WHO Warns of ‘Humanitarian Catastrophe’ as it Releases $3.5 Million in Aid to Ukraine
Special to Health Policy Watch: Eyewitness view of smoke from Russian bombing hovers over residential area in Ivano-Frankivsk on in south-western Ukraine, on 25th February as Russian attacks spread throughout the country.

The World Health Organization said it had released $3.5 million to support delivery of urgent medical supplies to the people of Ukraine, after Russia invaded the country on three fronts simultaneously early Thursday morning.

Meanwhile, WHO’s European Regional Office called for an end to hostilities saying: “any further escalation could result in a humanitarian catastrophe in Europe, including a significant toll in terms of casualties as well as further damage to already-fragile health systems.”

WHO’s Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was “heartbroken and gravely concerned” for the health and well-being of Ukrainians, as tens of thousands of Ukrainians streamed towards the country’s western borders. Millions of others huddled in homes or shelters, as Russian shelling and bombing expanded even to western parts of the country, previously considered “safe zones.”

Tedros added that WHO would be monitoring Russia’s actions to ensure that no health facilities, healthcare workers or patients were targeted and, if they were, WHO would document and report such incidents.

The director-general’s statement stressed that WHO is “deeply concerned for the health of the people of Ukraine in the escalating crisis” and said that his organization would help ensure that the country’s health system would continue to function “to deliver essential care to people for all health issues, from COVID-19 to cancer, diabetes and tuberculosis, to mental health issues, especially for vulnerable groups such as older persons and migrants.”

The initial $3.5 million offered “is expected to rise following further needs assessments,” said Tedros.

WHO Regional Office calls for halt to “escalation”

COVID-19 patient in severe state in Chernivtsi, Ukraine
COVID-19 ward in Chernivtsi, southwestern Ukraine. As SARS-CoV2 wanes, health services must deal with a health emergency – created solely by human forces.

A statement by the WHO Regional office called for a halt to the Russian attack – without naming the country directly:

“Further escalation could result in a humanitarian catastrophe in Europe, including a significant toll in terms of casualties as well as further damage to already fragile health systems,” WHO/Europe warned.

The office said it was working closely with all UN partners in rapidly scaling up readiness to respond to the expected health emergency triggered by the conflict, protecting WHO and other medical staff, and minimizing disruptions to the delivery of critical health care services.

“The right to health and access to services must always be protected, not least during times of crises,” the statement said. “The protection of civilians is an obligation under international humanitarian law.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Friday that other UN agencies also would be scaling up its aid efforts – “in and around Ukraine.”

US Secretary of state Antony Blinken, meanwhile, commended Guterres’ response, hours after President Joe Biden said that the United States would be sending Ukraine “humanitarian relief to ease their suffering” – along with imposing economic sanctions on Russia.

On Thursday, the UN also allocated $20 million from its Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to provide humanitarian response. Up to five million people, among Ukraine’s 44 million population, could wind up as war refugees, according to US reports, and the International Committee of the Red Cross as well as other international relief agencies are ramping up appeals to support civilians who are now stranded, under fire, and lacking adequate food, water and medical support.

Other offers of health and humanitarian aid were also being heard from other countries as far-flung as Poland and Israel, while Reuters reported that both Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders might move as early as next week to approve a sharp increase in defensive military aid and humanitarian support to the beleaguered country.

Attacks spreading westward and including hospitals, eye-witnesses report

On Friday, local and international media reported that Russian troops had entered parts of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Russia has also been carrying airstrikes throughout the country since the escalation began overnight on Wednesday.

In Ivano-Frankivsk deep in south-western Ukraine, near the Moldova-Croatia border, an eyewitness shared with Health Policy Watch photos of Russian bombs hitting residential areas of the city.

Ukranian and Kyiv expert sources,  meanwhile, posted photos of residential areas in far-flung parts of the country being targeted in the attacks. Said Olga Tokariuk, a freelance correspondent in Kyiv, affiliated with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), quoted Ukranian Health Minister Viktor Liashko saying that the Russian military attack also was hitting hospitals, saying: “This is a a violation of [the] Geneva Convention.”

On Sunday, 27 February, WHO issued a further warning that medical oxygen supplies were already running “dangerously low” as a result of the crisis.  The shortage of medical oxygen threatens the recovery of some 1,700 seriously ill COVID patients, mostly older people, as well as neonates, women with pregnancy and childbirth complications, as well as people with other chronic conditions as well as people who have suffered injuries and trauma during the past days of conflict, said a joint statement issued by WHO’s Geneva headquarters and the European Regional Office.

“The majority of hospitals could exhaust their oxygen reserves within the next 24 hours. Some have already run out. This puts thousands of lives at risk,” said a WHO statement.

The Agency called for the safe transport of the supplies “to those who need them.”

Updated on 2 March 2022

Image Credits: Anonymous eyewitness , Mstyslav Chernov/ Wikimedia Commons.

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