Severe challenges persist with access to healthcare and aid in Ukraine

Russian servicemen guard near the destroyed local hospital building in downtown Volnovakha, Ukraine, 11 April 2022. [EPA-EFE/SERGEI ILNITSKY]

As the war in Ukraine nears the end of its second month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported continued challenges in accessing healthcare and delivering emergency aid to some of the hardest-hit areas of the conflict, issues that were also discussed by MEPs this week.

A WHO ongoing nationwide health need assessment published Friday (22 April) revealed that 2 out of 5 households have at least one person with a chronic illness such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or cancer. Out of these households, a third reported challenges in accessing essential care.

Of the 1000 households that participated in the survey, the majority are sheltering in their own homes. Of the remainder, just over a tenth are staying with friends or family members in relatively safer areas, 8% are on the move in the country, and 3% are in a shelter for internally displaced people.

Less than a third of all respondents reported having sought out healthcare services recently. Out of those, over a third cited the security situation as the main reason; just under a third said that there were no healthcare services in their region.

“Two months into the war, our findings show the urgent need for continued health system support in Ukraine,” said Jarno Habicht, head of the WHO office in Ukraine.

As of Thursday, the WHO has verified 162 attacks on healthcare since Russia’s invasion on 24 February. Access to reproductive, maternal and antenatal care, as well as mental health care, is said to be “severely impacted due to security concerns, restricted mobility, broken supply chains and mass displacement”, the press release stated.

Communicable diseases are also a concern, since routine immunisation, including COVID-19 vaccination, “is greatly diminished because of the war.”

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The support from outside Ukraine

The WHO has delivered 218 tonnes of emergency medical supplies and equipment to Ukraine throughout the conflict. Most of the aid has reached its intended destination, the organisation reported, critically in the east, north and south of the country where the need is greatest. The trauma and emergency supplies delivered were sufficient to conduct up to 207,000 surgeries.

WHO’s aid deliveries into the country have been able to reach nearly 7.5 million people, Habicht confirmed.

The European Commission is also working “on all fronts” to support Ukraine and its people with emergency humanitarian aid and civil protection assistance, Alessandro Valdambrini, deputy head of the southeast Europe and Eastern neighbourhood unit at DG ECHO, said during a meeting of the parliament’s  Development Committee on Wednesday.

The Commission has pledged €1 billion for people fleeing the Russian invasion, both inside Ukraine and abroad. The figure includes €143 million of humanitarian funding, €130 million for Ukraine and €13 million for Moldova, according to Valdambrini.

On the role of DG ECHO, the EU’s humanitarian aid body, Valdambrini said their focus is to provide “lifesaving emergency assistance to conflict-affected people stranded in heavily shelled and besieged cities or hard to reach areas including in the East, where now we see the direst humanitarian conditions”.

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Access remains an issue

A persistent concern of officials is the ability of aid to reach its intended targets.

“We are reaching only a fraction of the needs, and this is unfortunately linked to the ongoing conflict and the lack of a ceasefire set to allow humanitarian corridors,” Yorgos Kapranis, field expert at DG ECHO, said to lawmakers, specifying that the emergency needs are mostly concentrated at the conflict line and occupied areas.

“This is where human dramas take place every day and this is where we have to fight for access,” Kapranis said.

This is especially the case in the east, where the health system has “all but collapsed”, Habicht added.

“We have received reports, for instance, that nearly all health facilities and hospitals in Luhansk oblast are either damaged or destroyed, and the situation is critical in several others,” he said. “It is vital that we gain access so we can assess health needs and move vital supplies into affected areas, including Mariupol”.

“Civilians have a right to health, even in times of war,” he stressed.

Marek Štys, head of emergency programs for Czech NGO People In Need, made an impassioned plea to MEPs of his concern for the security of his organisation’s own staff, aid workers and staff of partner organisations.

“Unfortunately, now, the situation is that we have the capacities on the ground, we have the goods on the ground, but we cannot deliver the assistance, we cannot deliver it safely to most needed locations,” Štys said.

However, Mykyta Poturaiev, a Ukrainian parliamentarian, assured EU lawmakers that “help is delivered, even in villages and towns which are right now on the frontline,” referring specifically to Ukraine’s east, as well as the Kharkiv and Mykolaiv regions.

“You can be absolutely sure that all European and international help that is delivered to Ukraine goes to the regions where it is really necessary,” he highlighted.

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[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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