When it comes to health care, the pictures emerging from Syria are horrific: hospitals destroyed by bombs, patients buried under rubble and medical staff injured — or worse.
According to a new report, the Syrian government and Russia are using violence to restrict and deny access to medical services in Syria, essentially turning health care into a weapon of war in a clear violation of international human rights law.
According to the “Health workers and the weaponization of health care in Syria” report, published in The Lancet, last year alone, nearly 200 health-care facilities were destroyed in the country. Since fighting began six years ago, more than 800 doctors, nurses and medical staff have been killed. Almost a third of Syrians now live in areas with no health-care workers whatsoever, the report says, while another third live in areas with insufficient care. Nearly half of the country’s hospitals have been damaged.
The attacks on health care, some doctors say, have become a new and dastardly tactic of war.
“They’re really serious violations of international law,” one of the report’s lead authors, Dr. Samer Jabbour of Lebanon’s American University of Beirut, told CTV News. “And in the case of deliberate targeting, these are war crimes.”
Canadian surgeon Dr. Anas Al-Kassem volunteers in Syria with the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM). He believes the report’s numbers underestimate the damage and calculates that there is almost one airstrike on a medical facility in Syria each day.
“Most of these attacks are coming from the air,” Al-Kassem told CTV News. “They are not coming because of the civil war. They are not coming because of fighting on the ground or bombing. They are airstrikes, intentionally made to bomb these hospitals.”
Medical resources have dwindled to perilously low levels for the more than six million people estimated to have been displaced by the conflict.
A UOSSM study examining the state of Syria’s hospitals found the number of pediatricians available to treat some three million children has dropped to 88. Those doctors are down to 25 paediatric ventilators for children in intensive care units.
The study also found only four CT scanners, which are essential for treating head trauma and abdominal disease, are currently working. And only six advanced blood banks remain operational.
The authors of the report put the blame squarely on the Syrian government and its ally Russia, which they estimate are responsible for over 90 per cent of these medical site attacks — assaults, they say, that are designed to kill by eliminating healthcare in the country.
The report also says international agencies like the UN and the World Health Organization (WHO) are not doing enough to stop these attacks.
“Unless (there is) a clear mobilization of the international community… we will see more and more of these strategies used in conflicts all over the world,” Jabbour, who also co-chairs The Lancet-American University of Beirut Commission on Syria, said. “This should stop today.”
World Health Organization officials, however, say they are doing their best in a dangerous situation.
“We would like for peace to be found and peace to be negotiated and to allow us to rebuild the health systems,” Erin Kenney, a technical officer from WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, recently said.
But until the existing human rights laws that protect health workers in conflict zones are enforced, there will be no safety in Syria, especially for those trying to save lives.
With a report from CTV’s medical affairs specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip