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Explained: The Tigray crisis, which the WHO chief suggests has been ignored due to racism

Speaking at a virtual media briefing on August 17, Tedros called the situation in Tigray the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world” and questioned whether the lack of response from global leaders had to do with “the colour of the skin of the people”.

The WHO chief made a passionate appeal for his embattled home region of Tigray in Ethiopia on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022, saying he has relatives he cannot communicate with or send money to amid a blockade by government forces. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP, File)

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has suggested that racism is behind a lack of international attention and interest in Ethiopia’s war-stricken northern Tigray region, where millions of civilians are living in dire conditions.

Tedros is an ethnic Tigrayan.

Speaking at a virtual media briefing on August 17, Tedros called the situation in Tigray the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world” and questioned whether the lack of response from global leaders had to do with “the colour of the skin of the people”. Tedros had said that the region was not getting the same attention from the world as the conflict in Ukraine was, and suggested that the lack of attention may have to do with race.

The conflict erupted in Ethiopia in November 2020 and humanitarian aid only arrived in Tigray in June 2021, after Tigrayan forces retook control of the region.

The conflict in Tigray

While there have been tensions in the regions for nearly 3 decades, observers state that they escalated in September 2020, when leaders in Tigray held local elections in defiance of the Ethiopian government. According to a Reuters report, these elections were considered “illegal” by the federal government, further leading to conflict with Tigray authorities.

In November 2020, Abiy ordered a military offensive in the northern region of Tigray. His government claimed that the the rebels known as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TLPF) , a former ruling party in Ethiopia designated as a terrorist organization by the Ethopian government, had attacked its army bases. Over the next year, violence would spread to other parts of the country. The conflict was a result of months of disagreements between the Abiy government and political leaders in Tigray, who were opposing reforms pursued by the federal government.

Abiy declared the campaign in Tigray a success after just three weeks of initiating it, when government forces took control of Tigray’s regional capital Mekelle, and installed an interim administration loyal to the federal government, as reported by CNN.


However, the conflict is far from over. A five-month ceasefire between rebels and government forces shattered on August 24 2022, after fighting broke out on the border of Tigray, with both sides accusing the other of initiating the violence.

Two days later, an airstrike on a children’s play area in Mekelle killed at least 7 people, including 3 children. The TLPF accused the Ethiopian air force of hitting a residential area and a kindergarten, while the federal government said it was “targeting only military sites,” as reported by AFP.

What is the current humanitarian situation?

According to a report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, food security is expected to worsen in Tigray in the coming months. The report said that the humanitarian situation had “significantly deteriorated” in the region in 2022, exacerbated by prolonged drought. The report also highlighted how for the first time in July this year a COVID-19 vaccination campaign was launched at Mekelle hospital, making it the first COVID-19 vaccination in Tigray.


But given the instability in the region, the vaccination campaign faced several difficulties “including intermittent power outage affecting cold-chain maintenance, lack of fuel, limited communication and internet access affecting timely results and reporting, difficulty locating IDPs in host communities, and low partners’ participation.”

Tedros had stated during the address that the six million people in the region had been isolated from the world due to the ongoing crisis and had been “under siege” for the last 21 months. He said that while the Ukraine conflict had the world “sleepwalking into a nuclear war”, one that could be “the mother of all problems”, he believed that the disaster in Tigray was far more severe. “I haven’t heard in the last few months any head of state talking about the Tigray situation anywhere in the developed world. Anywhere. Why?,” Tedros asked during the address, according to a Guardian report.

Why did the WHO chief make this comparison?

The conflict that erupted in Ethiopia started in November 2020 and humanitarian aid did not arrive in Tigray till June 2021, after Tigrayan forces retook control of the region. Although aid had arrived, aid groups had said that it was inadequate to meet the needs of the millions who were stranded and displaced in the region.

In April this year, the United Nations had said the region was facing severe shortage of food and essential humanitarian supplies. Following a truce between the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan forces in the first week of April, UN had said aid had started arriving in Mekelle.

This aid consignment was significant because it was the first to arrive by road. All previous consignments of aid had been delivered by air only, an exercise that is not only expensive, but also limits the quantity of aid that can be delivered, according to a BBC report.

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This is not the first time that Tedros has used his position to highlight the ongoing conflict in Tigray. According to Tedros, despite the severity of the situation in Tigray, there has been little focus on the circumstances that ordinary people have been facing since the conflict erupted in November 2020. In a briefing in April this year, Tedros had questioned whether race- “black and white lives” – had anything to do with global attention and focus on humanitarian emergencies.

First published on: 27-08-2022 at 17:22 IST
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