Poor nations may see higher coronavirus deaths, warns UN official

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Governments and health systems in wealthy nations are struggling to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, suggesting the poorest countries may be hit far harder if the virus gains a foothold there, a top U.N. official warned.

Mami Mizutori, head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), said even in developed countries, health services were under stress and did not have enough equipment to treat people in need as the numbers infected rose rapidly.

“It is easily imaginable that if this becomes the case in a country where the health system is not as sophisticated, then that could lead to possibly higher mortality,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Geneva.

People living in poverty and lacking health insurance or secure employment cannot afford to be sick or miss work, she said, pointing to the virus as an “equity issue”.

If coronavirus expanded in poor countries, the economic impact on individuals would likely be greater as economic losses would be a bigger share of gross domestic product, she added.

The slower spread of the virus to Africa, however, may have bought the continent valuable time to take preventive measures. Some African countries, like Rwanda and Uganda, are implementing strict controls at airports as well as simple hygiene practices such as setting up public sinks to wash hands.


Coronavirus emergency aid funding

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The costs of responding to coronavirus are challenging healthcare systems and governments in some of the world’s richest countries. In poorer countries and war zones, as well as host countries for refugees and other people on the move, the costs could be overwhelming.

In the most vulnerable countries, where public healthcare is weak at the best of times, adding to public debt is not an attractive solution. The numbers that really matter are for grants – to governments, aid groups, or service providers. Aid funding can pay for more staff, treatment facilities, drugs, and protective equipment.

Some of that money will have to be redirected from existing pots of funding: for example in Afghanistan, a contingency fund managed by the UN has allocated $1.5 million for corona preparedness. The Global Fund for HIV, TB and malaria – a large multi-donor aid pool – will allow some funds to be redirected to coronavirus. The UN’s global emergency response fund, the CERF, has put up $15 million. Aid budgets may have to be adjusted in the coming months more radically as the pandemic evolves, potentially diverting spending from other priorities.

It’s likely to become a major area of international aid spending.

The WHO had, as of 1 February, estimated new global spending requirements of $675 million for three months of “priority public health measures”, uses a three-step process:

  • It ranks 194 countries on five elements of preparedness and response needs: community transmission, localized transmission, imported cases, high risk of imported cases, preparedness.
  • On average, it proposes a country would need roughly $65 million in extra expenditure. 
  • Then, the document tabulates the amount of foreign aid needed proportional to the country’s readiness: “category 5” countries would need 100 percent of the spending package and “category 1” countries can look after themselves. 

As for its own role, the biggest donors to the WHO are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the US and UK governments – all three paying over $7 million.

[The New Humanitarian]

Canada’s new humanitarian and refugee envoy has a background in Myanmar

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Bob Rae, who spent seven months in 2017 and 2018 examining the forces that drove over 600,000 Rohingya from their homes in Myanmar to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, is being named Canada’s special envoy for humanitarian and refugee issues.

In 2017, Rae was appointed as a special envoy to Myanmar. In April 2018, Rae delivered a report that made 17 recommendations for Canada’s response, including ramping up humanitarian aid and welcoming more refugees from the region. Rae’s report was welcomed by Amnesty International, but the Trudeau government did not meet his call for $600 million over four years to help hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims affected by the violence.

However, in September 2018, Canada’s House of Commons voted to unanimously declare the actions of the Myanmar military against the Rohingya Muslims a genocide. Two weeks later, Parliament formally stripped Myarmar’s civilian leader, Nobel Prize winnter,Aung San Suu Kyi, of her honorary Canadian citizenship for her refusal to condemn Myanmar’s military or to take action to stop atrocities–including rape and murder–committed against the Rohingya. She became the first person ever to be stripped of honorary Canadian citizenship.

The announcement of Rae’s latest appointment comes as the Trudeau government has provided financing for police training and surveillance equipment to at least seven Southeast Asian countries with histories of human rights violations — Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand — to intercept irregular migrants and smugglers.


“Zero hunger” remains a distant reality

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“Realizing the right to food requires more than just eliminating hunger and malnutrition; it also requires guaranteeing access to nutritious, adequate food and promoting the survival of smallholder farmers and rural communities,” said Hilal Elver, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

Ms. Elver recommended a holistic, coordinated and rights-based approach to the elimination of hunger and malnutrition with increased participation and involvement of those most affected. “We need robust protections for human rights defenders and members of the scientific community who are facing increased attacks in the face of emerging nationalism, populism and predatory global capitalism.”

In her report, the expert notes that countries must avoid the adoption of economic policies that deregulate food markets, as well as austerity measures that impose hardships on vulnerable communities and accentuate inequality. “These policies can lead to economic, social and political instability,” she said.

During the six years of her mandate, the Special Rapporteur witnessed increased hunger worldwide and sought to draw particular attention to the fate of populations living on the brink of starvation that now threatens 113 million people. Severe conflicts and emergency situations, including those linked to geopolitical tensions and climate change, are exacerbating these conditions.


The coronavirus hubs driving cross-border infections

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For two months, the world watched as efforts to contain the coronavirus focused on China. But new outbreak epicentres thousands of miles away have been driving cross-border infections since mid-February – including to a handful of countries already hit with humanitarian crises.

Over the last two weeks, more than three dozen countries or territories have reported new coronavirus infections linked to people travelling from two hubs: Italy or Iran. Outbreaks in both countries have surged. A growing list stretches from European and Middle East nations to as far away as New Zealand, the Caribbean, and South America.

Cases have also risen dramatically in South Korea, but cross-border infections have not been widely reported.

In some countries – like France, Germany, and Malaysia – the new infections add to an existing caseload traced to patients who travelled in Asia. Other nations are seeing cases emerge for the first time.

The quality of health systems varies greatly from country to country, but some are especially unprepared to respond to epidemics in part due to long distances and poor infrastructure, according to the Global Health Security Index published last year.

Many countries have ratcheted up border closures or travel restrictions, but the WHO says this has delayed but not prevented infections. Public health experts say border closures can exacerbate outbreaks by driving migration underground – away from public health systems.

The WHO has launched a $675 million response plan aimed at helping countries with weaker health systems prepare for outbreaks. As of Monday, only $2.5 million had been received (though some $31 million was also pledged), according to the WHO. The UN’s humanitarian aid arm, OCHA, said it would dip into its Central Emergency Response Fund – more often used to kickstart disaster relief – to help contain the virus.

[The New Humanitarian]

How community banking empowers women in Tanzania

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In Tanzania, many urban and rural areas still function under traditional customs that put women at a social and economic disadvantage. Women often lack economic freedom and access to decision-making opportunities at all levels. They continue to experience poverty and illiteracy at higher rates than men and are more likely to be subjected to gender-based violence. Women also tend to have less access than men to property ownership, credit, training, and employment. Fortunately, those discriminatory traditions, norms, and stereotypes are being challenged. Below, Sijali Kipuli from Somanga Village in Tanzania shows us how a social system in savings and credits can economically liberate the poorest people and empower women.

I was born in 1966 in the village of Nyamwage, in Rufiji Delta. My parents divorced when I was young, so my mother and I moved in with my grandparents. With little education, we were poor and felt helpless. But we had to persist and began farming rice, cashew nuts, cassava, maize, millet, and legumes.

Between 1983 and 2003, I married twice and had five children. I moved to a fishing village, where I rented a room and started a business as a food vendor selling chicken soup, rice and ugali—a stiff porridge made from maize or cassava flour. This business enabled me to buy a piece of land where I built my first house.

In 2006, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) came to our village to introduce Village Community Banking—a way for people to get loans without needing conventional banks that often make such an exercise difficult in Tanzania. Here’s how it works: a group of community members form one by agreeing to deposit a certain amount of money into a group savings fund. Members can then request loans from the group for income-generating activities and educational purposes. These community banks can also provide funds for healthcare and social concerns.

