Memorial: A tribute to healthcare workers, 68th World Health Assembly

Testimony by Dr Hazem Bakleh, Director of Medical Services and the Head of the Health Committee, Damascus branch, Syrian Arab Red Crescent

A mark of respect and tribute to all healthcare workers who risk and have given their lives while ensuring affected populations are able to access healthcare services in humanitarian settings and fragile situations.

Good evening ladies, gentlemen, colleagues,

Thank you for joining me tonight to commemorate our fellow healthcare personnel, who have fallen in the line of duty. This is a matter that is close to my heart, as the Director of Medical Services for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, I know first-hand the fear, danger and risk that has become inherent to our jobs.  As humanitarians, it is our duty and our passion to help the most vulnerable, but the price of helping those in need cannot be our lives.

This is unacceptable and untenable, yet this is the reality many healthcare personnel face, this is the reality that I and every member of Syrian Arab Red Crescent face when we go to deliver vaccines, lifesaving care and treatment, or food and water.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I, along with a team of Syrian Arab Red Crescent healthcare workers and volunteers went on a mission to distribute 20,000 vaccines for children and a dialysis machine for a patient with renal failure. Our convoy was caught in a mortar attack, and while we were able to deliver these lifesaving vaccines and treatments, we lost one of our staff. Isra’a Al-Habash, a 19 year volunteer and a brave and generous soul, who like all of our volunteers, doctors and nurses was motivated by a desire to help her country and her people, even during this period of horrific violence. She was the 44th  Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer to be killed while carrying out her humanitarian duties.

And unfortunately, her story is not unique. Whenever conflict breaks out, whether in Afghanistan, Somalia, Colombia, or the Central African Republic we see the same story, and until better protections for healthcare workers are in place and humanitarian law is fully respected, we know she will not be the last.

When we are attacked, and killed, not only is there the pain of grief and loss for our families, friends, and colleagues, there are immediate and long term consequences for the communities we serve. Epidemics of easily preventable diseases are allowed to blossom, the wounded are left untreated, childbirth becomes a death sentence.

So tonight as we commemorate Isra’a and the countless other healthcare personnel who have died, let us use this opportunity to mobilize our expertise and resources to enact better protections, strengthen respect and guarantee the safety for healthcare personnel to pay tribute to their sacrifice.

Thank you.

Learn more

Dr Hazem Bakleh is the Director of Medical Services and the Head of the Health Committee of the Damascus branch of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. He began working for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in 1992, when he joined a Red Crescent polyclinic and has held various positions of increasing prominence since. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the National Society has been the primary humanitarian organization operating in Syria. Heading the National Societies health response, Dr Bakleh works closely with the volunteers in delivering healthcare to the most vulnerable, often working in dangerous areas that no one else can access. Some of these critical services include delivering polio vaccines and sending medical convoys to hot zones.

During the 68th World Health Assembly's side event on health and well-being in emergencies, a memorial was organized as a tribute to all the healthcare workers who have fallen while providing the much needed care and live saving treatment to the affected populations in humanitarian settings and fragile situations. The side event was organized by the governments of Netherlands and New Zealand and cosponsored by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) together with other partners. The event focused on three aspects: (i) safety and health of health care workers; (ii) reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health; and (iii) mental health and psychosocial support in humanitarian emergencies. You can also follow the hashtags #WHA68 and #EWECisME.