Millennium Post

Victimising civilian health

In case of societal and political conflict, death, disease, and destruction compromises the health of ordinary civilians – the biggest victim of war

It is perplexing to know that the main entrance gate of the UN office in Geneva is called the Broken Chair Gate. Only when one sees with their own eyes the large broken chair on the Palais des Nations in Geneva does one come to understand its significance. The monumental sculpture made by Swiss artist Daniel Berset was erected by Handicap International in front of the main entrance of the UN building on August 18, 1997. This powerful structure of the chair has three complete legs while the fourth leg is splintered. This broken leg symbolises the devastating effects of landmine explosions on the body of human beings. This is one of the best artistic works of the last century, which reminds us of the misery caused by violent conflicts. It is, in fact, a symbolic representation of human sufferings that signify the futility of war.
In the event of violence of any kind, the health of citizens is always the biggest victim. Female foeticide, an unlawful gender insensitive practice, not only kills the female baby yet to be born but also affects the physical and mental health of the mother. During caste or ethnic conflicts or communal riots, the damage caused is at the societal level. In such situations, in addition to the loss of life and physical injury, there is large-scale fear among the people who end up in stress-related diseases including post-traumatic disorders, which have a long-term impact on an individual's health! These symptoms are compounded when the population has to migrate and live in refugee camps in most uncertain and unhygienic conditions with no family privacy. They get flashbacks and nightmares; develop emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma; they also develop sleep disturbance, irritability and anger. In children, there may be frightening dreams without any specific, recognisable content. Rape and the murder of minors, like in the case of the Kathua victim, have very serious effects on the minds of developing children, who then start avoiding going to lonely places and become fearful of all unknown persons.
To quote a few examples, the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, the carnage in Gujarat in 2002, terrorist violence in Punjab, riots against a particular community in 1984 and the exodus of a particular community from the Kashmir Valley bear the evidence of repercussions. In these situations, there is an element of mass fear and a feeling of being let down, which often leads to a deeply resentful and vindictive attitude.
Larger conflicts like the events in Syria, Palestine or skirmishes at the Indo-Pakistan border result in physical injury of security forces as well as the innocent civilians. The tragic image of an anonymous dead Syrian child swept up by the waves on the seashore after failing an attempt to escape the violence pushes one into an extreme gloom. During the Indo-Pak war of 1965, India lost 2,862 soldiers while 5,800 Pakistani soldiers were laid to rest. During the 1971 conflict, nearly three lakh people were killed in Bangladesh by the ruling Pakistani army. The generations thereafter continue to remember the gory days of genocide.
During World War II, 5.5 crore people were killed and about 9.5 crore people injured and thrown into the clutches of poverty. A visit to the Nazi concentration camps displays the utter disrespect showered on fragile human life. It is difficult to believe how in the lust for gold, one could remove the teeth of prisoners with golden capping.
With the nuclear weapons now in question, the whole war scenario has become far more precarious and horrifying. The use of atomic bombs on the human population in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan on August 6 and August 9, 1945, respectively, left over 2,00,000 people dead. Radiation effects continue to impact generations with cancer and malformed births. The present generation of nuclear weapons is much more deadly. Studies indicate that even a limited nuclear conflict involving 100 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons would put over two billion people at risk. A larger conflict involving the major nuclear-armed states would threaten the very existence of mankind.
It is an irony that those at the helm of affairs feign ignorance of the humanitarian impact of the disparaging use of nuclear weapons. Recent statements of the US administration to modernise their nuclear weapons programme are a serious issue for mankind to ponder over. The US decision to break the treaty with Iran has dangerous connotations.
But, the world cannot be allowed to be ruled by the military-industrial complex. The decision of the North Korean government to suspend their nuclear weapons programme is a welcome step. The adoption of Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) as a result of people's united movements, on the initiative of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), in the form of International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is a big hope. It is time that the nuclear weapons states join the treaty and save humanity from the threat of extinction. Civil society has to come forward and the medical professionals who owe a special responsibility to health have to be proactive and speak up.IPA
(Dr. Arun Mitra is Senior Vice President, Indian Doctors for Peace and Development. The views expressed are strictly personal)
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