I attended WWF’s meeting on community banking with many other women and just a few days later, we formed four village banking groups of 30 people each. I received training on savings and loan skills, small business skills, making profits, finding markets, separating personal and business expenditures, and maintaining capital. After a year and a half, my group ended the first savings and loaning cycle, and we divided our money. With my share, I managed to build my first modern house with six rooms, concrete bricks, and iron sheet.

In 2012, Aga Khan Foundation, which brings together human, financial, and technical resources to address some of the challenges faced by the poorest and most marginalized communities in the world, came to Kilwa, Tanzania, to introduce a similar project. They were looking for residents who had worked with village community banks to train others. With the experience gained from WWF, I was selected as a community-based trainer, working in four wards and 16 villages to form and organize 84 banking groups. In 2013, WWF expanded its activities to two new areas, and I helped to form an additional 76 groups and became a leader of other community-based trainers for WWF projects.

Since I joined a village community bank, I have managed to shift my food vending business to my eldest daughter for her to manage. The other two girls are still in school. In 2019, I bought a big farm for planting simsim, a marketable crop for Indian communities. And I still continue as a trainer to teach women to work hard to support their family’s education, health, and other developments. I also own a mobile money transfer shop worth TZS 40 Million (US$17,391) and most of my clients are fishermen and traders. I am now empowered financially.


Clashes at Greece-Turkey border as migrants continue push attempt into Europe

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Clashes broke out along the Greece-Turkey land border Wednesday morning as Greek authorities fired tear gas and stun grenades to push back hundreds of migrants trying to illegally cross into their country.

The fracas near the border village of Kastanies comes after Turkey made good on its threat to open its borders and send migrants into Europe last week. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose action triggered days of violent clashes along the border, said his country is unable to cope with a new wave of Syrian migrants and refugees, and demands Europe’s support. “…The gates are open,” he said Monday. “You will have your share of this burden now.”

On Wednesday, Turkey’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Umit Yalcin, accused the European Union of “betrayal, hypocrisy and selfishness” for failing to uphold its agreement to stem the flow of Syrian refugees and migrants into Europe. “We did our fulfillment of our commitment and they did not do anything,” Yalcin told Sky News, referring to the accusation by Ankara that Brussels failed to meet the terms of the migration deal struck in March 2016. “And because of that – enough is enough. We are overloaded. We cannot control millions and millions of people.” He continued: “We only ask for fair and equal responsibility-sharing and burden-sharing. We only want to see the fulfillment of that deal, not more.”

During the clashes earlier Wednesday, reporters on the Greek side of the border heard what sounded like gunfire, though it was unclear whether this was live ammunition. A group of people could be seen carrying something which could have been a person between them and running to the Turkish border post. Shortly afterward, an ambulance was heard leaving. Reporters on the Turkish side of the border saw at least four ambulances leave the area.

The head of emergency services at Edirne’s Trakya University Hospital, Burak Sayhan, told journalists six people had been admitted to the emergency department Wednesday, including one who was dead on arrival. He said one person had been shot in the head, two had gunshot wounds to their lower and upper extremities and one had a broken nose.

The mass movement of migrants and refugees to Greece’s borders, the majority of who appeared to be from Afghanistan, has appeared organized. Buses, minibusses, cars, and taxis were organized in Istanbul to ferry people to the border, while some of those who managed to cross have said they were told by Turkish authorities to go to Greece and that the border was open.

Greek authorities said there were about 15,000 people along the Greek-Turkish land border on Wednesday. They said that between Saturday morning and Wednesday morning, they had blocked 27,832 attempts to cross the border, and had arrested a total of 220 people who managed to cross.


UN ‘determined to stand by the people of Syria’

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Speaking from Hatay, along the Turkish side of the border with Syria, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, said that displaced civilians were “struggling to survive in horrific conditions”.

Military activity in the region has displaced nearly one million people since December, mostly women and children. Mr. Lowcock painted a picture of traumatized, cold people, many of whom forced to sleep in the open. “Despite extraordinary efforts by humanitarian organizations, aid is not reaching everyone who needs it”, the UN relief chief stated. “What civilians need is a ceasefire. What civilians need is for international humanitarian law to be respected”, he spelled out.

