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06.22.2022

Ukraine: A Humanitarian Disaster With Long-Term Consequences

The conflict in Ukraine is taking a devastating toll on the country’s most vulnerable — and the consequences may endure for years.

By Rabih Torbay

Conflicts may vary in terms of tactics, weapons, warring parties, and the like, but one thing remains constant in all of them: human suffering. Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is no exception, and the suffering it is causing has far-reaching ramifications. Indeed, scenes from central Europe have been heart-wrenching: Ukrainians trapped in below-freezing temperatures without water, food, or power; pregnant women injured in an attack on a maternity ward; and bodies tossed into mass graves.

And then there are the refugees. Project HOPE’s medical director in Ukraine called the masses of Ukrainians—predominantly women and children—pouring into neighboring countries to escape the violence “a biblical-scale exodus.” Millions more Ukrainians remain internally displaced.

The humanitarian impact of the war in Ukraine is not isolated to the region, it is global. For example, the “global number of undernourished people could increase by 8 to 13 million,” according to United Nations estimates. Given that Ukraine is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wheat, a disruption in wheat exports could lead to more food insecurity in fragile countries such as Yemen and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, as donor countries rush much-needed humanitarian aid to Ukraine, it is worth wondering whether this is coming at the expense of other crises around the world, where reductions in funding could worsen already-dire conditions. To paraphrase a sentiment recently expressed in the Guardian by David Beasley, the chief executive of the World Food Programme, must we really “take food from the hungry to feed the starving,” or can we alleviate suffering across the board?

At the onset of hostilities, Project HOPE hit the ground running, deploying response teams to Moldova, Romania, Poland, and Ukraine. However, as we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, challenges persist well after crises subside. Here, too, there will be long-term consequences that exacerbate disparities in health care, undermine weakened health systems, and imperil those with preexisting conditions.

It is imperative that we not ignore the needs of the countries that have welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees with open arms.

Consider the fact that two million Ukrainians were living with diabetes before Russia invaded. Many of them now have no access to insulin and are caught beyond functional supply lines, and some of the surrounding countries that are hosting Ukrainian refugees have already depleted their supplies. Similarly, displacement can interrupt necessary treatment regimens for people with infectious diseases, such as multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, posing heightened risks to host countries that are ill-equipped to deal with them.

Obviously, we must get aid into Ukraine immediately, but it is also imperative that we not ignore the needs of the countries that have welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees with open arms, as their systems are severely strained by the unexpected increase in caseloads.

Last, because the scars of war are slow to heal, the psychosocial and mental health needs of Ukrainians should be among our most urgent concerns, along with the welfare of those spilling into foreign countries with little or nothing but the clothes on their backs. They are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking and sexual exploitation. For these reasons, we are placing special emphasis on the protection and mental health of refugees.

Project HOPE might not be able to address all of the world’s ills, but we will continue to provide support for urgent health care needs during this conflict, and we are committed to staying for the long haul, working together with Ukrainian health workers to rebuild their health care systems.

Rabih Torbay is president and CEO of Project HOPE. This article first appeared in the June 2022 issue of Health Affairs, available online here.

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