Security measures for staff helping to fight health emergencies need to be stepped up urgently, a United Nations (UN) health agency top official said on Monday, after a frontline Ebola epidemic community worker was reportedly stabbed to death at his home in northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Speaking at a public event in Geneva, Dr. Mike Ryan from the World Health Organization (WHO) said that in his 25-year humanitarian career, violence carried out deliberately against health workers and hospitals had never been so bad.
The “overwhelming impact” had been on local health workers, not international staff, Ryan told a Geneva Peace Week event, in his capacity as director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme.
Despite the risks of working in insecure locations, “one doesn’t really have a choice but to go, as the epidemic will continue to spread and intensify like a fire if it’s not put out,” he said. “It does put our workers at the extreme edge of risk.”
Echoing Ryan’s message of sympathy, WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr. Matshidiso Moeti tweeted her condolences to the family and friends of the worker killed in DRC.
In 2019 alone, there have been 862 reported attacks on healthcare workers and facilities from just 10 countries, resulting in 173 deaths and 557 significant injuries. “And that probably is a massive underestimation of the problem,” Ryan insisted.
Among the most shocking aspects of this growing trend for humanitarians was the effect it had on civilians, he added.
“One of the last hopes a community has in conflict is the ability to seek care for your children or the injured. The destruction of a health care facility is more than the destruction of a building; it tears the heart out of a community and it takes the hope away from the community, and as such its impact is much, much greater.”
In a joint UN-DRC Ministry of Health statement, both noted that the victim — who has not been officially named — also worked as a reporter at a community radio station in Lwemba, and that his partner was critically injured, suffering multiple wounds.
Two suspects have been arrested and the investigators are looking to see whether the murder is linked to the ongoing Ebola response, they added.