Exodus of doctors and health workers leave sick and ailing Syrians out on a limb

Special Exodus of doctors and health workers leave sick and ailing Syrians out on a limb
Sanctions, isolation, earthquakes and a grinding civil war have devastated Syria’s health system, leaving medical personnel underresourced and overwhelmed, forcing many to leave for Europe. (AFP)
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Updated 13 June 2024
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Exodus of doctors and health workers leave sick and ailing Syrians out on a limb

Exodus of doctors and health workers leave sick and ailing Syrians out on a limb
  • Sanctions, isolation, earthquakes and a grinding civil war have devastated Syria’s health system
  • Overwhelmed, under-resourced, and often unpaid, medical personnel are leaving for Europe in droves 

LONDON: More than a decade of civil war, economic sanctions, regional tensions, and a devastating earthquake have left Syria’s healthcare system in tatters and, according to a top World Health Organization official, forgotten by the international community.

Hanan Balkhy, WHO’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, said last week that almost half of Syria’s health workers had fled the war-torn country. She called for innovative approaches to halt the exodus of Syrian medical staff abroad.

In an interview with the AFP news agency, she said that young doctors needed to be offered better prospects than practicing “fourth-century” medicine amid dire conditions, “where you cauterize people and send them on their merry way.”




An injured man receives emergency treatment at the Samez hospital following bombardment by pro Syrian regime forces in rebel-held northwestern city of Idlib on October 6, 2023. (AFP)

The International Rescue Committee highlighted in a 2021 report that about 70 percent of the medical workforce had fled the country, leaving one doctor for every 10,000 people.

Balkhy told AFP that in addition to earning extremely low wages, if any at all, Syria’s medical staff faced a severe shortage of resources and equipment, including operating rooms, sterilization units, and medications.

However, according to Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a Syrian-American critical care specialist and president of the medical NGO MedGlobal, every young Syrian physician he knows either plans to or dreams of leaving Syria and pursuing opportunities in other countries, “especially Germany, other European nations, or the US.”

“The flight is across the board and not related to war or conflict,” he told Arab News.

According to data released by the German Medical Association earlier this year, 6,120 Syrian doctors work in Germany without holding a German passport. These doctors account for 10 percent of the EU country’s foreign medical staff.

INNUMBERS

• 70 percent Proportion of Syria’s medical workforce that fled the country, leaving one doctor for every 10,000 people. (IRC, 2021)

• 6,120 Number of Syrian doctors working in Germany, accounting for 10 percent of the country’s foreign medical staff. (GMA, 2024)

• 65 percent Proportion of Syria’s hospitals deemed fully operational, making access to healthcare heavily constrained. (WHO, 2024)

• $80 million Funding needed by the WHO for 2024 to ensure access to health services and prevent further deterioration in Syria.

Balkhy said many young doctors in Syria are learning the German language on the side “so that they can be ready to jump,” which she believes is a significant concern for the region and its population.

But she also believes that finding creative solutions may encourage Syrian doctors to stay or return to their country — a choice she says many would make “willingly” with access to adequate support.




A man stands at the entrance of Adnan Kiwan hospital that was hit during reported airstrikes by pro-regime forces in the town of Kansafrah, in the south of Syria's Idlib province on November 25, 2019. The patients of the hospital were reportedly evacuated shortly before the strike took place. (AFP/File)

Sahloul says the main reasons behind the exodus of medical workers “are the economic collapse, hyperinflation, corruption, the collapse of the healthcare system due to long years of war, the regime’s policies of destroying what is left and pushing away anyone who wants to leave, and the lack of a viable political solution.”

Following a brief visit to the country between May 11 and 16, WHO’s Balkhy described the healthcare situation as “catastrophic,” warning that the number of people in need is “staggering, and pockets of critical vulnerabilities persist in many parts of the country.”

In a statement published on May 18, the WHO official wrote that intensifying tensions in the region, including the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip and the Iran-Israel shadow war, have exacerbated this catastrophic situation.

The civil war has forced more than 14 million Syrians to flee their homes and seek refuge both within the country and beyond its borders. Among them, more than 7.2 million remain internally displaced, while about 70 percent of the population needs humanitarian assistance, according to UN figures.




