The Red Cross story: where humanity rises above everything else

A movement that began on the ruins of a battlefield is today synonymous with caring for the distressed – and blood for those who need it.

A helping hand during wars and calamities: The Red Cross story

Even as Cyclone Fani picked up momentum before it unleashed its fury on the Orissa coastline this May, a series of early warnings were reaching to some 20 million people in vulnerable areas of the state: “Try not to panic. Listen to the radio and follow instructions. We will help. The Red Cross is here with you.”

As it can be guessed, the messages were relayed by the Indian Red Cross. The organisation, aided by about 1,500 volunteers trained in first aid and disaster management, also helped evacuate communities to safer areas; more than 15,000 affected people stayed in the 65 shelters it opened in Orissa. From start to finish, it was an outstanding operation.

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Red Cross Movement

As the name suggests, the Indian Red Cross is the local chapter of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, a global humanitarian network of nearly 80 million people who work towards protecting humankind, ensuring respect for them without racial prejudice, and preventing and lessening of suffering, whatever be the cause – manmade or natural. 

Totally voluntary, the Red Cross movement provides relief in times of natural disasters such as cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis through its local chapters; the involvement of the Indian Red Cross during Fani is an example. 

Red Cross volunteers, who keep themselves distanced from political, racial, religious or ideological controversies, are also found in war zones. Subsequently, the affiliated societies maintain their autonomy though they are subject to the laws of their respective countries.  

It also carries out various activities like running blood banks, discussed later.

The Beginning

The wholly-charitable not-for-profit movement, ironically, is the result of a business trip cut short. In June 1859, Swiss businessman Jean-Henri Dunant, also called Henry Dunant, visited Italy to apprise Napoleon III of the problems associated with doing business in Algeria, then under French control. The trip did not pan out quite as the Swiss expected.

When he arrived at the small Italian town of Solferino, where part of the ongoing Austro-Sardinian War was playing out, it was the site of an estimated 40,000 dead or wounded soldiers; there was no trace of basic medical attention. A deeply religious man, the horrified Dunant gathered local villagers to provide care to the wounded, without discriminating between which army they belonged to.

Later, he penned a book recounting his experiences in Solferino, and proposed the formation of voluntary relief organisations to help nurse wounded soldiers. Durant also proposed an international treaty to protect medics and field hospitals set up for the purpose.

The suggestions appealed to the Geneva Society for Public Welfare, a philanthropic organisation, which in 1863 formed the “International Committee for Relief to the Wounded” to implement Dunant’s proposals. 

It is this committee that over time evolved into the International Red Cross of today, based in Geneva. In a nod to its Swiss roots, the committee adopted the Swiss flag in reverse – a red cross-on-white – as its symbol, while a red crescent replaced the cross in Islamic nations.

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Fund Source

The Red Cross is a 100% voluntary nonprofit, and so it has to subsist on donations, with more than 75% being accounted for by government donations over the past few years. International organisations such as the European Commission also provide funds, as do corporates and individuals. 

In 2018, the International Red Cross had projected a budget of 2 billion Swiss francs (CHF), or about Rs 140 billion, reflecting a 10% increase over that of the previous year. It reckons to have spent 90% of donations received on relief work since 2008, gets its books audited by internationally reputed audit firms that it shares with the donors, and has a policy of allowing donors to carry out audits of their own independently. The organisation is clear about refusing aid that compromises on its independence.

Like the parent body, the Indian chapter too runs on donations. Often, national societies undertake unique measures to raise funds. The American Red Cross, for instance, encourages people to come up with their own ideas to mobilise finances – from holding marathons to launching campaigns of their own and organising peer-to-peer fundraisers.

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Blood Bank

The Indian Red Cross Society opened its first blood bank in Kolkata back in 1942; today, it operates out of the national headquarters in Delhi, which is equipped not only for collections from donation camps but also to test for HIV I & II, HBs Ag, HCV, VDRL and malaria. Also every year on 14 June, people across the world celebrate World Blood Donor Day (WBDD). This day was established in 2004 to raise awareness of the need for safe blood and blood products. It is also celebrated to show gratitude towards blood donors for their voluntary, life-saving gifts of blood.

Fully-automated advance technology is used for the testing as well as separation and storage of the various blood components such as freshly frozen plasma, platelet-rich plasma, platelet concentrate, packed cells, cryoprecipitate and platelet aphaeresis. Since blood plays a critical role in Indian operations, refer to this rate card for various blood components. 

Its facilities have ISO certification from the Bureau of Indian Standards (BS), the National Accreditation Board for Testing & Calibration Laboratories (NABL) and the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals (NABH). As per its website, its central blood bank meets 50% of the requirement of thalassaemia patients in and around Delhi. 

A substantial portion of the blood collected is through replacement donors, though the aim is to achieve 100% voluntary donation in future. 

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Why Sell ‘Free’ Blood?

The blood collected is got free – though donations – yet it is sold; the Indian Red Cross imposes various processing charges on the blood distributed – depending on the type of component required.

Admittedly, 90% of total collection in the capital region is distributed free of service charge, while certain groups of patients such as those with thalassaemia and HIV, among others, and selected hospitals are supplied free of charge. But outside these groups, a charge is levied. 

The Indian chapter is not alone, societies across the world charge for blood acquired free, and the question often asked is why? The answer is supplied by the National Blood Authority of Australia, which gets its supplies free from the local Red Cross society. “Whilst blood donation is voluntary, the collection, processing, testing and distribution of blood and blood products incur significant costs,” it says. Nonetheless, this World Blood Donor Day, donate blood and save a life!  Did you know these facts about women blood donors? Take this quiz to find out. 

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