This week the World Health Organization reported it is working with the Uzbek Ministry of Health to apply international hospital safety principles. In Uzbekistan, a good principle to start with would be permitting doctors and nurses to stay in hospitals and not forcing them to pick cotton.
In its report, the WHO notes that “Uninterrupted functioning of health services is of the highest importance in emergencies and disasters. Continuing functioning of hospitals depends on a range of factors, including the safety of its buildings, critical systems and equipment, the availability of supplies, and the emergency and disaster management capacity of the hospital.” Having doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff present would seem to be a vital factor for functioning hospitals. The Uzbek government apparently thinks otherwise.
In 2014, the Uzbek government forced more medical workers to pick cotton than ever before, in a cynical move to replace the children that the government had forced to pick cotton in previous harvests. Instead, sick children arrived at hospitals without doctors. Authorities sent up to 40% of all doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers in some regions. In all cases threats of being fired ensured that the medical workers obeyed orders to work in the cotton fields. The impacts on medical care were significant. As a nurse from Karakalpakstan reported,
“There weren’t enough doctors and nurses. [Those left] had to work double, and patients often had no one to attend to them.”
As part of its work in Uzbekistan, hopefully the WHO can support the Uzbek Health Ministry to refuse the central government’s demands for its workers and keep the doctors nurses and others in the hospitals, providing essential health care services.
See more reporting on forced labor in Uzbekistan here.