WHO Slams Ethiopia’s ‘Blockade’ on Health Relief to Tigray Region as ‘Catastrophic’ and ‘Unprecedented’ Even in Conflict Zones
At a WHO press briefing, the organization’s Director General described the grim status of the health and humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s conflict-torn Tigray region.

The leadership of the World Health Organization (WHO) has slammed Ethiopia’s “complete blockade” on health and humanitarian aid to Ethiopia’s Tigray region, saying it has been unable to deliver life-saving medications for nearly six months – in a situation that is “unprecedented” even in comparison to conflict-wracked Syria or Yemen. 

“Humanitarian access even in conflict is the basics. Even in Syria, we had access, even during the worst of conflicts in Syria. In Yemen, we have the same access. We delivered medicines. Here [however], it’s a complete blockade especially since mid-July. Nothing. This is six months without medical support, without food without all the rest of the things I have said. It’s been impossible,” said WHO’s Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who hails from the Tigrayan region himself.

The region  is at the heart of the ongoing civil war that began on 3 November 2020, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Despite recent Ethiopian government signals that it might now consider peace talks with Tigrayan rebel forces, WHO’s attempts to deliver health and humanitarian relief to the war-torn region continue to be denied for nearly six months now, said Tedros and WHO’s Executive Director of Health Emergencies, Mike Ryan at a Wednesday press briefing.  

‘Insult to humanity’

Mike Ryan, WHO Executive Director of Health Emergencies

Ryan noted that the government of Ethiopia has refused the global health body access to the Tigray region to deliver basic insulin, other oral antidiabetic drugs, and drugs for other diseases since last summer. He said that the region is quickly running out of essential health care commodities, including IV fluids.

Our access has not improved and quite frankly, it’s very upsetting. In fact the situation is getting worse” Ryan said. “They’re running out of IV fluids for managing diabetic ketoacidosis. The doctors and nurses can’t even manage the more severe complications of a disease like diabetes which has catastrophic, immediate health consequences for people. The politics of it are beyond me. 

“Whatever the cause of that situation, those who have no access to the very basic life-saving interventions that we in the West, that we’re sitting here in Geneva, would expect immediately, instantly,” Ryan added.

“This is an insult to humanity to allow a situation like this to continue. To allow no (zero) access. Access is the lifeblood, the starting point for humanitarian intervention and we simply do not have that access. Access for our staff access to the field, getting basic medical supplies in there.” 

He called on all parties involved in the situation in the region to  find a solution to allow humanitarian and healthcare workers, including doctors and nurses, to do their jobs which he said is to treat patients and save lives.

WHO DG: Tigray under “complete blockade” since mid-July – barring humanitarian relief 

A family from Samre, in south-western Tigray, walked for two days to reach a camp for displaced people in Mekelle.

Confirming the impasse, Tedros added that the situation in the region is getting more complicated and deteriorating – despite recent talk about peace overtures between the government and rebel troops. 

The region with a population of seven million people – about equal to that of Norway and Estonia combined – has been under a humanitarian blockade for more than a year – which has only worsened in past months with the denial of health emergency relief too, he said. 

“Imagine a complete blockade of seven million people for more than a year and there is no food, no medication, no medicine, no electricity and no telecommunication. No media, nobody can report and when there is no telephone, I think accessing families is difficult. No cash, no bank service. Imagine the impact of all of these. 

“Lack of medicine has a direct impact and people are dying, but lack of food also kills,” the Director General said. 

Apart from the Tigray region, other areas of Ethiopia also are being impacted by the crisis, including the Amhara Region and Afar regions. However, while WHO has been granted access to the other regions – it has not been allowed to bring supplies or support to Tigray.

“Since July, no medication was allowed from WHO, none whatsoever. We have approached the prime minister’s office, we have approached the Foreign Ministry. 

“We have approached all relevant sectors, but no permission. So there is a blatant measure which has been taken that is blockade and siege against more than 7 million people,” the DG added.

A few weeks ago, the Ethiopian government did finally allow UNICEF to provide measles vaccines to the Tigray region.

But the WHO DG noted that the measles vaccine alone cannot significantly improve the overall health and humanitarian crisis. He described that as “unprecedented” considering that the global health body was granted access during previous worse wars.

“Humanitarian access even in conflict is the basics. Even in Syria, we had access, even during the worst of conflicts in Syria. In Yemen, we have the same access. We delivered medicines. Here [however], it’s a complete blockade especially since mid-July. Nothing. This is six months without medical support, without food without all the rest of the things I have said. It’s been impossible,” he added.

Meanwhile, African Centers for Disease Control officials have also been unable to access the region for nearly a year now, Africa CDC Director, Dr John Nkengasong, said in a separate briefing on Thursday.

A woman brings her child to a clinic in Wajirat in Southern Tigray in Ethiopia to be checked for malnutrition in late summer – since then a blockade on all health supplies has devastated the region even more.

State of the War

In December the Geneva-based Human Rights Council agreed to set up an international probe on the Tigrayan conflict, after the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif said that an estimated 400,000 people in Tigray were living in famine-like conditions.

Official accounts traced the commencement of the war to minutes before the clock chimed at midnight on 3 November 2020. Tigray Special Forces and allied local militia attacked the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) Northern Command headquarters in Mekelle, the Fifth Battalion barracks in Dansha, and other Northern Command bases. Several people were killed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) claimed the attack was carried out in self-defense or preemptive self-defense.

According to Human Rights Watch, all sides in the war have committed war crimes during the conflict with the war creating a deepening humanitarian crisis. More than 10,000 people have died since war began, and rape has reportedly been used as a weapon.

In December Ethiopian government officials sent out an olive branch, saying they would pause at their current positions.  And just last week, the Ethiopian government announced it was exploring political dialogue to end the war, starting with the release of some opposition leaders.

“The key to lasting peace is dialogue,” the Ethiopian government stated.

Image Credits: UNICEF/Christine Nesbitt, Paul Adepoju, UNOCHA/Saviano Abreu.

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