When Political Turmoil Spills Over into Health Care

By: Anita Cheng

The recent political uprisings in the Middle East and Northern Africa have captured the attention of the global community. Speaking for myself, I have not considered how political turmoil has affected access to health care for civilians caught in the middle of often dangerous war zones. This article in the New York Times caught my attention. The Salmaniya Medical Complex, Bahrain’s largest public hospital, is now not only being guarded by government military forces but is virtually empty of health professionals and patients. This anomaly can be explained by the fact that the Sunni-majority Bahrain Government believes that this medical facility (staffed by mainly Shiite physicians) is being used as a hub for radical Shiite conspirators. Since the initiation of the conflict, medical professionals have been stopped from treating wounded individuals who have participated in opposition activities and those who allegedly disobey this command are arrested. The current health minister defends her position by stating that doctors have been purposely depriving patients of medical care or worsening patients’ wounds then subsequently asking news media to report of these cases to prove the government’s oppression of its people.

This situation in Bahrain is a social injustice on multiple levels. Because of these terrorizing incidents, local civilians are afraid to seek care at Salmaniya. In addition, since this medical facility is one of the largest in the area, this crackdown cuts off access to emergency care, blood bank, and drugs from its patients. Physicians and other medical care providers working in Salmaniya are forced to make a crucial decision in a “lose-lose” situation – Should they stop providing care to wounded demonstrators and protect themselves or should they defy the commands of its monarchy government and risk their personal security to save those who are participating in these uprisings? Whether the health minister’s claim is correct or not, one can argue that the motivation behind these physicians is to reveal atrocious human rights violation its government has committed against its people to the world. In addition, one can point out that the government’s “plan” to prevent these doctors from doing what they are allegedly doing is counterproductive because cutting off healthcare access is a human rights violation itself and is now being revealed by this article and perhaps other news outlets as well.

Describing this situation as “tricky” or “complex” is a great understatement. Since social justice is at the core of public health, what is the “just” action that should be taken to ensure that the right to healthcare and a safe work environment is reinstated for the people of Bahrain and its physicians and health care workers? Whose responsibility is it to put an end to these human rights violations? Would political and economic sanctions even work? If the allegations are indeed true that security forces have gone as far as stealing medical records to hide evidence of these violations, how can prosecutions against the Bahraini government be made without proof? If a solution to this crisis requires the resolution of the political conflicts, how long would the people of Bahrain have to wait before they can feel safe to see their doctors?


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One response to “When Political Turmoil Spills Over into Health Care

  1. Ellen Albritton

    You are definitely not alone in not always considering the way that political turmoil can disrupt health services at many levels, not only for those injuries that may be a direct result of political conflict, but also for the common diseases and injuries that people experience. I also had neglected to think of this issue regarding political turmoil until I heard the stories from clinic staff in Kenya this past summer. Kenya experienced significant post-election violence in 2007/08, and much of the violence committed was often based on what ethnic group a person belonged to (Kenya has 42 different groups). Staff at one of the clinics I was at told me about how some of them were very afraid to come to work because of the dangers associated with just leaving your home. Others feared that if they treated members of one group more than another, they would be seen as “sympathetic” to that group, and then be attacked by the other group. They also said that as Kenya, like much of the developing world, is becoming increasingly urban, people from many different groups are moving into overcrowded slums, and are living in much closer quarters to people outside of their own group, making ethnic or political violence much easier to break out. As a result of this post-election violence, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans became Internally Displaced Persons, and these people are still seeing disruption in what little access to healthcare they have because of politics–their situation is often used as a political tool, without much regard for how this affects their well-being. This past summer Kenya voted on a new constitution, and although the vote happened peacefully, many were worried that it would not. Even this threat of violence had an affect on health services at one the clinics I was at, as the doctor there gave priority with his limited resources to community building and violence-prevention programs in anticipation of the constitutional vote, taking resources away from other much-needed programs.

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