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Coronavirus risks, gang violence, and Syria’s war women: The Cheat Sheet

A weekly read to keep you in the loop on humanitarian issues.

Iranian women wear protective masks to prevent contracting coronavirus as they walk in the street in Tehran.
Iranian women wear protective masks to try to protect themselves from the coronavirus as they walk through the streets of Tehran. (Wana News Agency/Reuters)

Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

On our radar

Coronavirus surge begins to hit the least prepared

The emergence of coronavirus clusters in three key hotspots outside China – Iran, Italy, and South Korea – is fuelling fears that the virus is gaining a global foothold and becoming a growing threat to countries with weak health systems. Nigeria announced its first Covid-19 case – the first in sub-Saharan Africa – on Friday. The World Health Organisation, which considers Nigeria one of 13 priority countries that need more support to fight epidemics, said the patient is an Italian national. Iran’s outbreak has spread to many of its neighbours, some of which have large refugee and migrant populations. Cases from a growing list of countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Lebanon (and even New Zealand and Canada) have been linked to travellers from Iran. There’s plenty of global discussion about how to contain the virus, but very little of it has focused on how to protect refugee and migrant groups – who are left out of disaster and epidemic preparedness planning at the best of times. Read more on the risk to refugees, and track the global outbreak with our updated coronavirus map.

Gangs rival armies for civilian harm

One country stands out in a new database of violence: Mexico. Last year over 7,000 civilians were killed there, 96 percent of them by unidentified gangs or armed groups. That’s far more than counted in any other country, even those at war, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Conflict-tracking is an inexact science, but ACLED’s new Latin America and Caribbean dataset is filling some significant gaps. Released this week, it lists 40,000 events of political unrest, armed conflict, and violence against civilians in over 40 countries in the region. ACLED’s data is based on media reports, other open sources, and collaborations with other nonprofits. Mexico isn’t the worst, if you take into account the size of the population: proportionately, civilian killings are highest in Syria, South Sudan, El Salvador, Burkina Faso (a rapidly-worsening situation), and Honduras.

Syria’s women offer hope

There is not much in the way of good news out of Syria these days, with nearly 950,000 people forced to flee in the northwest since 1 December, 21 civilians reportedly killed in one day of airstrikes this week, and the possibility of further escalation after at least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in a Thursday night Idlib attack. Two new reports from the NGO CARE are not exactly upbeat either, but they do highlight some important – and possibly even positive – ways Syria’s societal norms have changed for women over nine years of war. Their research shows that with so many men dead, injured, displaced, or disappeared, more and more Syrian women have been forced to adapt and take on new roles, often working and making decisions for their families. Women told CARE that this can be exhausting and stressful, as they are often also expected to retain their traditional roles, but many also said they had gained confidence and felt empowered by the shift. As the fighting continues, and if peace ever comes, CARE says this new normal need to be recognised: “More than ever, it is critical that we provide Syrian women with our collective support, as they overcome severe hardship. They are the key to their country’s future.”

Killings, arrests in Burundi

Presidential elections in Burundi are drawing closer – and allegations of killings, arrests, and other abuses against civilians are mounting. On Tuesday, authorities in the small East African country said at least 22 “wrongdoers” were killed by security forces in the outskirts of the capital, Bujumbura, while last month members of the opposition National Council for Liberty (CNL) party were arrested en masse, according to party officials. Burundi has been wracked by political violence since 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a disputed third term in office. Last month, the ruling CNDD-FDD party picked its secretary-general, Evariste Ndayishimiye, as its presidential candidate, ruling out the possibility of Nkurunziza seeking re-election again. But violence is rising even with the current president out of the race. In a report published last month, the Burundi Human Rights Initiative said some CNL supporters had been beaten to death by members of the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, and buried in secret cemeteries. The UN has warned that security forces, local authorities, and Imbonerakure members are creating “a climate of fear and intimidation” ahead of the May polls.

