Tigray’s Healthcare Crisis

Sophie Cousins

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian federal government have been at war since November 2020. The conflict in Ethiopia’s northernmost region has killed tens of thousands of people and uprooted millions. Famine and rape have been used as weapons of war, with atrocities taking place out of sight of the rest of the world after phone and internet links were cut.

Fighting has eased since a humanitarian truce was declared in March, which has allowed much-needed aid conveys into the region, but Tigray is still in crisis. Severe shortages of food and medicine continue, along with a lack of access to such basic services as banking, communications and electricity.

Tigray, which once had one of the best healthcare systems in Ethiopia, now lies in ruins. It is estimated that more than 80 per cent of health facilities across the region have been looted and destroyed. Women, who previously had excellent access to antenatal care and skilled birth attendance, are giving birth at home unassisted while diseases like malaria flourish.

In a rare moment of internet connectivity – only possible by satellite – doctors at Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekelle, the regional capital, made contact using Telegram and Signal. ‘The situation is terrible: no vaccines for children, no oxygen for critically ill patients, no chemotherapy for cancer patients,’ one doctor told me. ‘The whole staff in the hospital is hungry [because] of a lack food and we haven’t received a salary for the last one year. Our main job is breaking the bad news and telling patients we cannot give them what they should get. We just send them home helplessly. Thousands are dying due to preventable illnesses. The pain is unbearable.’

Another doctor told me about a two-year-old boy who has visceral leishmaniasis, also known as kala-azar, which is spread by sandfly bites. It’s easy to treat if you have the drugs but fatal if left untreated. It causes fever, weight loss, enlarged spleen and liver, and anaemia. ‘The baby was previously treated but he came back months ago with relapse,’ the doctor said. ‘There are no drugs for visceral leishmaniasis in Tigray right now. His grandmother brought the child to my office and begged me to help … His mother and father were killed last year.’

With both sides saying they are prepared to negotiate, and more aid now reaching Tigray, there are hopes that an end to the conflict may be in sight. But the devastation will last a lifetime.