UNITED NATIONS — The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross said it has recorded 208 COVID-19-related attacks against health workers and installations in 13 countries since March, a striking contrast to the cheers and clapping in gratitude for their work in many nations.
Peter Maurer said Wednesday that health workers are being attacked and abused and health systems are being targeted at a time when they are most needed.
“The COVID-19 crisis is fast threatening to become a protection crisis,” he told the UN Security Council.
Maurer told reporters the ICRC compiled data from 13 countries in the Middle East, Asia-Pacific, the Americas and Africa where it operates and it’s “likely the actual numbers are much higher than what we calculated.”
He said the incidents range from verbal threats to burning down facilities reportedly housing COVID-19 patients.
Maurer said 23 percent of incidents included physical assaults, 20 percent were discriminatory-related attacks on health workers and the rest included the deliberate failure to provide or deny assistance, verbal assaults and threats and a disregard for health personnel protective measures.
Maurer said he was struck by the discrepancy with the outpouring of support for health personnel, “while in reality what we see is that it remains an extremely delicate and sensitive issue within which attacks, … violence, the whole panoply of adverse attitudes are visible or detectable, which demand our response.”
The ICRC and a dozen other global organizations representing millions of doctors, nurses and health care professionals issued a declaration Wednesday calling the recent displays of public support for COVID-19 responders “heart-warming.” But they said “unfortunately, the sad reality is that health workers have for a long time been subject to many shocking forms of violence.”
The organizations pointed to harassment, stigmatization, physical violence and the killing of some health care professionals and the people they were caring for, as well as the 208 incidents reported by the ICRC since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We urge governments, communities and weapon bearers to respect and protect health care at all times and to contribute to creating a protective environment in which health care can be provided safely,” the groups including the International Council of Nurses, the International Hospital Federation and Physicians for Human Rights said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also spoke at the council meeting on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, saying that as the pandemic “rages on, causing enormous human suffering and additional stress to health systems,” people already weakened by years of fighting “are particularly vulnerable.”
He lamented that support for his March 23 call for a global cease-fire to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic has not been translated into “concrete action.”
“In some cases, the pandemic may even create incentives for warring parties to press their advantage, or to strike hard while international attention is focused elsewhere,” he said. “Both scenarios could lead to increases in violence. And civilians always pay the price.”
He pointed to conflict-torn Libya where the UN mission documented at least 58 civilians killed and 190 injured between April 1 and May 18.
With access to services and safety being curtailed, Guterres also said some leaders are exploiting the pandemic to adopt repressive measures and “it has become even more difficult to protect the most vulnerable” — and “this is particularly true in conflict zones, where civilians were already exposed to significant risks.”