Dr. Hanan Balkhy, WHO’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean. (Supplied)

Balkhy said in her statement that she was “extremely alarmed” by the increasing malnutrition rates among children under 5 and nursing mothers as a result of rising poverty.

The UN warned last year that 90 percent of Syria’s population lived below the poverty line, with millions facing a reduction in food rations due to a shortfall in funding for aid agencies.

According to the WHO regional director, almost three-quarters of all deaths in Syria are caused by chronic conditions, including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and mental health disorders, many of which are going untreated.

She also noted the number of burn injuries in Syria has been disproportionately high, especially among children, as people, deprived of traditional means of heating and cooking, burn unsuitable materials, such as tires, plastics, and fabrics.




In this picture taken on May 2, 2023, male patients receive treatment at the Haematology and Oncology department run by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) at Idlib Central Hospital in the rebel-held northwestern Syrian city.(AFP/File)

Fumes produced by burning these substances also result in respiratory issues.

With just 65 percent of hospitals and 62 percent of primary healthcare centers fully operational, combined with a severe shortage of essential medicines and medical equipment, access to healthcare is constrained.

Before the war erupted in 2011, Syria’s pharmaceutical industry covered about 90 percent of the national needs of medicines, according to a 2010 paper by academics from the University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Romania.

In 2013, WHO reported that the country’s local drug production plunged after the fighting caused substantial damage to pharmaceutical plants in the governorates of Aleppo and rural Damascus.




A picture taken on February 21, 2018 shows a view through the wall of a destroyed hospital's pharmacy after it was hit in a regime air strike in the rebel-held enclave of Hamouria in Ghouta near Damascus. (AFP/File)

Poverty also creates significant barriers to accessing medical services and affording essential medicines, said Balkhy.

What concerned her most was “the fact that almost half of the health workforce, which forms the backbone of any health system, has left the country.”

An investigation by Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism last year found that although the exact number of Syrian physicians who left the country remains unknown, the true extent of this exodus is larger than the NGOs and the Syrian government have reported.

“Retaining a skilled health workforce and ensuring sufficient medical supplies in Syria and across the region is a key priority,” said Balkhy.




Members of the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, carry the body of a woman recovered from the rubble of a building at the site of a reported airstrike on the rebel-held town of Ariha in the northern countryside of Syria's Idlib province early on January 30, 2020. (AFP/File)

She proposed engaging young Syrian physicians on research projects with a pathway to publishing so they can “feel that they’re doing something worthwhile,” in addition to ensuring they “at least have the equipment” to perform operations.

For Sahloul of MedGlobal, fostering a belief in a brighter future is essential to retaining both new and seasoned doctors.

“What will encourage young and old doctors to stay in Syria is believing in a better future — a new leadership that respects its human capital,” he said.

Sahloul said that international and Arab actors need to devote more attention to finding a genuine solution to the Syrian conflict — “one that ensures respect for human rights and dignity, and focuses on rebuilding.”




A man and woman carry malnourished children at a camp for Syrians displaced by conflict near the town of Deir al-Ballut by Syria's border with Turkey in the Afrin region in the northwest of the rebel-held side of the Aleppo province on September 28, 2020. (AFP/File)

He added: “The current Arab normalization with the regime is flawed because it gives no hope for any meaningful change.”

Sahloul said normalization’s priorities, including refugee repatriation, curbing the manufacture of and trade in the amphetamine drug Captagon, and limiting Iran’s influence, “are not the most important priorities to the young graduates and aspiring doctors in Syria.”

Balkhy emphasized that the decline in humanitarian funding for Syria was a “central and troubling concern.” 

For instance, Al-Hol camp in Syria’s northeast — home to the wives and children of Daesh militants captured in 2019 — has grappled with many significant challenges since funding shortages forced WHO to halt medical referrals, prompting camp administrators to revoke its access.

Talks with donors in the capital Damascus during her five-day visit revealed that while they acknowledge the extent of gaps and needs, they are hampered by competing regional and global agendas.

Medecins Sans Frontieres warned on April 29 that the severe lack of funding for a vital WHO-funded medical referral system in 11 camps in northeast Syria “will lead to a marked increase in the number of preventable deaths.”

