Tigray situation horrific, people dying from hunger, health centers destroyed, rape rampant, humanitarian access needed, WHO director general Tedros describes chaotic scenes in northern Ethiopia

The humanitarian situation in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray is “horrific” with “people dying from hunger” and health centers completely “destroyed”, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday.

(From L) World Health Organization leaders at a press briefing on COVID-19, held on March 6 at WHO headquarters in Geneva. From left: emergencies program director Michael Ryan, director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove. 
(From L) World Health Organization leaders at a press briefing on COVID-19, held on March 6 at WHO headquarters in Geneva. From left: emergencies program director Michael Ryan, director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove.

Speaking at his regular press briefing from Geneva, Switzerland, Dr. Tedros painted a picture of a region on the brink of total breakdown where rape is rampant and “indiscriminate and unprovoked killings” are regular in addition to the coronavirus pandemic already killing hundreds of people daily.

He said more than 4 million people in Tigray are in immediate need of assistance with at least 91 percent of the regional population in need of food to survive.

“The situation in Tigray is horrific and 4.5 million people need assistance and 91 percent of people in the Tigray Region need food aid immediately and that people are dying from hunger every single day,” Tedros said. “Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced or expelled. Rape is rampant and we have not seen those levels from anywhere in the world. There (are) indiscriminate and unprovoked killings.”

He said there are so many other challenges that dying from COVID-19 suddenly seems like a remote possibility for people in the region.

“The majority of the people living in Tigray don’t worry about COVID, it’s the least of their worries. The chances of dying from the other issues is greater than dying from COVID. We are not even in a position to discuss COVID because there are more important issues,” he said.

He called on all parties to seek peace, adding that a political solution was needed to resolve the impasse.

Dr. Michael Joseph Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program, who is among those leading the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, said “access is the key issue in Tigray, access to the victims in Tigray remains highly unpredictable.”

World Health Organization Health Emergencies Programme Director Michael Ryan speaks during a news briefing on COVID-19 in Geneva, Switzerland on March 30.AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES 
World Health Organization Health Emergencies Programme Director Michael Ryan speaks during a news briefing on COVID-19 in Geneva, Switzerland on March 30.AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

The Irish epidemiologist and former trauma surgeon specializing in infectious diseases and public health, said health facilities in Tigray are “either destroyed or inaccessible with a rise in measles and cholera.”

“We need to get cholera vaccines in there to avoid a huge disaster. There are 4.5 million people in Tigray and 3.8 million are in need to health assistance,” Dr. Ryan added.

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization COVID-19 lead, said the WHO is “limited by the surveillance” needed “in this challenging situation.”

World Health Organization Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove during a press briefing in Geneva on March 9, 2020. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images 
World Health Organization (WHO) Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove gestures as she speaks during a daily press briefing on COVID-19 virus at the WHO headquaters in Geneva on March 9, 2020. – The World Health Organization said on March 9, 2020 that more than 70 percent of those infected with the new coronavirus in China have recovered, adding that the country was “bringing its epidemic under control”. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

“We are limited by the surveillance that is able to be conducted in this challenging situation,” added Van Kerkhove, an American infectious disease expert with a background in high-threat pathogens. “As of the week of March 29, we were seeing 14,000 cases per week, and now, we are seeing 3,600 cases per week and 100 deaths per week. However, our ability to access information is limited.”

On Saturday, the Biden administration said it was “gravely concerned” about the “continuing atrocities” and “denial of humanitarian access” in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

President Joe Biden walks along the Colonnade with the Combatant Commander nominees U.S. Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost and U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson on Monday, March 8, 2021, along the Colonnade of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz) 
President Joe Biden walks along the Colonnade with the Combatant Commander nominees U.S. Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost and U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson on Monday, March 8, 2021, along the Colonnade of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

“The United States is gravely concerned by the increasing number of confirmed cases of military forces blocking humanitarian access to parts of the Tigray region. This unacceptable behavior places the 5.2 million people in the region in immediate need of humanitarian assistance at even greater risk,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in a statement received by Today News Africa in Washington DC.

“The United States unequivocally calls upon the Governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia to take all necessary steps to ensure that their forces in Tigray cease and desist this reprehensible conduct,” Blinken added.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken participates in a roundtable discussion with Executive Women@State via video teleconference from the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on March 26, 2021. [State Department photo by Freddie Everett 
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken participates in a roundtable discussion with Executive Women@State via video teleconference from the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on March 26, 2021. [State Department photo by Freddie Everett

He said: “We also again call on all parties to comply with obligations under international humanitarian law, including those relevant to the protection of civilians, and to cease immediately all hostilities and allow relief to reach those suffering and in greatest need of assistance. The Ethiopian government should lead in this regard and immediately facilitate full and unhindered access for humanitarian actors to all parts of the Tigray region.

“There are many credible reports of armed forces in Tigray committing acts of violence against civilians, including gender-based violence and other human rights abuses and atrocities.

Børge Brende President; Member of the Managing Board, World Economic Forum and Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia during the Session "A Conversation with Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia" at the Annual Meeting 2019 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 23, 2019 Copyright by World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebell 
Børge Brende President; Member of the Managing Board, World Economic Forum and Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia during the Session “A Conversation with Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia” at the Annual Meeting 2019 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 23, 2019 Copyright by World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebell

“The conduct of the Eritrean Defense Forces and Amhara regional forces have been particularly egregious. The continued presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray further undermines Ethiopia’s stability and national unity. We again call upon the Government of Eritrea to remove its forces from Tigray.

“Both Eritrean and Ethiopian authorities have repeatedly promised such a withdrawal, but we have seen no movement towards implementation. We equally urge the Government of Ethiopia to withdraw Amhara regional forces from the Tigray region and ensure that effective control of western Tigray is returned to the Transitional Government of Tigray. Prime Minister Abiy and President Isais must hold all those responsible for atrocities accountable.”

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at Asmara International Airport, July 9, 2018. Photo obtained from social media 
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at Asmara International Airport, July 9, 2018. Photo obtained from social media

With the humanitarian situation deteriorating, it seems Ethiopia will need more than the $174.1 million in food aid USAID provided the country in 2020, before the current crisis exploded in November, displacing hundreds of thousands of people in Ethiopia and sending tens of thousands fleeing into Sudan.

Chief White House Correspondent for

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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