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Attacks on health care during the COVID-19 pandemic

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The Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition (SHCC) documented 1,203 conflict incidents that adversely affected health care in 2019. Violence perpetrated by conflict parties against health care facilities and health workers continues in 2020, with devastating consequences. Since COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, health care and COVID-19 response facilities have been hit by air strikes and shelling, and health workers have been killed and kidnapped. While the weekly number of reported conflict-related incidents dropped to four just after the WHO declared the COVID-19 pandemic on 11 March 2020, violence by conflict parties against health care increased again by the end of March, despite the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire on 23 March.

In parallel, violence against frontline health workers responding to COVID-19 rose dramatically after the WHO’s pandemic declaration. The reported incidents included here are examples of violent responses to testing, quarantine measures or attacks against health workers arising out of fear that they could spread the infection. According to reports, community members or members of the security forces perpetrated most of the direct COVID-related violence. Conflict-related violence also directly affects the COVID-19 response when COVID treatment centres are attacked, or health workers engaged in the response are killed.

COVID-19 related incidents of violence

In many countries, community members have assaulted health workers out of fear that they could spread the virus because of their contact with affected patients. Such attacks occurred at health workers’ homes, on their way to and from work and even during funerals of health workers’ colleagues who died from the virus. Protesters have also attacked health care facilities dedicated to COVID-19 response measures. In other incidents health workers have been attacked as part of resistance to the COVID-related health measures that governments have imposed, such as testing or quarantining. Grief over loss of family members has resulted in violence against health workers. Although happening in many countries, such violence has been frequently reported in India and Mexico in particular.

In a number of countries where lockdowns have been violently enforced, health workers were hurt on their way to or from work after being accused of disrespecting the lockdown. In some countries, health workers faced repercussions for either speaking out about the numbers of COVID-19 patients that did not tally with official figures or for demanding that they be provided with better personal protective equipment (PPE).

All incidents affecting health care workers and facilities impact on the ability to deliver health care because they affect health worker deeply and make services less reliable and effective.