End-of-year message from FXB Director Dr. Mary Bassett

Mary T Bassett

[The following represents solely my own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the institution.]

As we approach the year-end, a time when the importance of peace is celebrated around the world, in too many places there is war: Gaza, Ukraine, Myanmar, Sudan, Yemen, Congo, and more. Many receive little global attention, and all have unacceptable numbers of civilian casualties.

The world reels at the intensity of the Israeli assault on Gaza. In just over two months, the death toll is approaching 20,000, including 10,000 children, and starvation looms. Its health care infrastructure is destroyed. A call for ceasefire failed at the UN only because of the US veto. No one in Gaza is safe, apparently including the three hostages shot dead by an Israeli soldier while waving a white flag, the universal signal of surrender, and speaking in Hebrew. The Financial Times reports that it was the “western appearance” of one of the dead that led to examination of the corpses.

As we close for winter break, here are links to two webinars that FXB recently hosted: “A Conversation with Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sittah,” who has returned to the UK from Gaza, and “A Conversation with Anne Irfan” to discuss her recent book Refuge and Resistance: Palestinians and the International Refugee System.

Upon writing this message, I found myself re-reading a reflection I shared with the FXB community two months ago, which I share below. Life continues, and peace remains a prerequisite for health.

With hopes for a peaceful 2024,

— Mary T. Bassett, MD, MPH
Director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights

A Reflection on Gaza

The François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights is founded on the idea that human rights and health are interdependent. People who lack rights cannot protect their health and people who are not healthy cannot fully enjoy their rights. As a corollary, discrimination and oppression are antithetical to rights and harm health. It is with this framework that we approach our work—on migration, protection of children, and structural racism in the United States. We also examine the health of the Roma people, the largest minority group in Europe, and the health of Palestinians.

The connection between rights and health has deep resonance for me personally. I am a descendant of enslaved Africans, people who were captured, beginning some 400 years ago, and brought to the United States as cargo to begin a life of hereditary bondage. It would be nearly 250 years before enslaved people gained their freedom. There were uprisings, often brutal, that ended even more brutally.

As a child, I witnessed the US apartheid in the American South, where the legality of my parents’ interracial marriage was established only with a 1967 US Supreme Court decision. To this day, Black Americans have shorter, sicker lives than their white counterparts. There is not a single year when this has not been true. The New York Times tallied the cost over the 20th century: 8.8M deaths would not have occurred if we did not have this excess mortality.

I lived in Zimbabwe between 1985-2002, just after it joined the ranks of independent nations in 1980 and ceased to be a settler colony. I visited Rwanda after the genocide, the horror of which convinced its leadership that having been betrayed by the world, they would brook no judgements of their retaliation.

This is the context, my own life, that I bring to the potential genocide facing civilians in Gaza. A week ago, on Saturday October 7, Hamas attacked Israel killing 1300 Israeli civilians and taking around 200 hostages. Israel then began retaliatory action with airstrikes on Gaza.

As I write, the complete siege and bombing of Gaza continues. At least 3000 Palestinians have lost their lives, including over 850 Palestinian children. Thousands of women face labor and delivery in hospitals that lack electricity, water, food, and medicines. As Israel prepares for a ground assault, it has demanded the evacuation of northern Gaza where over 1 million people live, and its major hospital is located. On October 17, just yesterday, an estimated 500 civilians died at al-Ahli hospital.

I am a medical doctor and public health professional. My many years of training are not needed to know that the cost of forced evacuation and the destruction of health facilities will be measured in an unthinkable number of lives lost.

The unfolding tragedy has many looking for words to condemn atrocities against civilians. I am sharing with you links to various statements, recommendations, and calls for action by United Nations’ agencies that I have found helpful:

  1. Evacuation orders by Israel to hospitals in northern Gaza are a death sentence for the sick and injured, October 14, 2023.
  2. Israel/occupied Palestinian territory: UN experts deplore attacks on civilians, call for truce and urge international community to address root causes of violence
  3. UN expert urges immediate ceasefire and humanitarian access as Gaza health sector reaches “breaking point”
  4. UNFPA: “Race against death” amid relentless bombardment in Gaza, pregnant women tell UNFPA
  5. UNICEF: Time is running out for children in Gaza
  6. Public Statement: Scholars Warn of Potential Genocide in Gaza

And while the humanitarian crisis and the condemnation of war crimes are at the top of my mind today, I also want to encourage you all to read the December 2022 Health and Human Rights Journal Special Section: Settler Colonialism, Structural Racism, and the Palestinian Right to Health here.

Dr. Mary Bassett

October 18, 2023