Unveiling a Taboo: Attacks on Healthcare

IFMSA was present at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Healthcare in Danger (HCiD) meeting on 16-17 May and HCiD Community of Concern (CoC) briefing on 18 May in Geneva, Switzerland.

Our Federation has a long-standing history of collaboration with the ICRC that has significantly intensified on the international level, particularly through the collaboration on the ICRC Healthcare in Danger project, which aims to safeguard healthcare in conflict settings. The ICRC has supported IFMSA through provision of technical support in the form of trainings during IFMSA general assemblies, regional meetings and sub regional trainings, while the IFMSA has been an active member of the Healthcare in Danger Community of Concern, sharing good practices as well as one of the signatories of the ”Ethical Principles of Health Care in Armed Conflict”.

IFMSA was represented by Marian Sedlak (IFMSA Liaison Officer for Human Rights and Peace Issues), Andrea Pedot (SISM-Italy), and Jessica Zhang (IFMSA-Sweden). The first two days were organized in the spirit of tackling the burning issues of the attacks on healthcare problem – How to efficiently collect data? How to create a unified and accepted definition of an attack on healthcare? How to evaluate and share data outputs? And last but not least, in a long list of problems related to violence against healthcare – how to ensure that perpetrators of such violence will be accountable for their actions? The HCiD team also presented their elaborated 2018-2019 Plan of Action, which aims to strengthen initiative’s activities and also provides clear and measurable objectives to the plan.  

IFMSA participation in this 3-day meeting was quite complex. During the first day, our Liaison Officer moderated the panel talk on ‘’Understanding the problem: research and data collection’’. In addition to an active involvement in sessions and debates, our delegates also helped with notes taking for several sessions. The integral part of our presence at this meeting was the recent launch of IFMSA’s ‘’Attacks on Medical Education’’ report. The report covers attacks on medical education in 7 countries, including Libya, Palestine, Ukraine, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen, and aims to explore an impact of violence on medical education, with its special features, such as education facilities, teaching hospitals, libraries, professors, medical students and all other directly related components. The specific country chapters of this report were written by IFMSA’s national member organizations from covered countries, which allowed us to amplify the voices of medical students and share their personal experience and stories related to attacks on medical education. The report expands the understanding of attack on healthcare by adding the unique aspect of medical education, opening a brand new area of possible consequences of attacks on healthcare services on health systems and their sustainability. We have shared the report with numerous organisations attending the meeting and started to explore a possibility to extend and expand the scope of the report in terms of wider geographical coverage and structured professional involvement, including (but not limited to) pharmaceutical, dental, nursing, and veterinary students.

Several members of HCiD Community of Concern (CoC) met at a special community meeting on 18th of May. One of the most interesting points of this half-day gathering was the mapping of CoC country presence, which included a comprehensive map of all the countries with a quantified presence of actors, ranging from countries with all of 10 organisations covered through this mapping, to countries with zero coverage by CoC members. This map opens unprecedented opportunities to create and foster connections between national branches of CoC members, perhaps under special national CoC structures.

And what are the ”take-home” messages for our delegates, IFMSA students, and future health professionals?

  • Several speakers highlighted the fact that attacks against healthcare is a public health issue, not merely a matter of international humanitarian law. Being a public health issue, it is something that (future) health professionals need to learn about and take action to counteract. Thus, the IFMSA with all its members has an important role to play.
  • Attacks on healthcare should become a taboo. We need to change the acceptance of these incidents from normal or supplementary parts of conflicts to strictly condemned and prohibited actions, which trigger a strong and multi-level response from the international community and civil society.
  • Two other emphasized aspects were the value of local action and the importance of innovative approaches. The HCiD initiative encourages activities to reach out to local communities in order to raise awareness about the issue and to reinforce and reinstate the respect for healthcare services and healthcare personnel. Once again, medical and healthcare students are key stakeholders in this, both because we have a unique opportunity to reach out to our peers and other people in our societies and because this will directly influence our future too.
  • Attacks on healthcare do not only occur in armed conflicts but are present in every society. It is crucial to not ignore “unspectacular” events, but instead, to always promote a culture of peace and justice. It’s sometimes a challenge to mobilize societies where violence is not a major problem, but if you don’t have a stable foundation of mutual respect and trust between community and healthcare workers, we cannot expect it to exist when a conflict erupts.
  • Members of the HCiD Community of Concern are very positive to support and collaborate with IFMSA members across the world. With their knowledge, experience, and network, they are truly valuable partners, who could allow us to better fulfill our mission. Furthermore, it serves as a reminder that although we are “only” students, our voice and our work is far from insignificant.
  • The meeting also addressed several topics relevant for IFMSA, among other providing enlightening advice on how campaigning and diplomacy shape intended outcomes of your work, underlining the importance of community involvement in projects targeting communities, and discussing mental health of healthcare workers.

Ultimately, as medical and health students, we have an undisputed duty to defend and uphold humanitarian values, hence, we should direct more of our actions towards advocacy and action to strengthen the protection of healthcare in conflict as well as non-conflict settings. This is achievable through projects-based action, as well as advocacy and external action on local, national, and international level. However, as protecting yourself from any danger requires you to at least raise your hand in defensive movement, to enhance protection of healthcare services calls for proactive action from IFMSA members around the world.

For more information about IFMSA’s activities in the area of attacks on healthcare please contact our Liaison Officer for Human Rights and Peace Issues at [email protected].

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