Historically, medical treatment during conflict has not been taken for granted as it is nowadays. For instance, in the 16th century, soldiers were not immediately taken from the battlefield to the nearest medical treatment facility, they had to wait two or more days until their conditions stabilized. Worst case scenario, they wouldn’t make it. Their sufferings were alleviated when the first surgeon began treatment on wounded soldiers. Ambroise Pare was the one who decided to give them a chance at survival. Therefore, back in the day, the term “violence” could not be associated with “healthcare”, since there wasn’t any humanitarian assistance available in the first place.
In the 21st, violence against healthcare does very much happen. Campaigns such as “Health Care in Danger” conducted by the ICRC and reports such as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health have coined the phrase “compounded cost of violence on healthcare” as a result of this type of violence occurring.
The case of Syria is a tragic example and it might seem more relatable to the general public due to the fact that is a contemporary humanitarian disaster. In one of the reports on ‘Protecting Healthcare in Conflict’ released by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria demonstrates just how devastating is the purposeful zeroing in on the destruction of medical facilities, the targeting of health care staff and the refusal of certain ethnic groups to allow the treatment of the ill and wounded. These attacks are having consequences of paramount importance on the increasingly significant exodus of healthcare staff, the vaccination campaigns that are being sharply curtailed and the inventory that is facing a seemingly insurmountable stock-out.
Variations in Violence
The most pervasive mode of violent attacks is on the medical personnel, irrespective of the fact that they are from an INGO or belong to the local workforce. According to Bruce Eshaya-Chauvin, medical adviser to the ICRC, “healthcare workers in conflict zones are literally being hunted down”. Through the killing by armed groups of expatriate healthcare staff, their kidnapping from the workplace, their arrests and the constant threats coming from insurgents and governments in an equal manner, not to mention the countless explosive weapons used by armed forces during combat that render medical staff collateral victims and cause them severe injuries or even death, the healthcare system is being shattered from its roots.
Interesting cases have occurred when medical staff have been threatened to provide care for specific ethnic groups during the hijacking of an ambulance. An assistant medical coordinator at the ICRC in Bangui, Central African Republic recalled an instance in which she was “threatened by armed men who insisted on getting in the car and making us take them where they wanted to go. When we tried to explain our work to them they became angry and threatened us with machetes and rifles.” (“Effects of Violence on Healthcare”, 2014)
Another way through which violence against medical staff can be seen is through the limitation imposed by armed groups on the doctors while practising their jobs. For instance, a certain Dr. Cox talked to Discovery News about the rules of war and his experiences in Congo by saying that due to mortar rounds having fallen near the hospital, he had to tap the windows of the operating room to prevent them from shattering and perform the surgery while wearing body armour. This severely limits the way they practise medicine and puts them under constant psychological terror.
Violent events that are affecting the healthcare system as a whole are also those aimed at healthcare buildings. By buildings, it is meant hospitals, blood transfusion centres, laboratories, first-aid centres and those buildings in which medication and medical equipment is stored. Healthcare infrastructure is being hit by weapons during conflict, is being entered into by police and state armed forces or is being occupied for strategic reasons by armed groups. This ultimately leads to hospitals being unable to run generators because of lack of fuel or to the same healthcare buildings running out of drugs. According to the World Health Organization, 37% of the hospitals from Syria have been destroyed, while 20% have been severely damaged. There, the hospital under MSF jurisdiction was completely destroyed together with the rest of the town. This was the only hospital with surgery capabilities and the ability to provide treatment for tuberculosis and HIV for 270,000 people. Having suffered such a high degree of destruction – medical equipment, laboratory work and blood transfusions being thoroughly dismantled – it became extremely difficult for MSF to resume its activities. Nevertheless, the MSF personnel did manage to resume its activities by treating approximately 1,600 malnourished children only in the first 3 weeks.