Food, aid, and power in Somalia

On the surface, international aid to Somalia has become more sophisticated: “cash transfers, quantitative indicators, digital systems, third-party monitoring”, according to a detailed new study. However, behind the scenes, authors of “Food and Power in Somalia: Business as Usual?”, found that powerful players pull the strings while aid diversion and “exploitation” continue. The wide-ranging report into the business, political, and social aspects of international food aid was published by the London School of Economics. It reviews the phenomenon of “gatekeepers” – self-appointed camp managers who take a cut of aid meant for displaced people. It says the increased use of cash allowances – instead of bags of food aid – has some advantages but has also seen new forms of aid manipulation and corruption emerge. At the same time, however, cash transfers have limited a major income stream for a set of Somali businessmen called “oligarchs”, who had got rich and powerful moving UN food aid around for years.

In case you missed it

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Congo’s deadliest ever Ebola epidemic is slowing to a trickle with no new cases reported since 17 February, according to the World Health Organisation. The incubation period for the virus is 21 days, though it can persist in some survivors’ body fluids, causing new infections, the WHO warned.

GREECE: Dozens of people were injured this week in clashes between protesters and police on the Aegean islands of Lesvos and Chios, where Greek government plans to replace overcrowded migrant camps with new centres have met fierce opposition. Read TNH’s coverage for more on ideas to reduce tensions and on the risks facing women and girls.

GUINEA: Guineans will vote in a controversial constitutional referendum on Sunday that may allow President Alpha Condé to seek a third term in office. Human Rights Watch said more than 30 people have been killed since widespread demonstrations against the new constitution began late last year.

INDIA: Hate speech by political leaders is fuelling clashes that saw at least 30 people killed this week in Delhi, Amnesty International India said. The violence began when mobs attacked demonstrators protesting against divisive citizenship law changes seen as anti-Muslim. Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed for calm, but critics say his government has enacted policies aimed at reshaping the secular country along Hindu nationalist lines.

YEMEN: The United States appears to be doubling down on a threat to cut some assistance to Yemen this week, telling the AP – and reportedly UN agencies – that it would suspend aid to parts of the country Houthi rebels control, starting in late March, if obstruction does not end.

Weekend read

How Mexico and Central America’s femicide epidemic drives and complicates the migrant crisis

The killing of a woman or girl on the basis of her gender, known as femicide, is more prevalent in Central America and Mexico than anywhere else on the planet. It is one of the key factors behind the northwards surge of women and children seeking asylum in the United States in recent years. Our weekend read from journalist and researcher Julia Westbrook explores the situation in Mexico, where two recent murders – including one of a seven-year-old girl – have prompted street protests and an outpouring of anger. But it is also in violence-prone and gang-ridden Mexican cities – Ciudad Juárez saw 400 femicides between 1990 and 2005 and 10 women in Mexico are killed on the basis of their gender every day – that many Central American women and their children have ended up, thanks largely to a raft of new US immigration policies. Others are being deported back to their home region, the so-called Northern Triangle, where femicide can reach double digits per 100,000 women – rates unheard of in the rest of the world.

And finally…


Locust-munching Chinese duck platoons?

A viral report suggesting a 100,000-strong platoon of Chinese ducks would soon waddle their way to Pakistan to fight an infestation of locusts has proved to be, well, quackers. Each insect-eating duck from Zhejiang, in eastern China, was supposedly capable of munching more than 200 locusts a day, according to a widely quoted researcher from the Zhejiang Provincial Institute of Agricultural Technology. But institute officials and local media later poured cold water on the daffy story, while experts pointed out that ducks prefer wetland bugs to crunchy locusts, and wouldn’t last long in Pakistan’s arid desert areas anyway. The country declared a national emergency earlier this month as it struggles to cope with the crop-eating critters, which are also swarming their way across East Africa.


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We uncovered the sex abuse scandal that rocked the WHO, but there’s more to do

We just covered a report that says the World Health Organization failed to prevent and tackle widespread sexual abuse during the Ebola response in Congo.

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But this won’t be the last case of aid worker sex abuse. This also won’t be the last time the aid sector has to ask itself difficult questions about why justice for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation has been sorely lacking. 

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