WHO said in March that it required $80 million in funding for the year 2024 to ensure the continuity, quality, and accessibility of health services and infrastructure in Syria, and to prevent a further deterioration of the already precarious situation.


 


First ships dock in Yemen harbor after Israel strike: Houthi media

First ships dock in Yemen harbor after Israel strike: Houthi media
Updated 54 min 8 sec ago
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First ships dock in Yemen harbor after Israel strike: Houthi media

First ships dock in Yemen harbor after Israel strike: Houthi media
  • “The port of Hodeida is working normally around the clock” to receive commercial ships, Ahmed Al-Murtada, the deputy director of the container terminal, said
  • Ship tracking website marinetraffic.com confirmed the arrival on Tuesday of Marsa Zenith

HODEIDA, Yemen: Two container ships have docked in Yemen’s Hodeida harbor, the first since a deadly Israeli strike hit fuel storage tanks at the militant-held port, according to Houthi media and ship trackers.
The strikes on Saturday, the first claimed by Israel on Yemen, triggered a massive blaze that burned for days at the dock amid slow firefighting efforts.
It destroyed some cranes and dozens of oil tanks, according to experts. Another tank exploded overnight between Tuesday and Wednesday, reigniting some flames at the harbor, a critical gateway for fuel imports and humanitarian aid into Houthi-held areas.
Despite the ongoing threat, “the port of Hodeida is working normally around the clock” to receive commercial ships, Ahmed Al-Murtada, the deputy director of the container terminal, told the Houthi-run Saba news agency on Tuesday.
The port’s director of maritime operations, Mohamed Al-Sais, told Saba that two ships had docked at the harbor on Tuesday.
He identified them as “Marsa Zenith,” a vessel that carried 514 containers of “various goods,” and “Brother 1,” which was loaded with 22,803 tons of iron, Saba said.
Ship tracking website marinetraffic.com confirmed the arrival on Tuesday of Marsa Zenith, identifying it as a Panama-flagged vessel that departed from the port of Djibouti.
It additionally reported the arrival of the Tanzania-flagged Brother 1, which also sailed from Djibouti, according to the website.
The quays of Hodeida were spared major damage in the Israeli strike that militants say killed nine people and targeted a fuel storage depot owned by the Yemen Petroleum Company as well as a power plant north of the port.
Maritime security firm Ambrey said there were no reports of major damage to vessels in or near the harbor following the strike.
The port, however, is still at risk of another “catastrophe,” said Mwatana for Human Rights, a Yemeni right group which dispatched an assessment team to the dock.
“Based on (the findings of) our field team, the risk of more fuel tanks exploding still remains,” it told AFP in an emailed statement.
“Whenever the firefighting teams tried to extinguish the fires, the explosions and flames reignited,” Mwatana said.
“There are major concerns that the teams may not be able to... prevent another explosion.”


Hezbollah broadcasts drone video it says shows air base deep in Israel

Hezbollah broadcasts drone video it says shows air base deep in Israel
Updated 24 July 2024
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Hezbollah broadcasts drone video it says shows air base deep in Israel

Hezbollah broadcasts drone video it says shows air base deep in Israel
  • It was the third in a series of videos released by Hezbollah
  • The latest video was more than eight minutes long and, Hezbollah said, mostly shot on Tuesday

BEIRUT: Lebanese armed group Hezbollah broadcast drone video on Wednesday that it said showed air defense facilities, planes and fuel storage units at Israel’s Ramat David air base, nearly 50km (30 miles) into Israeli territory.
It was the third in a series of videos released by Hezbollah which the group has said are meant to demonstrate how far its surveillance of Israel has reached. The first video showed the Israeli port city of Haifa and the second the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
A spokesman for the Israeli military said in a statement on X that the video was filmed by a surveillance drone and the base’s operations were not affected.
The latest video was more than eight minutes long and, Hezbollah said, mostly shot on Tuesday.
It included labels pointing out apparent military infrastructure, including the short-range Iron Dome air defense system which is designed to destroy rockets and drones.
The video also included nighttime shots that Hezbollah said were captured “earlier” and other images the group said were taken earlier in July. The caption said it was only “some” of what the drone had captured.
The videos were released as tensions mount over Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza and over frequent exchanges of fire across Lebanon’s border with Israel.
Hezbollah has sought to evade high-tech Israeli surveillance with low-tech means, while sending its own drones across the border to monitor and attack Israeli military positions.


