Tackling crisis

Taking inspiration from a survivor’s story

Dr. Roberto Canessa, who famously survived a plane crash in the Andes that killed many of his rugby team mates in 1972, and which forced the survivors to eat the flesh of their deceased teammates, offers some words of encouragement and inspiration amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“Time will mark the end of this [crisis] one day. Meantime we must nourish ourselves. We must take care of one another now. It’s about you. It’s your choice.”

These were among the inspiring words from Dr. Roberto Canessa during a briefing arranged by South American duty free association ASUTIL on 28 April to discuss the impact of COVID-19.

Canessa, a distinguished cardiologist, was among the 16 survivors of the Uruguayan plane that crashed high in the Chilean Andes in 1972 when he was 19 years old. The survivors, initially given up for dead, were found ten weeks after the plane crash. Canessa, along with Fernando Parrado, managed to find help after a ten-day trek through treacherous conditions to seek assistance. The miraculous survival of the passengers became an even bigger sensation at the time when it was revealed that they had been forced to eat the flesh of the deceased victims to survive.

During the ASUTIL briefing, Canessa offered some inspiring (and humorous) views about the potential of humanity, relating his experiences in the Andes to challenging life and business situations.

“We must be brave and show solidarity. If you are going to die, die with your soul happy, knowing that you did what you could do”

–Dr. Roberto Canessa

He said: “We must have constructive attitudes. During this crisis you must try to build something, just like we did in the Andes and here, everyone has a different part to play. People make a very simplistic outside judgement about what happened in the Andes, that we only ate the dead bodies because we were buying time until the Summer came and we could walk out of the mountains. No, we saved ourselves because we were a team, we worked together. It’s incredible how humans adapt to circumstances. Darwin said that those who adapt fastest will survive.”

Taking responsibility now for oneself and others is critical. “We must assume that we ourselves can get out from each situation. When we were stranded in the mountains we heard on the tenth day that the search had been called off. That changed the attitude. We were on our own. It’s like when we are children, we have our mother and father around us and we are always waiting to be rescued by someone else. Now we have to be grown-ups. We must be like our parents and take care of ourselves and of other people.”

Canessa said that some positives are emerging from this crisis.

Dr. Roberto Canessa (below centre) speaks to ASUTIL members and guests about managing crisis times

“I think we have a more human world,” he said. “The ambition of having a new car in the latest model seems ridiculous today. We are seeing solidarity with people when the population is in danger. This has humanised us a lot. And this is the way we should be going. We were living in a materialistic world. The consumer society was killing us. But the less you have materially, the more you have spiritually.

“This is an opportunity to help someone around you, whether this is a kid with a plate of food or to be close to the woman who comes to clean your house. It’s a moment of commitment, of compromise. It’s love for your neighbour. It’s a moment as a human being to be closer to each other. We have to take pride in the kind of society we have. We had that here when the cruise ship from Australia arrived and no-one would help them. We helped them.”

Each country must take responsibility for its own people too. Uruguay, he said, has had to fight for its share of hospital respirators amid the COVID-19 crisis when other larger countries have taken the bulk of the orders. (Canessa himself has been involved for many years in developing ventilators for medical use.)

He said: “It’s about taking care of your own country and every country has to have a solution for its own problem. Momentarily, we must close the doors because when your family is in crisis, you don’t invite people to the house. It’s not about nationalism.”

For those concerned about the impact of crisis on their lives or on their families, Canessa said: “You must learn that things can get worse. You might imagine that this is the worst situation you can be in, like I did when I was in the heart of an avalanche. I could not move, I could not breathe. I thought if dying is like this, it’s not that hard. But then someone moved the snow off my face and I breathed again. I looked around at my dead friends and I had envy because they were not suffering any more. So from that moment, stuck high in the mountains, with the search called off, I had nothing except life itself. But that is what makes you go on.”

He added: “You must face things with a sense of humour; it is a way of facing up to things. There is really no limit between the sublime and the ridiculous. The life we have now is the best life, as it’s the only life.”

Do not let the crisis consume your every moment, he urged. “For at least half the day forget about coronavirus. Do something different, go out to your farm, write a book, paint something or you will go crazy. We are spoilt by the idea that we cannot get out or we have lost our liberty.

“People ask me if this situation is like being trapped in the fuselage in the mountains. Of course not: then we had a 99% chance of dying; today only 3% of people who contact coronavirus are dying. I tell them that people today living in a 60sq m apartment with a family and TV are living in a ‘five-star fuselage’.

“We must be brave and show solidarity. If you are going to die, die with your soul happy, knowing that you did what you could do.”

Roberto Canessa and other survivors in the mountains in 1972 (Photo: DrCanessa.com)

Partner's message


The Moodie Davitt eZine

Issue 279 | 4 May 2020

The Moodie Davitt eZine is published 12 times per year by The Moodie Davitt Report (Moodie International Ltd). © All material is copyright and cannot be reproduced without the permission of the Publisher. To find out more visit www.moodiedavittreport.com and to subscribe, please e-mail sinead@moodiedavittreport.com

Share this article: