UC Berkeley study finds increased pandemic-related attacks on healthcare

Infographic depicting countries where health care workers, facilities face threats, acts of violence
Nada Lamie/Staff
UC Berkeley researchers developed an “Atlas of Attacks” to map COVID-19-related attacks across the globe.

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In a collaboration with Geneva-based nonprofit Insecurity Insight, researchers at the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center mapped and documented more than 1,100 threats and acts of violence against healthcare affiliates and facilities within the last year.

The team developed an “Atlas of Attacks” using data collected from the Security in Numbers Database, Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset and the World Health Organization’s Surveillance System of Attacks on Healthcare. The atlas was used to map COVID-19-related attacks across the globe. Three countries — Mexico, India and Libya — were used as case studies to demonstrate the varying motivations behind and impacts of the attacks. 

Anne Daugherty, a campus graduate student at the School of Journalism, started working with the Human Rights Center alongside other nongovernmental organizations in May 2020. 

“In Mexico, a lot of the attacks (during) the first few months of the pandemic were fear-based or frustration-based, but we didn’t see that in other countries,” Daugherty said. “Depending on where you were in the world, the attacks were based off different circumstances and there were different motivations behind the attacks.”

Daugherty highlighted the situation in Libya as a unique example, where conflicts existing prior to the pandemic inhibited the country’s ability to combat COVID-19. Many of the attacks classified as “attacks on healthcare” in Libya were a consequence of armed conflicts between the domestic militia and other local armed forces.

Devon Lum, a lab coordinator of the Human Rights Center, said one of the biggest challenges the team faced in gathering and analyzing data on each of these incidents was how it defined and categorized “attacks on healthcare.” 

“We weren’t the only people creating definitions for attacks on healthcare,” Lum said.

The researchers examined each data point on the atlas to ensure whether it fits their attack description, Lum added. The Human Rights Center focused on verifying events with visual components, which can then be used to appeal to a wider audience and help viewers gain a better understanding of the gravity of the situation, according to Lum.

One key takeaway from the project was that misinformation and a lack of understanding contributed to sentiments of fear and outrage fueling the attacks, Lum said. To a large degree, he added, local governments and journalists play a huge role in mitigating any misinformation and lack of proper coverage on these issues. 

“I feel like the government has a responsibility to acknowledge that levels of misinformation are taking place and are affecting society in a way that pushes a lot of people either towards confusion, anger, fear or violence,” Lum said. “Attacks on healthcare happen regardless of the pandemic but I think that one of the key takeaways of this project is that it is becoming more and more tied to the pandemic over the past year.” 

Contact Imani Salazar-Nahle at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @imanisn_DC.