Security measures for staff helping to fight health emergencies need to be stepped up urgently, a UN health agency top official said on Monday, after a frontline Ebola epidemic community worker was reportedly stabbed to death at his home in northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Speaking at a public event in Geneva, Dr Mike Ryan from the World Health Organization (WHO), said that in his 25-year humanitarian career, violence carried out deliberately against health workers and hospitals had never been so bad.
The “overwhelming impact” had been on local health workers, not international staff, Dr Ryan told a Geneva Peace Week event, in his capacity as Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme.
Despite the risks of working in insecure locations, “one doesn’t really have a choice but to go, as the epidemic will continue to spread and intensify like a fire if it’s not put out”, he said. “It does put our workers at the extreme edge of risk.”
Echoing Dr Ryan’s message of sympathy, WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti tweeted her condolences to the family and friends of the worker killed in DRC.
In 2019 alone, there have been 862 reported attacks on healthcare workers and facilities from just 10 countries, resulting in 173 deaths and 557 significant injuries. “And that probably is a massive underestimation of the problem,” Dr Ryan insisted.
Destroy a hospital and you destroy hope
Among the most shocking aspects of this growing trend for humanitarians was the effect it had on civilians, he added.
“One of the last hopes a community has in conflict is the ability to seek care for your children or the injured. The destruction of a health care facility is more than the destruction of a building; it tears the heart out of a community and it takes the hope away from the community, and as such its impact is much, much greater.”
In a joint UN-DRC Ministry of Health statement, both noted that the victim – who has not been officially named - also worked as a reporter at a community radio station in Lwemba, and that his partner was critically injured, suffering multiple wounds.
Two suspects have been arrested and the investigators are looking to see whether the murder is linked to the ongoing Ebola response, they added.
In Geneva, Dr Ryan also expressed his sympathies for the families of three UN Migration Agency (IOM) workers killed eight days ago near an Ebola screening point on South Sudan’s border with DRC last Wednesday.
No new information about South Sudan abductees
According to IOM, its staff were caught in crossfire during clashes between armed groups in Morobo County, in South Sudan’s Central Equatoria region.
A volunteer worker and a child were also abducted during the incident, prompting an appeal for their immediate and unconditional release by the agency, which on Monday said that it had no new information about the case.
Since 1 January, WHO has documented more than 300 attacks on health care facilities in DRC that have resulted in six deaths and 70 injuries of workers and patients.
The current Ebola outbreak, began in DRC last August, and is the most lethal in the nation’s history, although recent progress has seen cases fall. The virus has claimed more than 2,180 lives; more than 1,050 people have survived.
“It’s not just the physical attacks, it’s the harassment, it is the fear of going to work,” Dr Ryan said, highlighting the “tremendous psychological stress” on workers.
'We can't sit back and wait'
Welcoming continuing financial support among Member States including the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and the United States for frontline staff to operate with added security measures, he stressed too that the humanitarian community could do more to protect them.
“We can’t sit back and wait for international humanitarian law to change or political will to change,” he said. “We need to professionalize how we operate in these situations, we need to improve our security briefings for staff, we need to improve awareness among our staff…the stresses on our staff are extreme.”
He added: “We call on our donors to look positively on those costs because these are the real costs of doing business in humanitarian settings right now”.