Physicians for Human Rights: Strengthening the global response to COVID-19


PHR staff providing training to local health professionals
Photo: Courtesy of Physicians for Human Rights.

This is a defining moment for us as individuals and as a society. We will be judged by whether or not we took care not only of ourselves and our immediate friends, colleagues, and patients but of those for whom care is much less accessible. [...] We need to see moral leadership [and] make sure that these vulnerable populations get as much care as we do.” - Dr Kerry J. Sulkowicz, MD, PHR board member, president-elect of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), twice a UN Trust Fund grantee, is working to strengthen the global response to COVID-19 by:

  • advocating for a science-driven approach to the virus;
  • pushing for decent working conditions for frontline medical professionals; and
  • defending the right to adequate medical care for people most at risk.[i]

In the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, PHR and its community of health professionals are a voice for sound and timely policies that promote gender-aware, adequate, and equitable care and social services for all. PHR Executive Director Donna McKay said that, as the crisis has escalated, “We’re fielding non-stop requests from the media for expert analysis on pandemic impacts.”

Since March, PHR has run a webinar series, “Science-driven Solutions for Combating COVID-19.” The third webinar discussed mental health impacts, with psychiatrists Dr. Gail Saltz* and Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz**, both PHR board members, addressing anxiety, self-care and empathy in the context of the pandemic. 

The webinar highlighted current heightened levels of anxiety and stress during the COVID-19 crisis, which can exacerbate domestic abuse and economic violence against women and girls, just at a time when many shelters have reached capacity.[ii]

Dr. Sulkowicz explained his ongoing conversations with leaders of different organizations:

One of the ways that I’ve been trying to frame the issue [...] is to say that there are actually two pandemics, not one: the pandemic of the coronavirus and the pandemic of anxiety.”

He stressed that this is important because the pandemics “fuel each other”. Indeed, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the world has witnessed a surge in the violence against women pandemic, specifically domestic violence, testified by a sharp rise in the number of emergency calls from women who are isolated with violent partners.[iii]

The webinar ended with a plea to prioritize self-care before helping others, and emphasized that while physical distancing is advised, “social closeness” is more important than ever.

These messages resonate strongly with the UN Trust Fund’s community of first responders in women’s organizations who stand on the forefront of service provision while the pandemic of violence against women is restless beneath the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its two UN Trust Fund-supported projects, which began in 2011 and 2015, PHR’s Programme on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones addressed gaps in medical and legal processes for survivors of sexual violence in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“PHR’s work led to important advancements towards justice for survivors of sexual violence in conflict and better equipped service providers to gather forensic evidence effectively and treat survivors with sensitivity. PHR created an actionable institutional cooperation model against the impunity of perpetrators and learnings which are of significant value to the global knowledge base towards ending violence against women and girls”, said Anna Alaszewski, a Portfolio Manager in the UN Trust Fund.

By engaging relevant state and community stakeholders in documenting and preserving forensic evidence of sexual violence, PHR facilitated better service provision and access to justice for survivors of sexual violence in both countries.

With the rapid increase of violence against women and girls, especially those living with disabilities, in conflict situations, or in secluded areas, their safety must be at the centre of global and national responses to COVID-19.

* Dr. Gail Saltz, MD, PHR board member, Weill-Cornell Medical College, New York Psychoanalytic Institute.

** Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, MD, PHR board member, president-elect of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

[i] Physicians for Human Rights. Focus Area: COVID-19. Last visited: 14 April 2020.

[ii] World Health Organization. “COVID-19 and violence against women: What the health sector/system can do”. 7 April 2020. Last visited: 14 April 2020.

[iii] UN Women. “Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women”. 9 April 2020. Last visited: 14 April 2020.