Caught in the Crossfire: Health Systems in Conflict Areas

Daisy WinnerBlog, Medicine, Midwifery, Nursing

 The conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan are unlike any wars seen before. Long-running and complex, these conflicts have devastated these countries – untold numbers of citizens have been killed and even more have been forced to flee their homes for neighboring states. There are more than five million registered Syrian refugees alone.

As violence and fighting wages on, infrastructure and public services have collapsed. Health systems in these countries have been torn apart. Overwhelmed, understaffed, structurally damaged, and under-resourced, health centers have been brought to the brink of collapse. As of October 2017, resulting from the ongoing conflict, health facilities in Yemen had not received funding to cover operational costs in thirteen months and almost 30,000 health workers had not received their salaries consistently during this period. Yet they ask to save lives in dire conditions every day.

CSIS Global Health Policy Center’s original feature documentary, The New Barbarianism, examines the damage done to these health systems and how health workers are increasingly caught in the crossfire. The film sheds light on the new realities of these conflicts: that health workers and health centers are not only victims of this violence but often strategic targets. In Syria alone, there have been more than 450 attacks on medical facilities in-country and more than 800 healthcare workers killed.

This phenomenon is pushing the limits of international humanitarian law contained in the Geneva Conventions. Updated in 1949, the Conventions included specific provisions to protect medical staff, humanitarian workers and civilians. But as these conflicts unfold, these laws are being violated, with little repercussion. In 2017, 24 health facilities in Afghanistan were attacked and damaged either deliberately or as collateral damage.

The film also exposes the very limited international response that these loses have garnered. Without adequate attention, little has been done to protect health workers and hospitals. Research conducted Human Rights Watch reviewed 25 major attacks on health facilities between 2013 and 2016 in 10 countries facing conflict. For 20 of the incidents, no publicly available information indicates that investigations took place.

Despite the mounting violence, there are brave and passionate medical professionals who continue to deliver medical care to communities in war torn countries around the world. The New Barbarianism spotlights these dedicated individuals and the critical need to protect them.