Counter-terror measures hindering healthcare delivery: MSF

Post-9/11 counter-terror measures undermine healthcare aid in Afghanistan, Iraq: MSF
4 min read
23 October, 2021
In a report released earlier this week, MSF Frontline workers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria shared interviews, first-hand accounts and documents about the challenges related to working in areas of high conflict and counter-terrorism measures.
Hospitals in war-torn Yemen are struggling to deliver care for newborns [Getty]

Counter-terrorism efforts are undermining healthcare aid in war-torn countries, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has said.

In the report released earlier this week, MSF Frontline workers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria shared interviews, first-hand accounts and documents about the challenges related to working in areas of high conflict and counter-terrorism measures.

“The US’s ‘war on terror’ paved the way for other states to launch their own battles against domestic and trans- national enemies, without the same constraints as in a conventional armed conflict between states,” reads the report, called Adding Salt to the Wound: Counter-terrorism and healthcare. “While this may not have fundamentally changed the nature of warfare, it has changed the way it is justified. Today, the conflicts in Ethiopia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Mozambique, Mali and countless other places are defined as ‘battles against terrorism’.”

Part of the problem, MSF workers speaking on condition of anonymity said, is keeping themselves and their patients safe.

One interviewee said: “The difficulties are both from the [armed opposition group] and also fear from the government. [When] there is conflict or military operations... we contact both sides to move but you don’t know what’s going on. If you are just stuck in the middle of them, they are firing at each other [and] you, the patients might get hurt. These fears affect everyone.”

Another interviewee added: “The government and the army tell us we cannot treat the armed opposition group [...] they shouldn’t be part of our criteria.” In another country, a staff member reported that restrictions imposed by the army resulted in medical teams “find- ing more difficulties to access health facilities under armed opposition groups’ control.”

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Details about countries and regions were kept confidential to keep frontline workers safe.

In Afghanistan, the withdrawal of US troops precipitated the Taliban takeover and left a hole in the country’s power structure. Hundreds of thousands fled, while others stayed amid concerns about the Taliban. MSF workers in the region have reported having to navigate sectarian and political differences when it comes to treating patients.

Hospitals in Yemen struggle

While the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has halted violence for the moment, in Yemen fighting between Houthi rebels and the government continues.

In the city of Al-Qanawis in the Hodeidah governorate of north-western Yemen, a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) treat the most vulnerable people affected by the war – and many of those are new mothers, children, and pregnant women.

“The first thing that a war does to a country is to burden its health system,” said Monica Costeira, an MSF paediatrician in a separate report. “In Yemen, the health infrastructure, which was already weak, has buckled under the extra weight.”

A newborn baby whose mother came from a small village without access to healthcare died after being born with breathing difficulties, and the hospital managed to save her twin.

“Al Qanawis MSF hospital, still hours away from her home. Fortunately, she managed to arrive at our hospital in time, and she delivered her second baby, Latifa. Latifa, who was born underweight, was admitted to us for two months and soon became a source of love and affection for the whole team.”

Complications related to premature deliveries are the leading cause of deaths for newborns, the doctor said.

In 2015, a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen to support the embattled government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi after the Houthis captured the country's capital, Sanaa.

The war in Yemen has plunged the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula into the world's worst humanitarian crisis, according to the UN, pushing the population to the brink of starvation.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed and millions displaced since the conflict began.

Last week the UN Security Council called for "de-escalation" in Yemen in a unanimously adopted statement to counter "the growing risk of large-scale famine" in the country.