Lowcock said that the UN is sending hundreds of trucks from Turkey into northwest Syria loaded with food, water and shelter each month. “This is saving lives”, he maintained, adding, “it must continue, and it must be scaled up”.

With an estimated 2.8 million people in northwest Syria need humanitarian assistance, Mr. Lowcock explained that $500 million would help 1.1 million of the most vulnerable.

He noted that the United States had just pledged $108 million and that an additional $300 million has been received or pledged by donors.

“We are determined to stand by the people of Syria”, concluded the Emergency Relief Coordinator.

[UN News]

Millions of Syrian civilians face humanitarian catastrophe

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U.N. investigators say millions of civilians in Idlib under siege by Syrian forces are facing a humanitarian catastrophe and are in urgent need of emergency assistance. 

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria finds the military onslaught by Russian-backed Syrian forces to retake Idlib from the terrorist group Hay’at Tahris al-Sham has led to unprecedented levels of displacement of civilians. Of the three million civilians trapped in Idlib, it says about one-third have fled their homes.

The Commission has been tracking attacks on what international humanitarian law calls protected civilian objects. These include hospitals, schools and places of worship. Commission member Hanny Megally told VOA hospitals have been attacked with the purpose of forcing people to leave. “There is a war crime of intentionally terrorizing the population to force it to move. And, I think we are seeing that picture emerging very clearly. For example, in Idlib where because these places are being bombed, people are having to move out of the areas that they are living in because they cannot sustain living in those areas,” said Megally.  

The United Nations reports nearly one million displaced people are stranded at the Turkish border, which is closed to them. Megally said those who have newly arrived have no shelter. They are forced to live outside in the freezing cold weather, with no blankets or other cover.  

“Politics seems to get in the way there.  I think the real question is if they cannot move from where they are, why is humanitarian assistance not being provided to them,” said Megally.  He said civilians are in desperate need of shelter, food, water, medical aid and protection. The report will be submitted to the U.N. human rights council March 10.


The world’s refugee system is broken

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We are in an age of mass displacement. Yet the powerful and stable nations of the world have not figured out a humane way to handle the influx of people claiming persecution while balancing domestic concerns about security and cultural change. Instead, doors are simply closing, with asylum protections rolled back seemingly everywhere.

In Italy, where the former interior minister denounced “fake refugees,” boats of Africans have been blocked from docking. The European Union pays handsomely to keep asylum seekers away, while Turkey considers sending Syrian refugees back to their homeland, which is still at war. In the US, the indefinite detention of asylum-seeking children prompted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to say she was appalled. Thousands of asylum seekers are sent from the U.S. to dangerous sections of Mexico and even to countries they’re not from.

The leaders who created international refugee policy never envisioned today’s refugees, with violent flash points rooted in all kinds of new phenomena—police corruption, climate change, gang warfare—that now dot the Earth, creating the conditions for the worst protracted migration crisis since World War II.

The problem is that the refugee system set forth in United Nations documents signed by most of the world’s countries does not apply to many refugees—at least not how it is currently enforced. The 1951 and 1967 agreements were drafted to specifically address European displacement from World War II while more broadly setting rules to protect people from persecution going forward: Anyone who is “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

To get refugee status and a pathway to permanent residency, asylum seekers generally must prove that they were personally targeted by documenting their persecution with paperwork—ostensibly from the very same authorities they are fleeing from. The irony, says David Slater, an American anthropology professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University who works with asylum seekers in Japan, is that those who appear to have the most straightforward cases of persecution “are the ones who are least likely to have documentation” to prove that it happened. “You don’t stop off at the local police station, especially when the police are part of the people who are persecuting you, to try to get a police report,” he said.

More to the point, those arriving are eyed suspiciously as mere economic migrants; poverty and hunger, though defining features of persecution, are not accepted reasons for being granted asylum.

“I would say that the system is broken,” Slater says. “The amount of conflict in the world and the number of people who are fleeing are so disproportionately larger now. For us to try to use a framework that was designed under a particular set of conditions and under a particular scale is no longer feasible.”

[The Atlantic]