‘Miracle’ baby born in Gaza after airstrike kills heavily pregnant mother

‘Miracle’ baby born in Gaza after airstrike kills heavily pregnant mother
Updated 24 July 2024
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‘Miracle’ baby born in Gaza after airstrike kills heavily pregnant mother

‘Miracle’ baby born in Gaza after airstrike kills heavily pregnant mother
  • Mother fell through several floors of bombed family home
  • Families face daily tragedy as Israel battles Hamas in Gaza

GAZA: Nine months pregnant, Ola Al-Kurd could not wait to hold her baby and bring new life to Gaza during a war which has killed over 39,000 fellow Palestinians and razed much of the enclave.
That special moment never came.
An Israeli airstrike smashed into the family home in Al-Nuseirat in central Gaza on July 19, according to her father Adnan Al-Kurd. The blast threw Ola down several floors to her death in the house, whose inhabitants included women, children and the elderly, he said.
Somehow, her baby survived, as did her husband, who was hospitalized.
“It’s a miracle that the fetus stayed alive inside of her when she was martyred (died),” Adnan Al-Kurd said, contemplating a photo of his daughter’s graduation.
The explosion, like many others, killed several members of a single family, a daily tragedy across Gaza since Israel began its offensive in Gaza in response to a devastating cross-border attack by Palestinian Hamas militants on Oct. 7 last year.
Mediators from the United States, Qatar and Egypt have failed in multiple attempts to secure a ceasefire. So it is highly unlikely that Israeli airstrikes and shelling will end anytime soon.
“She wanted to hold her child and fill our home with his presence,” Al-Kurd said. “She would say, ‘Mom, hopefully, this will make up for the loss of my martyred brothers and bring life back to our home’.”
Entirely against the odds, surgeons at Al Awda hospital in Nuseirat — where Ola was first taken after the strike — managed to deliver the newborn, Malek Yassin. He was then transferred to Al Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al-Balah, where an aunt touched the baby’s face as he lay in an incubator.
“Thank God, this baby’s life was saved and he is now alive and well,” doctor Khalil Al-Dakran said at the hospital, where many medical facilities have been destroyed in over nine months of war.
Al-Kurd gazes at photos of his three late children killed in the Gaza war. He said baby Yassin is blond like his deceased uncle Omar. “I go visit him everyday. He is a part of me,” he said.
Babies who survive frequent Israeli bombardment get no relief as the conflict inflicts more destruction in the heavily built-up, densely populated Gaza Strip.
“We are in fact facing very great difficulties in the nursery department,” said Al-Dakran, due to a lack of sufficient medication and supplies and fears that the hospital generator could stop at any moment due to fuel shortages.
Hospitals across impoverished Gaza have been demolished or seriously damaged during the war, which began when Hamas-led fighters attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking over 250 hostages according to Israeli tallies.
Israel responded with an air and ground offensive that has killed more than 39,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, and levelled much of the coastal territory.
“What is the fault of this child to start his life under difficult and very bad circumstances, deprived of the most basic necessities of life?” said Dakran.


Climate change imperils drought-stricken Morocco’s cereal farmers and its food supply

Climate change imperils drought-stricken Morocco’s cereal farmers and its food supply
Updated 24 July 2024
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Climate change imperils drought-stricken Morocco’s cereal farmers and its food supply

Climate change imperils drought-stricken Morocco’s cereal farmers and its food supply
  • Delays to annual rains and inconsistent weather patterns have pushed the growing season later in the year and made planning difficult for farmers.
  • Agriculture Ministry estimates that this year’s wheat harvest will yield roughly 3.4 million tons, far less than last year’s 6.1 million tons

