One Month After Russia’s Invasion, Half of Ukrainians are Refugees or Stuck in Conflict Zones – And Their Needs Are Growing
People at the railway station in Lviv wait in line for hours to board trains to leave Ukraine.

A month after the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, almost 10 million people have been displaced, 64 attacks on health facilities have been verified – and the situation is set to worsen.

This was the grim assessment of World Health Organization (WHO) officials briefing the media on Wednesday.

“Nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s population has now been forcibly displaced. The humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate in many parts of the country and is critical in the Mariupol and Bucha districts,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus.

Meanwhile, Dr Mike Ryan, director of health emergencies, said that “a further massive scaling up of assistance within Ukraine” is going to be needed in the coming weeks.

Around 3.5 million Ukrainians have left the country, 6.5 million are internally displaced while 12 million are in conflict zones, said Ryan. 

“So across a population of 44 million, half the population of Ukraine has either the left the country, has been displaced within the country or is in a direct conflict zone,” said Ryan.

“I have never myself seen such complex needs and a crisis that has developed so fast,” added Ryan, castigating the aggressors in both Ukraine and Tigray for refusing to allow unfettered humanitarian access to those in need.

The WHO has raised less than a quarter of the $57.5 million it estimates it needs to deliver assistance in Ukraine over the next few months.

“The disruption to services and supplies throughout Ukraine is posing an extreme risk to people with cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, HIV and TB, which are among the country’s leading causes of mortality,” said Tedros.

Displacement, poor shelter, and overcrowded living conditions caused by the conflict are also increasing the risk of diseases such as measles, pneumonia, and polio as well as COVID-19, he added.

Preparing for nuclear, chemical warfare

Dr Ibrahima Socé Fall, WHO Assistant General Secretary for Emergency Response

Dr Ibrahima Socé Fall, Assistant General Secretary for Emergency Response, said the WHO was in a bind because it did not know how to get medical supplies from its warehouses to health facilities.

“The really high confirmed attacks on health care includes attacks on ambulances. So It is difficult even for very simple movement [such as] making sure that the medical supplies will reach the hospitals where it is needed,” said Socé Fall.

Meanwhile, the WHO has been working with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Ukrainian officers to prepare for chemical, biological or nuclear hazards.

“There is another obvious layer to this, which is the horrific potential that weapons could be used that are either chemical or nuclear in nature,” said Ryan. “We are part of the UN system for response to such incidents if they occur, and we’re ready to do so. But it’s unconscionable even to think that that would be the case.”

COVID resurgence is driven by BA.2

Dr Maria van Kerkhove

The more infectious Omicron BA.2 sub-lineage is sweeping the world, accounting for 86% of the sequences available from the last four weeks, said WHO COVID-19 lead Dr Maria van Kerkhove.

There have been large COVID-19 outbreaks in Asia and a fresh wave of infections in Europe. 

“Several countries are now seeing their highest death rates since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Tedros.

“This reflects the speed with which Omicron spreads and the heightened risk of deaths for those who are not vaccinated, especially older people. We all want to move on from the pandemic. But no matter how much we wish it away, this pandemic is not over.”

However, Ryan said that while transmission has taken off again in many places – especially where rules had been relaxed. But countries with high levels of vaccination, especially amongst vulnerable people, were not seeing high rates of hospitalisation, and deaths.

Ethiopia finally allows access to Tigray

The Ethiopian government, which has maintained a siege of Tigray for almost 500 days, had finally agreed to allow the WHO to deliver 95 tonnes of medical supplies to the territory, said Tedros.

“If we can deliver the supplies safely, they will help people in desperate need. But much more is needed. So far, only 4% of the needs for health supplies have been delivered to Tigray. That is insignificant,” said Tedros.

“With dire shortages of fuel and food, people are starving to death. Actually, giving them food is more important than medicine. We continue to call on the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to end the blockade.”

Ryan added that the WHO had experienced “all kinds of bureaucratic restrictions in the past, including cancellations” in getting aid to Tigray.

“t is the responsibility of all parties to facilitate the process of giving access, not to take away piecemeal small bits of a blockade and allow some aid to trickle in,” said Ryan. “This is about opening up unfettered access to millions of people who are in desperate need.”

He added that the basic principles of humanitarian law were being forgotten in Tigray and Ukraine – which is to ensure access to populations who desperately need aid .

Image Credits: People in Need, Sam Mednick/TNH.

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