Violent events also affect healthcare transportation. By transportation, it is meant medical vehicles such as ambulances, medical aircrafts, medical ships and machines used for the transportation of medical equipment or medical supplies. These vehicles are being attacked while en route by armed groups or state armed forces, they are being damaged by the same groups with the help of explosive devices and, most commonly, are being delayed and harassed at checkpoints. According to the Syrian-American Medical Society, 78% of the ambulances operating on Syrian territory have been badly damaged. The most representative cases in point are the attacks on healthcare infrastructure happening in Libya, thoroughly reported by the international media and the aid organizations.
Patients are also being attacked. Some even refuse to go to the hospital for fear of being identified by their wounds. Bijan Farnoudi, from the ICRC, told Al Jazeera that “a lot of the time they die because the ambulance didn’t make it in time, because the hospital they were trying to seek shelter in was destroyed the night before, or because they were simply too scared to travel to make it to the nearest clinic”, the latter also being a type of psychological violence against patients.
Doctor Rubin Coupland, a British war surgeon from the ICRC, is also advocating for the safety and dignity of patients by encouraging for the speeding of ambulance inspections at checkpoints. “It should take maybe five minutes to inspect an ambulance, not five hours”. He goes on to say that “you don’t have to put dogs in the ambulances to run all over the patients, as we’ve seen, to check for explosives”.
Another way through which patients are suffering from violence is by being abducted. For instance, in January 2014, the police raided a Ukrainian centre of the Red Cross. This event escaladed even further and the healthcare workers soon found themselves being shot at while witnessing the abduction of their wounded patients (“Attacks on Healthcare”, 2014)
Consequences of violence against healthcare
According to the Iraq’s health ministry, 18,000 out of 34,000 doctors fled the country between the years of 2003 and 2006 due to increasing violence. That led to the breakdown of the country’s health system, according to the founder of the NGO, Doctors for Iraq. The same individual warns that there are only 11 surgeons in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, “if anyone was killed, there would be no one to replace them”.
The worst-case scenario in this situation is the complete withdrawal of entire agencies from disease-ridden areas. Unfortunately, this is not simply a scenario. For instance, MSF decided to pull out of Somalia in 2013, after 22 years of continuous humanitarian work due to the fact that 16 of its workers had been killed since 1991 and several had been attacked.
Both the fleeing and the withdrawal of healthcare workers have preposterous implications. The skills of these workers are often irreplaceable and the ability to recruit people after all the previous attacks becomes exceedingly problematic since they all have even more reasons to be afraid of getting killed.
There seems to be a whole campaign out there that has as its main purpose the targeting of anti-polio healthcare staff. For instance, only in Pakistan, in December 2012, 9 anti-polio workers were killed by gunshots, which led the United Nations to decide against the continuation of the eradication program in that zone of conflict. Approximately 2 weeks after this unfortunate incident, other 7 more workers, assigned to do community development work, were killed only because they were associated with the anti-polio work carried out by their colleagues. In February 2013, this time in Nigeria, members of an Islamist group killed 9 other healthcare workers. Since 2012, a shocking 60 healthcare workers dealing with anti-polio vaccinations have been killed, threatening a polio “renaissance”.
The same issue applies in terms of non-infectious chronic diseases. Because of this “militarization of healthcare”, many refugees are more predisposed towards overcharging and exploitation since they are not in their home country. Adjacently, the surge in non-infectious chronic diseases in war zones is something to keep an eye on since they are progressively in the foreground. Proof gathered from both natural disasters and warfare points out to the excess in mortality and morbidity as caused by non-infectious diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cancer. Moreover, not being able to access basic medical care leads to a propensity towards outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, typhoid or hepatitis. All those seemingly routine blood tests needed for chronic diseases, such as the thyroid stimulating hormone or different types of medications like an asthma inhaler become unavailable when violence against healthcare buildings, ambulances or stores occurs. Maternal deaths are another reason why the lack of international healthcare or the lack of access to it is so sharply felt. These deaths – that can otherwise be considered preventable – happen because of mishandled home deliveries, all the missed abortions which in many cases led to sepsis and all the conflict-related impediments that constrain both patients and physicians’ access to one another.
