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As children starve to death in Gaza, health and medical academics urge colleagues to speak up

Introduction by Croakey: As increasing numbers of children starve to death amid horrific conditions in Gaza, where aid experts say more than half a million people are on the brink of famine, some health and medical professionals in Australia are taking action. Their advocacy highlights a wider collective silence across the sector.

In the first article below, Alison Barrett reports how two senior medical academics are working to develop a collective response from Australian health professionals to the crisis, and on a vigil for the 14,500 children who have been killed in Gaza since 7 October.

In the second article, Dr Abbey Diaz, Research Fellow at the Australian National University, laments a lack of engagement by epidemiologists and public health professionals in Australia.

“I have been saddened by the apparent low level of public conversation by and amongst epidemiologists and public health professionals in Australia regarding the violence being committed against Palestinian civilians by the Israeli Government,” she writes.


Alison Barrett writes:

Last Friday – in a vigil at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy near Old Parliament House on Ngunnawal Country – 14,500 candles were lit to represent the children killed in Gaza since 7 October.

The vigil – organised by Health Workers for Palestine Canberra – was attended by approximately 200 people who walked along a pathway through the candles while names of the children were read out, according to infectious diseases epidemiologist Dr Mohamad Assoum, one of the organisers of the vigil.

Assoum told Croakey the vigil was an opportunity to come together as a community to “stop, pause, reflect and mourn”.

As healthcare workers, we build a career around humanity and saving lives, he said – “for us, this level of death and destruction, and violation of human rights goes against everything we stand for.”

It was also held to humanise the devastating and “completely unacceptable” numbers of children killed, Assoum said.

A simultaneous vigil was held in Naarm/Melbourne hosted by organisation, We Are Not Numbers Australia.

Assoum – who resigned his membership from the Australian Labor Party last month due to its stance on Gaza – called on the healthcare community to speak up and be “the voice for the voiceless during the genocide”.

“We have a moral obligation to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves,” he added.

He also said that healthcare workers, as well as the general public, should call their local member of parliament and “demand better…email them relentlessly and be annoying”.

See: Petition to the Australian Senate: Investigate Australians in Illegal Israeli Settlements on Occupied Palestinian Land and also here.

Conversations

Meanwhile, other leading health experts are urging all Australian health professionals, educational institutions, medical colleges, and professional organisations to join together in advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza, and opening up conversations about the impact of the war.

Associate Professor Hadia Haikal-Mukhtar and Professor Paul Komesaroff initiated and facilitated the drafting of a statement in unified support for the protection of healthcare workers and facilities in Gaza. It describes the situation there as “a public health catastrophe”.

Komesaroff, Professor of Medicine and Executive Director of Global Reconciliation at Monash University, and Haikal-Mukhtar, academic GP in Sydney, told Croakey the intention of the statement is not just to influence politicians but overcome division by enabling a safe space for people to talk about the issues, perhaps on “issues they have never confronted before”.

More than 180 health professionals from across Australia signed the statement – which was collaboratively drafted at the end of December 2023.

The statement also urges all Australian health professionals, educational institutions, medical colleges, and professional organisations to advocate for “an immediate and permanent ceasefire” and the release of all who have been detained “on both sides”.

“This has been an ongoing attack on all the health infrastructure as well as the health professionals,” Haikal-Mukhtar said.

They sent the statement to ten of Australia’s major colleges and medical associations, of which only three responded positively. Haikal-Mukhtar and Komesaroff declined Croakey’s request to name the colleges and associations which sent responses, and which ones didn’t.

“As far as we are aware, relying only on their public statements, no further action was taken,” Haikal-Mukhtar said.

Haikal-Mukhtar and Komesaroff told Croakey they see the statement as an opportunity to begin a conversation among health professionals in Australia about the conflict in Gaza, particularly given the divisive discourse in many parts of the media.

While she has started to hear “empathic voices” on Gaza in the media, Haikal-Mukhtar has been disappointed by the divisive discourse in many aspects of the media coverage on the conflict, “constantly highlighting the differences between people”.

We feel that “protecting the sanctity of healthcare facilities, health professionals and the safe havens where some of the most vulnerable of human beings have to take shelter” should not be a controversial opinion, Haikal-Mukhtar said.

Komesaroff added that differences of opinion on the origins of the conflict or potential solutions “should not extend to the question of whether or not innocent civilians who are subjected to the most horrific acts of violence should be protected or cared for by medical practitioners”.

Unspeakable conditions

Komesaroff, who is a physician of internal medicine, general medicine and endocrinology, and longstanding expertise in medical ethics has spent a lot of time “working in support of reconciliation between Israel and Palestine”.

