Covid-19: More than 400 acts of violence against health workers in 2020

A health worker takes a swab from a man during a community Covid-19 coronavirus testing campaign in Abuja on April 15, 2020.
A health worker takes a swab from a man during a community Covid-19 coronavirus testing campaign in Abuja on April 15, 2020. © Kola Sulaimon, AFP

Insults, beatings, arrests – health workers battling the coronavirus were subjected to more than 400 acts of violence related to Covid-19 worldwide in 2020, according to a report by a health NGO published Tuesday.

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A new report by the Geneva-based Insecurity Insight and the University of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Center unveiled a report that shows "a minimum estimate" of 1,172 violent acts and attacks occurred against health workers or facilities last year. 

More than a third (412) of the acts were directly related to Covid-19, it said, citing several examples including in Mexico, where a nurse was attacked and injured by a group accusing her of spreading the virus.

In the Senegalese capital, Dakar, three social workers had stones hurled at them by residents who refused to have a coronavirus victim buried near their homes.

In Birmingham, England, a health worker was spat at and insulted by a neighbour.

The vast majority, 80 percent, of the perpetrators of the violence were civilians, but threats also came from public authorities.

In Egypt, health workers who criticised the regime's handling of the pandemic were arrested by security forces and accused of spreading false information and of belonging to a terrorist group.

Insecurity Insight, which developed the interactive map, also recorded 802 attacks in countries at war or on victims of civil conflicts, such as the bombing of hospitals in Yemen and the kidnapping of doctors in Nigeria.

"The map shows that violence and intimidation against health care was a truly global crisis in 2020, affecting 79 countries," said Insecurity Insight director Christina Wille in a statement.

Nigerian nurse beaten into a coma

Medical professionals from surgeons to paramedics have long confronted injury or intimidation on the job, especially in conflict zones. Experts say many attacks are rooted in fear or mistrust, as family members react to a relative’s death or a community responds to uncertainty around a disease. The coronavirus has amplified those tensions.

Two Nigerian nurses were attacked by the family of a deceased Covid-19 patient. One nurse had her hair ripped out and suffered a fracture. The second was beaten into a coma.

Following the assaults, nurses at Federal Medical Centre in the Southwestern city of Owo stopped treating patients, demanding the hospital improve security. Almost two weeks passed before they returned to work with armed guards posted around the clock.

“We don’t give life. It is God that gives life. We only care or we manage,” said Francis Ajibola, a local leader with the National Association of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives.

Drenched in hot coffee in Mexico

Ligia Kantun has worked as a nurse for 40 years in Mexico and never felt threatened until last spring. As she was leaving a hospital in Merida in April, she heard someone shout the word “Infected!” She was drenched in hot coffee before she could turn around.

“When I got home 10 minutes later my daughter was waiting for me and I hugged her crying, all scared, thinking, ‘How is it possible that they have done this to me?’” she told The Associated Press.

Kantún said many people in Mexico at the time thought health workers wore the same uniforms in public that they wore when treating coronavirus patients. “That ignorance was what made them act that way,” she said.

No singing tributes, ‘more fear, more distrust’

Researchers saw the most attacks last spring and summer as the coronavirus swept across the globe. Yet recent events from Nigeria to the Netherlands, where in January rioters set fire to a coronavirus testing center, prove the threat remains.

Rohini Haar, a California-based emergency physician and Human Rights Center research fellow,said she expected health care workers to be widely celebrated for their lifesaving work during the pandemic, just as Italians sang tributes to doctors during the lockdown.

“But actually that didn’t happen in many, many places,” she said. “There’s actually more fear, more distrust, and attacks grew rather than decreased.”

Many attacks may have gone undetected because they are never reported to police or in the media. Insecurity Insight scrambled to expand its monitoring as a flood of attacks were detected in countries that have traditionally been safe for health workers, said director Wille.

Violence during Black Lives Matter protests in US

In the US, for example, researchers counted about a dozen threats to health care workers last year. Several incidents involved the injury or arrest of street medics during Black Lives Matter protests.

“I think in the US the culture has been more of trusting health workers,” Haar, the emergency physician, said. “There hasn’t been a longstanding conflict where there’s been a dissonance between health workers and the community.”

Yet health workers in the US are still subject to great risk. Hospital employees in the US are nearly six times as likely as the average worker to be the victim of an intentional injury, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and last month a Minnesota medical assistant was killed during a shooting at a clinic by a former patient unhappy with his treatment.

Misinformation has spurred violence in some cases. Wille said her team looked closely at social media postings in April after three Ebola treatment centers were ransacked in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We could actually see that there was a build-up over several days of misinformation about what they call the ‘Ebola business,’ that this was all related to people inventing the disease,” she said.

Experts say that even though health workers are in many cases the target of attacks, entire communities suffer when they lose access to medical care after a clinic or medical facility is forced to close due to threats.

“You’re robbing the community of the service they would have provided,” said Nyka Alexander, who leads the World Health Organization’s communications on health emergencies.

Conflict areas most affected

With or without a pandemic, the most dangerous places for health workers are often areas of conflict and political upheaval. Last year, hundreds of threats and acts of violence were tracked in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Naser Almhawish, surveillance coordinator for Syria’s Early Warning Alert and Response Network, said he faced threats several times while working as a doctor in the city of Raqqa. He recalled the day in 2012 at Ar-Raqqa National Hospital when armed men confronted him in the middle of an operation, saying they’d kill him if the patient died.

“You just freeze and you know that you are working and you are trying to save this guy,” he said. “This is our duty. I didn’t ask if this guy was a military, civilian or anything. He’s a human being who needed an operation.”

Almhawish said such attacks on health care settings in Syria had waned in the last year. Researchers said declining violence in the country was the reason they didn't see a greater surge in total health care attacks in 2020.

Kantun, the nurse in Mexico, said she went almost eight months after the attack last April without wearing her nursing scrubs in public. Now, one year into the pandemic, she feels health workers are more respected. But she still worries.

“I’ve had that fear of going out and finding my car scratched, or my car window broken,” she said. “I do have that fear, since I lived it.”

Leonard Rubenstein, the president and founder of the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition and a professor at Johns Hopkins University, called on international governments to protect health workers, including by fighting disinformation.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

 

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