Since many doctors are being considered “enemies of the regime” for treating protestors, for instance, they are constantly targeted which makes hospitals unsafe places to seek treatment in. That leads to an increase in the setting up of alternative places to practice “medicine” such as makeshift hospitals, underground networks of healthcare workers or, in some cases, somebody’s living room. People choose to be treated in these parallel healthcare establishments for fear of being arrested or, even worse, tortured by their ethnic group for entrusting their health to these medical practitioners that are viewed as foes. However, these places have unsustainable and disjointed care.
“What we are surprised about is how much these incidents almost go unnoticed” said Yves Daccord, the Director-General of the ICRC. This is probably due to the fact that all of these repercussions brought by violence on the healthcare system are equally tough to measure. As Rudi Coninx from the Emergency Risk Management and Humanitarian Response department at the World Health Organization stated, “If you ask someone at WHO, ‘What is the extent of the problem?’, if they were honest, they would say, ‘I don’t know’, as nobody collects these data in a systematic way”.
A year after the creation of the ICRC, the Geneva Convention of the 1864 set the legal basis for the neutrality and protection of medical personnel, hospitals and ambulances against violence during active combat (ICCR, 1864). However, the Geneva Conventions that are currently serving as the legal frameworks for the carrying of medical activities in armed conflicts were negotiated in 1949. They were subsequently amended with the inclusion of the Additional Protocols that were meant to take into consideration newer types of conflict. However, these violations of the law go far beyond the principles enshrined in the Geneva Protocols. According to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, the aftermath of conflict affects children’s right to healthcare, in terms of their ability to access healthcare services during wars and the difficulties encountered by the healthcare personnel in providing for their most basic needs. That happens in spite of the legal framework constructed by the United Nations Security Council in which the protection of children in conflict zones is rendered a priority. The denial of humanitarian access to healthcare services is situated among the other six violations classified by the UNSC as gravely affecting the wellbeing of the children. Another violation is represented by the attacks on hospitals and schools. The main idea is that all of these violations are inadequately covered in the current legal framework meant to protect healthcare in conflict zones.
Refashioning the System
Steps towards the remodelling of the healthcare system have already been taken starting with the mere acknowledgement of the problems posed by the violence against healthcare. For instance, in May 2011, at the World Health Assembly, the government expressed avid interest towards the matter by simply admitting violence against healthcare does happen; more than that, it is pervasive and something needs to be done about it.
Nonetheless, this is not the stage at which things should be stopped. Appropriate measures to advance the delivery of healthcare by enhancing security need to be taken both within the health community itself and in the arenas of politics, law by creating standard operating procedures within the military and enhancing humanitarian dialogue. For example, in the realm of politics, the obstruction in the manufacture and trade of light weapons and small arms could lead to less civilian deaths in active combat. Another solution to protect healthcare workers is to establish a special protection force. Furthermore, something that is already being done with leaders of rebel groups such as Charles Taylor is the prosecution of attack perpetrators on healthcare personnel at the International Criminal Court.
“One of the first victims of war is the healthcare system itself”, as Marco Balden interestingly stated. Some even believe that the legal framework is not as relevant anymore due to the urgency and importance of the matter. For instance, Paul Christopher Webster, an award-winning documentary film director who has reported from 20 countries since 1992, sustained the idea that “we need to focus on the consequences and not get bogged down in legalistic debates”. He then went on to say that “this issue [violence against healthcare] is very real and very important for huge numbers of patients”. Regardless of differing opinions, what needs to be borne in mind is that the sick and the wounded are being denied healthcare that can make a difference between life and death when healthcare workers and killed, injured or threatened and when ambulances and hospitals are rendered non-functional.