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We Demand the Protection of Health Care Workers in Ukraine and Beyond

Photography by Dmytro Smolyenko/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Russia’s attack on a maternity hospital in the city of Mariupol on March 9, 2022, was a horrifying breach of international law and moral values shared the world over.

An assault on a place where new life comes into being warrants the harshest condemnation. It also reminds us that violence against health care workers, hospitals, and patients has profound and lasting effects on the health and security of entire communities, especially in the midst of war.

It has been more than 150 years since international law first required that combatants refrain from attacking hospitals, ambulances, the wounded and sick, and health workers. But this protection is regularly breached. In Ukraine, the Ministry of Health has reported more than 60 attacks on hospitals, emergency responders, ambulances, and health workers. The World Health Organization has already confirmed 24 of these assaults. Russia is not a first-time offender, having bombed hospitals in Chechnya and Syria. And it is not the sole aggressor. In recent decades, health facilities and health workers in conflicts worldwide have been attacked 1,000 times each year.

The worldwide public health infrastructure is threatened by such attacks, both in the moment and for years thereafter. Hospitals are, of course, essential for patient care, and when damaged or destroyed when they are needed most, the traumatic injuries and other immediate health consequences of war go untreated. The harm often persists far beyond this immediate impact. The health workforce, the backbone of the health system, is frequently decimated as doctors and nurses are forced to flee. People in need of care, including those who are giving birth, often avoid coming to health facilities for fear of attack, increasing risk of death. Childhood immunizations, an essential part of public health, decline when vaccinators cannot do their jobs safely.

Russia must cease these attacks on Ukraine’s health care facilities, as must perpetrators of attacks on health care in ongoing conflicts throughout the world. We demand the protection and respect of public health and health care workers even during times of war. We stand in solidarity with all of our colleagues who are dedicated to preserving the lives of their patients and the health of the entire population.

Ellen J. MacKenzie, PhD ’79, ScM ’75
Bloomberg Distinguished Professor

Leonard Rubenstein, JD
Director, Program on Human Rights and Health
Center for Public Health and Human Rights 
Professor of the Practice, Department of Epidemiology