Along with allies in universities and organizations across the U.S., the University of Washington’s Health Alliance International (HAI) developed a policy resolution last year for the American Public Health Association (APHA) condemning the growing problem of violent attacks on health workers in war zones.
While attacks are ongoing in two dozen countries, as reported by the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, Syria is one of the most dangerous places to be a health worker or to try to keep a health facility open. The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and displaced more than half of Syria’s population internally and across the country’s borders. Since the beginning of the conflict, Physicians for Human Rights has documented nearly 600 attacks on health facilities, with the Syrian government itself responsible for 90% of the attacks.
Amy Hagopian, a Professor of Global Health and Technical Advisor for HAI, led the group responsible for drafting the APHA statement and then encouraging the United Nations (UN) to release its investigative report. With prompting from HAI, APHA issued a strongly-worded letter to the UN Secretary General in 2019, praising the UN for establishing a board of inquiry to look into the incidents of damage to UN-supported and humanitarian facilities, while also urging the UN to make the full report public.
HAI, a UW global health center, works on strengthening public sector health systems, often in conflict-affected countries. HAI’s advocacy program, of which Hagopian is a core member, is guided by four main pillars of advocacy: strengthening public-sector health systems, advocating for macroeconomic justice for healthy communities, movement building for racial, social and health justice, and using public health solutions to end war.
“HAI hosts a volunteer group of staff, faculty, and community members who meet on a regular basis to strategize ways to both make a difference on the ground, while also working on the policy level to address problems, like this one in Syria,” Hagopian shared.
The letter sent from APHA to the United Nations called for “important steps toward meaningful accountability” as health workers “strive to provide impartial and consistent care to all parties.” While wholesale changes are never immediate, and are often the product of efforts over long periods of time, Hagopian is hopeful that the work done by HAI will create systemic change. She also noted that HAI’s work is focused in “places where the conditions and struggles are created by the maldistribution of power and resources.”
“It’s long, steady persistent actions, and eventually it will get better,” Hagopian said. “I bring optimism to the work, but optimism has to be based in knowing that your work makes a difference.” The letter mentioned that continued leadership on this issue is critical.
While only time will tell how the letter will affect health facilities in Syria and beyond, HAI’s contribution represents a tangible step toward a world where health workers are protected and valued in a heightened manner.
To learn more about HAI’s advocacy work, visit their website.