Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a CNN contributor and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Murdered in plain sight for the “crime” of working to keep children healthy.
That’s the reality in Pakistan. After two years of quiet, community workers bringing vaccines to kids in one of only two countries in the world where polio still exists find themselves in the crosshairs once more.
Healthcare professionals in the town of Quetta, who thought they might have seen the end of bloodshed, now have witnessed even more tragedy.
Rest in peace, Sakina Bibi, a community health worker, and her daughter, Alizah. Sakina, a mother of six, used her $150 monthly salary to take care of her family, including her husband, a truck driver. Now what will happen to all of them?
Two gunmen on motorcycles simply drove up and gunned them down as they went about their work. Two more women who worked to serve their community now have become martyrs. Their deaths mean fewer Pakistani children will be safe and healthy. And there is no underestimating the consequences of polio: as the BBC noted, “one in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis, and between five to ten percent of those who suffer paralysis die because their breathing muscles are immobilized.” The majority of those affected by polio are children under the age of five – the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
Community health workers risk their security to protect their nation’s children from polio. And their government must do more to protect them. Those who go out each day to give drops that immunize children from one of the world’s most wretched diseases cannot be an endangered species, hunted like animals by militants who would see their life-saving work extinguished. They deserve their nation’s protection and the respect of the entire world.
Words alone will not shield them: vigilance and protection are required. And that includes a government that guarantees their safety.
The murders come just as Pakistan was on the cusp of eliminating polio. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the drive-by attack. But many accuse local militants of the horrendous crimes. It is hardly their first time attacking, either. Since 2012, a rash of attacks targeting health workers has plagued anti-polio campaigns. Along with attacks from murderers on motorcycles, health workers have been targeted with kidnappings and bombs.
Pakistan’s prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, condemned the recent murders, releasing a statement that says, “Polio teams are rendering a huge national service to save our children from the crippling disease. Attack on these dedicated workers, risking their lives for their nation, is an attack on our future.”
Yet the words are unlikely to convince militants in the five Baluchistan provinces where the anti-polio campaign is underway, or in Quetta, the provincial capital. Pakistan’s push to end polio has faced opposition from militants who argue that immunization is a foreign plot that leads to sterilization of children.
Get our free weekly newsletter
That opposition seemed to have been brought under control, local officials say, by a local community education campaign. The chairman of the Pakistan Polio Plus Committee told reporters that for years “we didn’t have any incidents. So the security instructions get shelved and people start taking it easy. It’s like when it’s raining you open the umbrella. And then when it stops raining you close it. It’s human error.”
Those words will bring little comfort to Sakina’s family – the husband and children who survive her. But perhaps these two tragic deaths will be a wake-up call to local officials to protect those who protect their children. Regardless of who perpetrated the attack – local militants angry at immunization or anti-government forces wanting to make a statement – the irreversible truth is that two campaigners for healthy kids are dead. And little ones who did nothing are the ones who will pay the price.