KENITRA: Golden fields of wheat no longer produce the bounty they once did in Morocco. A six-year drought has imperiled the country’s entire agriculture sector, including farmers who grow cereals and grains used to feed humans and livestock.
The North African nation projects this year’s harvest will be smaller than last year in both volume and acreage, putting farmers out of work and requiring more imports and government subsidies to prevent the price of staples like flour from rising for everyday consumers.
“In the past, we used to have a bounty — a lot of wheat. But during the last seven or eight years, the harvest has been very low because of the drought,” said Al Housni Belhoussni, a small-scale farmer who has long tilled fields outside of the city of Kenitra.
Belhoussni’s plight is familiar to grain farmers throughout the world confronting a hotter and drier future. Climate change is imperiling the food supply and, in regions like North Africa, shrinking the annual yields of cereals that dominate diets around the world — wheat, rice, maize and barley.
The region is one of the most vulnerable in the world to climate change. Delays to annual rains and inconsistent weather patterns have pushed the growing season later in the year and made planning difficult for farmers.
In Morocco, where cereals account for most of the farmed land and agriculture employs the majority of workers in rural regions, the drought is wreaking havoc and touching off major changes that will transform the makeup of the economy. It has forced some to leave their fields fallow. It has also made the areas they do elect to cultivate less productive, producing far fewer sacks of wheat to sell than they once did.
In response, the government has announced restrictions on water use in urban areas — including on public baths and car washes — and in rural ones, where water going to farms has been rationed.
“The late rains during the autumn season affected the agriculture campaign. This year, only the spring rains, especially during the month of March, managed to rescue the crops,” said Abdelkrim Naaman, the chairman of Nalsya. The organization has advised farmers on seeding, irrigation and drought mitigation as less rain falls and less water flows through Morocco’s rivers.
The Agriculture Ministry estimates that this year’s wheat harvest will yield roughly 3.4 million tons, far less than last year’s 6.1 million tons — a yield that was still considered low. The amount of land seeded has dramatically shrunk as well, from 36,700 square kilometers to 24,700 square kilometers.
Such a drop constitutes a crisis, said Driss Aissaoui, an analyst and former member of the Moroccan Ministry for Agriculture.
“When we say crisis, this means that you have to import more,” he said. “We are in a country where drought has become a structural issue.”
Leaning more on imports means the government will have to continue subsidizing prices to ensure households and livestock farmers can afford dietary staples for their families and flocks, said Rachid Benali, the chairman of the farming lobby COMADER.
The country imported nearly 2.5 million tons of common wheat between January and June. However, such a solution may have an expiration date, particularly because Morocco’s primary source of wheat, France, is facing shrinking harvests as well.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization ranked Morocco as the world’s sixth-largest wheat importer this year, between Turkiye and Bangladesh, which both have much bigger populations.
“Morocco has known droughts like this and in some cases known droughts that las longer than 10 years. But the problem, this time especially, is climate change,” Benali said.


Israel far-right minister says prayed at flashpoint mosque compound

Israel far-right minister says prayed at flashpoint mosque compound
Updated 24 July 2024
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Israel far-right minister says prayed at flashpoint mosque compound

Israel far-right minister says prayed at flashpoint mosque compound

JERUSALEM: A far-right Israeli minister said Wednesday he had prayed at Jerusalem’s flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound, yet again defying longstanding rules that allow Jews to visit but not to pray.
The mosque compound is Islam’s third holiest site and a symbol of Palestinian national identity but it is also revered by Jews as the site of their ancient temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
“I’m the political leadership and the political leadership authorizes prayers on the Temple Mount,” National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir told a symposium in the Israeli parliament.
“I prayed on the Temple Mount last week and Jews pray on the Temple Mount... There is no reason why parts of the Temple Mount should be off-limits for Jews,” said Ben Gvir, who is known for provocative gestures.
While Jews and other non-Muslims are allowed to visit the mosque compound in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem during specific hours, they are not permitted to pray or display religious symbols.
In recent years, the restrictions have been increasingly flouted by hard-line religious nationalists like Ben Gvir, prompting a sometimes violent reaction from Palestinians.
Ben Gvir’s remarks came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due to address the US Congress in a bid to rally support amid tensions with President Joe Biden’s administration over his government’s handling of the war in Gaza.