Female ward of COVID-19 hospital in Herat, Afghanistan. Kiana HAYERI / ICRC
More than 600 incidents of violence, harassment or stigmatization against health care workers, patients and medical infrastructure in relation to COVID-19 cases have been recorded by the International Committee of the Red Cross during the first six months of the pandemic.
Of the 611 incidents* across more than 40 countries, more than 20 per cent involved physical assaults, 15 per cent were incidents of fear-based discrimination, and 15 per cent were verbal assaults or threats. Worryingly, this figure reflects only the known incidents; the actual figure is likely much higher.
The release of this new data coincides with World Humanitarian Day on 19 August, a day to commemorate humanitarian workers killed and injured in their work and to honour health workers providing life-saving support and protection to people in need.
"This crisis has put health-care workers in harm's way at a time when they are needed the most. Many have been insulted, harassed and subjected to physical violence. This atmosphere of fear, which is often compounded by a lack of adequate personal protective equipment, is adding significant stress to their physical and mental health and that of their families," said Maciej Polkowski, the head of the ICRC's Health Care in Danger initiative. "These attacks have a devastating impact on access to and provision of health care when many health systems are overwhelmed."
When incidents were committed by community members, fear of the spread of COVID-19 played a significant role. When patients or their relatives were behind the acts, grievances related to a relative's death or fear of their death were the most prominent motives. The inability to carry out rituals such as burials due to COVID-19 restrictions also prompted some relatives to commit aggressive actions against health care staff or facilities.
Some examples of incidents that occurred in April and May include:
- In Afghanistan, the main COVID-19 isolation centre closed for a half day due to a physical altercation between relatives of a patient who died and health personnel.
- In Bangladesh, bricks were thrown at the house of a doctor after he tested positive for COVID-19 in a bid to force him and his family from the area.
- In the Central African Republic, relatives of a deceased person physically assaulted health personnel as they were frustrated by not being able to retrieve the body due to COVID-19 restrictions.
- In Colombia, residents obstructed ambulances from entering their town to screen for COVID-19 cases and reviewed confidential medical charts and the names of staff and patients.
- In Pakistan, doctors at a hospital were verbally and physically attacked after a patient died of COVID-19. Relatives entered a high-risk area while shouting that coronavirus was a hoax.
- In the Philippines, a health worker and his sons were forced to leave home after being harassed, discriminated and cut off from electricity by neighbours.
Among the incidents against a person, 67 per cent targeted health care personnel, 22.5 per cent targeted the wounded and sick (including suspected patients), and 5 per cent were aimed at IDPs or refugees.
The ICRC is calling for governments and communities to address misinformation fuelling these incidents, and to ensure that all health-care professionals have a safe working environment.
Incidents of violence against healthcare are not inevitable. Concrete measures can be taken to reduce the risk that health staff, patients or medical facilities are attacked.
"Fear of contracting the disease and the lack of basic knowledge concerning COVID-19 are often the underlying reasons behind violent acts against health care personnel and patients," said Dr Esperanza Martinez, the ICRC's head of health. "To protect health care staff, medical facilities and patients from violence, it is of paramount importance to disseminate accurate information regarding the origin and modes of transmission and prevention of COVID-19. Health care workers, patients or specific groups must not to be stigmatized or blamed for the presence or spread of the virus. We need to strengthen our collective sense of humanity if we are to make it through this pandemic."
* The 611 cases of violence, harassment and stigmatization took place between 1 February and 31 July 2020. This figure is based on first-hand accounts gathered by the ICRC, data from other organizations monitoring health care incidents, and the tracking of news reports and social media across 40 countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Near and Middle East regions.
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