IN his opening remarks at the Special Session of the World Health Organization Executive Board on December 10, 2023, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the event as “a meeting we would rather not be having.”
“As I have said repeatedly, I deplore the barbaric and unjustifiable attacks by Hamas on Israel on the 7th of October, which killed more than 1,200 people. I am appalled by reports of gender-based violence during the attacks, and by the mistreatment of hostages. I am relieved that 114 hostages have been released, and I repeat my call for the remaining hostages to be released. I well understand the anger, grief and fear of the Israeli people following the horrific attacks two months ago,” Tedros said.
“I also understand the anger, grief and fear of the people of Gaza, who had already suffered through 16 years of blockade, and are now enduring the destruction of their families, their homes, their communities and the life they knew,” he added.
Tedros told the Executive Board: “More than 17,000 people are reported to have died in Gaza, including 7,000 children—and we don’t know how many are buried under the rubble of their homes. More than 46,000 injuries have been reported. Some 1.9 million people have been displaced—almost the entire population of the Gaza strip—and are looking for shelter anywhere they can find it. But nowhere and no one is safe in Gaza.”
As more and more people move to a smaller and smaller area in Gaza, overcrowding, combined with the lack of adequate food, water, shelter and sanitation, are creating the ideal conditions for disease to spread. On average, there is one shower unit for every 700 people, and one toilet for every 150 people, according to the WHO chief.
Tedros told the Board that Gaza’s health system is on its knees and collapsing. Only 14 hospitals out of the original 36 are even partially functional, 2 north of the Wadi Gaza and 12 in the south. Only 1,400 beds are available out of an original 3,500, while about two-thirds of primary health care centers are non-functional. The two major hospitals in southern Gaza are operating at three times their bed capacity, running out of supplies and sheltering thousands of displaced people.
Meanwhile, more than 180 women give birth in Gaza every single day.
There are 2,000 patients on cancer therapy; 350,000 patients with diabetes, heart disease and hypertension; and at least 20,000 civilians in need of acute psychiatric care, and many more are expected to suffer from severe mental disorders as a result of the conflict.
“Since the 7th of October, WHO has verified more than 449 attacks on health care in Gaza and the West Bank, and 60 attacks on health care in Israel. Health care should never be a target. I also grieve the loss of more than 100 of our UN colleagues in Gaza, including our own Dima Alhaj, who was killed alongside her six-month old son, her husband and her two brothers. In summary, health needs have increased dramatically, and the capacity of the health system has been reduced to one third of what it was,” Tedros said.
“WHO is on the ground in Gaza, alongside our partners, to support health workers, who are physically and mentally exhausted and are doing their best in unimaginable conditions. Now the work of the health workers is impossible, and they are directly in the firing line.”
It is only through dialogue, mutual understanding and finding common ground that we can ever hope to find a resolution to this crisis, and to the many other crises in our troubled world, Tedros said.
“This year is our 75th year as WHO. The opening words of our constitution remain more relevant than ever: that health is a fundamental human right for all people, and that health is fundamental to peace and security.”
“I urge you to use this moment to fulfill that vision, recognizing as our founders did in 1948 that there is no health without peace, and no peace without health. I hope you will use health as a bridge to peace.”