Health services deal with a pandemic and violence in Colombia

14 March 2021

The year 2020 was particularly difficult for health-care workers. Not only did they have to deal with a public health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also with the escalation of violence against them.

In Colombia, for example, 325 attacks were reported against health-care workers, facilities and vehicles – the highest number on record in 24 years. Patients, their families and members of the community were responsible for half of these acts of aggression.

Attacks on health-care services in 2020

These attacks were sparked by discrimination against health-care workers, fear of catching COVID-19 and particularly by fake news. Health-care workers experienced physical attacks and death threats from civilians, and misguided accusations that staff were spreading the virus in the community or even benefiting financially from the crisis.

Violence and armed conflict only served to make this situation worse. Attacks by armed groups against health services across the country constituted a breach of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and had serious consequences, such as the mass resignation of health-care workers.

Statistics show that armed groups were responsible for at least 88 incidents targeting health-care staff and facilities. 

We know from our work on the ground, however, that this number is higher due to under-reporting and fear of reprisals for reporting the facts.

The attacks not only affected health-care workers themselves, but also patients and whole communities, who were often left with no access to health care.

This had the greatest impact in those areas most affected by hostilities, where the health system was already weak or non-existent. It is hard to estimate the scale of the issue and to put a figure on the total number of people affected.

Health-care workers became extremely vulnerable to attack at a time when their work was most needed. For the time being, the outlook for 2021 does not show any sign of improvement. The public health emergency persists and it continues to be exacerbated by violence and social upheaval.

*Figures from the National Health-Care Committee

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