Supply chains of food and medicines have been disrupted. Much of the society has been mobilised due to the military response and most sectors of society, including farming and industries, have come to a standstill. All ports in the Black Sea (including the Azov Sea) have been closed for trade. This conflict is posing serious challenges to health and food security, as well as to the wider economy of Ukraine and beyond.
Challenges to health and wellbeing
Thousands of civilians have been killed and maimed, apart from the thousands of deaths and injuries sustained by combatants on both sides of the conflict. The level of destruction, and the physical and mental trauma experienced by communities in Ukraine, is incalculable. Between 24 February and 17 March, the World Health Organisation verified 43 attacks on healthcare facilities, with 12 people killed and 34 injured, including health workers. Oxygen and medical supplies, including for the management of pregnancy complications, are running dangerously low. With more than 4,300 births having occurred in Ukraine since the start of the war and 80,000 Ukrainian women expected to give birth in the next three months, the catastrophic consequences of a health system under attack, cannot be overemphasised. The conflict is also exacerbating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ukraine, as just one-third of the adult population are fully vaccinated, increasing the risk of large numbers of people developing severe disease.
This conflict is also very dangerous because eastern Europe and central Asia continue to be home to the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the world, with 1.6 million people living with HIV in the region (with Russia accounting for 70 percent) and around 146,000 people are newly infected each year. Drug use accounts for around 50 percent of new infections but unprotected sex is set to become the main driver in the coming years. Ukraine, however, has been one of the most successful countries in the region in terms of guaranteeing access to antiretroviral drugs to 146,500 people in the past year, and a notable champion of harm reduction, including opioid agonist therapy and needle exchange programs. Ukraine also reports roughly 30,000 new tuberculosis cases annually and has one of the highest rates of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in the world. As experienced in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine in 2014, there is a great risk for people living with tuberculosis and HIV to lose access to supplies of HIV and tuberculosis medicines, care, and support, in the regions that come under the control of Russia. This conflict is fast undoing the treatment and prevention gains made over the past decade and is devastating for HIV and tuberculosis control in eastern Europe, adding to a wider public health tragedy.
Challenges to food security and the economy
The extensive impact on society across the country and the destruction of infrastructure and productive capacity is projected to lead the country into a deep recession as the war continues. Even if hostilities were to end right now, the recovery and reconstruction costs are already massive. The economic fallout of the crisis has spill overs for the rest of the world. The most impactful are higher food and commodities prices. Russia is a significant producer of petroleum and natural gas, and with the stringent sanctions being applied on the country’s exports, has already significantly pushed up fuel prices to record levels. Increased fuel prices push up the cost of food, and contributes to transportation, food and fertiliser production costs.
The conflict also threatens millions of tiny springtime sprouts that should emerge from stalks of dormant winter wheat in the coming weeks. If the farmers can't feed those crops soon, far fewer of the so-called tillers will spout, jeopardising a national wheat harvest on which millions in the developing world depend. In 2021, the Russian Federation and Ukraine ranked amongst the top three global exporters of wheat, maize, rapeseed, sunflower seeds, and sunflower oil. Ukraine and Russia contribute to a third of all wheat produced in the world. Accounting for 13% of world output, the Russian Federation stood as the world’s top exporter of nitrogen fertilisers and the second leading supplier of both potassic and phosphorous fertilisers. Many countries that are highly dependent on imported foodstuffs and fertilisers, including several that fall into the Least Developed Country and Low-Income Food-Deficit Country groups, rely on Ukrainian and Russian food supplies to meet their consumption needs. Many of these countries, already prior to the conflict, had been grappling with the negative effects of high international food costs (the highest since 2008) and fertiliser prices.
In a world struggling to recover from 2 years of a global pandemic, these massive movements in the price of commodities—the raw materials that eventually feed, warm, and transport us, will bring even more misery and poverty, especially to the poorest people in the world who must spend a significant portion of their income just to feed themselves.
Threats to peace and development
Conflicts and armed offensives breed further insecurity, hatred, and war. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the total global military expenditure rose to $1,981 billion in 2020, an increase of 2.6 percent in real terms from 2019. All signs point to a further significant rise this year. Early into the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Germany announced it was committing €100 billion in military spending, moving above the 2% of GDP allocated for defence, marking a historical turning point in policy for Germany. The declining peace dividend following the end of the Cold War seems to have come to an abrupt halt. Increased preoccupations of war and insecurity and scaling up of investments in weapons and defence, reduces the attention and resources allocated to development and in addressing the climate emergency.
The urgency for peace and the cessation of hostilities
The need for an immediate cessation of hostilities and the establishment of peace could not be clearer. These tragic times are also moments in history, that demand deep enquiry, and transformation for all. Saint John Chrysostom (344 – 407 CE) in his Homily 50 on the gospel according to St Matthew, reminds us of the unbreakable link between the Eucharist and solidarity with the poorest and those who are suffering. “You wish to honour the body of the Saviour? The same one who said: This is my body also said: You saw I was hungry, and you didn’t give me to food to eat. What you did not do to one of the least, you refused to me! So honour Christ by sharing your possessions with the poor.” We can extend this to all the existential conditions that humanity faces now—war, violence, death, destruction, and displacement.
Our practise of Christianity is deeply flawed, when we retain the external trappings and practices of our faith, but are disconnected from the suffering that people experience, and stand by or promote violence. May God strengthen our prophetic voice and actions to bring peace and to end all conflict!
"Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in."