I think the authorities who promulgated the new "hands-off" law in São Paulo ought to watch this:

Well, I was right, this new law sure is controversial. A week before I wrote this blogpost the law was stayed, but it was reinstated the next day, so I didn’t bother mentioning that detail. However, just days before the blog was set to publish, the law was stayed again, with the absurd contention, made by the Secretary of Public Safety, that the police were never actually prohibited from assisting. It was just a recommendation. I elected not to change the blog since in all likelihood some other authority will weigh in with more changes, leading to more confusion. That the law was even on the books for five months is, in my opinion, worth noting.

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