He has many friends and colleagues in Gaza and Israel who have said the conditions are “absolutely unspeakable”.

The mental health of children is very concerning, everybody is incredibly distressed, but their priority is “really just staying alive”, he said.

Komesaroff said they sought signatories for the statement from the “representative array of backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures in the Australian clinical professions” including people from Jewish and Palestinian backgrounds.

For enquiries or further details about this statement, please contact Professor Paul Komesaroff, paul.komesaroff@monash.edu, or Associate Professor Hadia Haikal-Mukhtar, hadia@meandus.com.

Associate Professor Hadia Haikal-Mukhtar and Professor Paul Komesaroff


Abbey Diaz writes:

I am the President of the Australasian Epidemiological Association (AEA), an executive board member of the International Network for Epidemiology in Policy (INEP), and a senior research fellow in the National Centre of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Wellbeing Research at the Australian National University.

My opinions are shaped by my professional and lived experiences as a white middle-class woman living in urban Australia. I live and work on the unceded lands of the Turrbal and Jagera peoples.

The current AEA Council has endorsed the recent statement issued by the INEP executive board members as our official position: A call for courage: declaration on human rights, health, and freedom of speech in academia – statement of solidarity with civilians of Palestine and Israel

Opinion: Epidemiology is a tool used to develop evidence-based policies to improve the health and wellbeing of populations in equitable ways. With this in mind, I believe that as epidemiologists we must be concerned with the public health impacts of war, occupation, terrorism, and various forms of oppression, including the inequities and inequalities that they cause.

Palestinian children, women, families and communities have been displaced, killed, injured and deprived of basic human needs, such as food, clean water, medical care, and electricity by the Israeli Government.

This has not only been allowed to occur, but has received ongoing and unwavering financial and political support from the US and its allies, including Australia. The recent ruling of the International Court of Justice (IJC) tells us unequivocally that the very existence of Palestine is under a very real and immediate threat.

These are fundamental public health concerns and, therefore, as epidemiologists, it is within “our lane” to concern ourselves with these matters and use our professional expertise to add voice to the calls for ceasefire.

Five months into the current escalated military aggression, I believe our profession should be focused on identifying and creating ways forward that protect human life and wellbeing for all.

Even in the event of a ceasefire, long term risks associated with malnutrition and access to healthcare will require concerted international efforts to be overcome. In addition to civilians within the conflict, many others will be significantly impacted by these events.

Both anti-Muslim and antisemitic sentiment and violence has undoubtedly risen here in Australia and globally, and many Jewish and Palestinian families are inevitably mourning or have grave concerns for loved ones in Palestine.

These stressors can have a devastating impact on daily life for these families and create unwanted inequities and inequalities in health and wellbeing outcomes.

Further, the impact of war on military personnel can also be profound and place stress on our public health systems, and people worldwide who are consuming information, including distressing visuals, of the violence may be left with second-hand trauma.

Epidemiology will play an important role in addressing these emerging and ongoing public health crises.

Take a stand

For those of us who are academics, I believe we should visibly stand against attempts to suppress or silence voices that are in support of public health, humanity and peace, particularly the voices of those with lived ‘on the ground’ experience.

Is there democracy if political positions cannot be critically debated? Is there democracy if rules of law and respect for human rights that are foundational to our democratic processes are only upheld for some and not others?

Personally, I have been alarmed at attempts – both internationally and here in Australia – to inappropriately align criticism of the Israeli government and its allies with antisemitism.

I have been saddened by the apparent low level of public conversation by and amongst epidemiologists and public health professionals in Australia regarding the violence being committed against Palestinian civilians by the Israeli Government.

Advocacy can come in all shapes and sizes and what and how each of us contributes will likely vary depending on our expertise, experiences and backgrounds.

Of course, speaking out can carry professional and personal risks – more so for some than others. That is, some of us will be afforded more freedom to speak up – including those in more stable employment, with more career seniority, and those without skin in the game, so to speak not Muslim, Arab, or Jewish. This is a privilege that should not be ignored.

I believe that our discipline can be greater than the sum of its parts by joining our voices to advocate for evidence-based policies that stand on the side of humanity and support the health and wellbeing for all.

Further reading

The Lancet: Australian medical leadership’s silence on Gaza is a moral failure

“Our colleagues in Gaza are nothing short of heroic. At a time where solidarity is needed, they have been left feeling totally abandoned. We welcome the calls for an immediate ceasefire by the British Medical Association in January, 2024, and the Medical Journal of Australia on Feb 26, 2024. We urge the AMA and Australian medical colleges to do the same.”


Previously at Croakey: