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Yemen floods, Myanmar information bans, and COVID-19 disruption (nearly) everywhere: The Cheat Sheet

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A man pushes a wheelbarrow full of food aid provided at a camp in Yemen's Marib province Ali Owidha/REUTERS
Food aid was distributed early last month to people recently displaced in northern Yemen. Recent floods in the country’s south have added to concerns for other displaced communities.

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

On our radar

Floods in Yemen, but also some good-ish news

Residents in parts of Yemen have a new concern to add to a flare up in violence and the potential arrival of a global pandemic: flash floods. Heavy rain across the country’s southern provinces reportedly flooded homes, destroyed bridges, ruined crops, and killed livestock in late March. The UN says at least 4,625 families who had already been displaced by violence were hit hard, with their shelters ruined or now filled with stagnant water. Many people said they lost their stockpiles of food due to the heavy rains. All of this is an even greater concern given that Yemen is still battling a cholera outbreak, and a rise in cases was already likely in the rainy season. The good-ish news? The UN’s envoy for Yemen said this week that he is still talking with the warring parties about a “nationwide ceasefire, humanitarian and economic measures to alleviate the suffering of Yemeni people,” and the resumption of wider talks to end the conflict.

For Myanmar’s displaced, information and aid remain hard to come by

Clashes between Myanmar’s military and the rebel Arakan Army continue to displace civilians amid an internet blackout and severe aid restrictions in Rakhine and Chin states. More than 4,000 people were uprooted in the latest violence in late March, the UN’s aid coordination arm, OCHA, reported. At least 70,000 people have been displaced over the last year, according to government figures – though local groups say the number is well over 100,000. The conflict is one of the latest to erupt in a country where multiple armed groups, drawn from ethnic minority communities, have battled over rights and territory for decades. Myanmar has designated the Arakan Army – which draws support from the ethnic Rakhine community – a terrorist group. The violence is escalating as Myanmar’s coronavirus caseload rises. Rights groups say Myanmar’s more than 300,000 displaced, in Rakhine and elsewhere, are trapped in “COVID-19 tinderboxes” with scant healthcare and aid, or enough information to prepare. They’re calling for internet to be restored in Rakhine (and elsewhere), but the government appears to be heading in the other direction: on top of the ongoing internet ban, the telecom company Telenor this week said it was ordered to block 221 websites – including some declared by the government to be “fake news”.

An economic SOS across Africa

South Africa’s finance minister, Tito Mboweni, has admitted to “trembling in his boots” at the thought of the economic impact of COVID-19. Africa’s growth prospects were already dim as a result of a slowing Chinese economy reducing demand for Africa’s raw materials. Now, the coronavirus could wipe 5 percent to 10 percent off Africa’s GDP thanks to global trade disruptions, the drying up of foreign direct investment, and the internal impact of lockdowns. Food supplies will be disturbed, and prices are already rising. At the same time, the continent needs up to $10.6 billion in increased health spending to avoid Bill Gates’ prediction of 10 million deaths becoming a reality. Africa’s finance ministers are calling for an emergency stimulus package of $100 billion, including a freeze on debt-servicing to bilateral and private lenders. The IMF has said it will make $50 billion available for emerging economies – although its managing director has estimated that emerging economies will need at least $2.5 trillion. If the virus is not defeated in Africa, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has warned, “it will only bounce back to the rest of the world.”

COVID-19 food insecurity watchlist includes 49 countries

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has listed 49 countries at greatest risk of increased food insecurity due to COVID-19. Most are in Africa, but Yemen, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan also have large populations at risk. The impact of a combined supply-side and demand-side shock would be a huge challenge and was “truly, truly unprecedented,” chief economist for the WFP, Arif Husain, told reporters on 3 April. The WFP report estimates there were already at least 212 million chronically food insecure and 95 million acutely food insecure people in those countries before COVID-19. About 67 million in those countries currently get assistance from WFP. Husain said WFP was working on estimating how many more may be pushed into hunger. The selection of countries was determined by a combination of factors including WFP’s “Proteus” food security ranking and other indicators, including export or import dependency and reliance on remittances from abroad.

Will abuse by officials undermine coronavirus fight?

A 13-year-old Kenyan boy was killed by a police officer’s stray bullet while standing on the balcony of his family’s Nairobi flat. Civilians were whipped with sjamboks and hit with rubber bullets in South Africa. Rule breakers in the Philippines were placed in dog cages and threatened with death by their own president. As coronavirus lockdowns come into force around the world, rights groups say abusive behaviour by law enforcers may undermine support for quarantine measures and sabotage efforts to control the spread of the virus. The crackdowns come amid increasing concern that some rulers are using COVID-19 as a pretext to increase their own authority. A new law in Hungary gives sweeping powers to nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, while an emergency bill introduced in Cambodia was labelled “a recipe for dictatorship” by Human Rights Watch. In Kenya, where there is little accountability for police violence, the mother of Yassin Hussein Moyo, the boy who was killed, told The Washington Post she would have preferred he died of coronavirus to spare her the sense of injustice. “Imagine knowing that someone is out there laughing with his wife and children, and yet he has killed your child,” she said.

A coronavirus casualty: Ethiopia’s election

Ethiopia’s landmark elections set for August have been postponed as a result of coronavirus. The poll would have been the first electoral test for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad after two years of dramatic political and economic reforms. With 29 confirmed coronavirus cases so far, and social distancing measures in place, the electoral commission said a new date would be set “when the pandemic is over”. Opposition parties have asked to be consulted over the new date. Abiy’s reforms, although lauded internationally, have opened up long-simmering social and ethnic tensions. The resultant violence displaced millions. In the largest federal state, Oromia, Abiy's home region, Ethiopian troops have been accused of human rights abuses in a widening counter-insurgency war against Oromo separatists. The conflict has driven 80,000 people from their homes and sharply curtailed aid operations. There are concerns that Abiy has tightened his political grip and his democratic credentials are now under scrutiny.

In case you missed it

CHAD: Chad is on the offensive against the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram after the militants killed 92 Chadian troops in an attack last month. Local communities have fled the Lake Chad area in fear it will become a free-fire zone. There are 169,000 people already internally displaced in Chad.

EUROPEAN UNION: The European Union’s highest court on Thursday ruled that the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland failed to fulfil their legal obligations in 2015 by refusing to accept an “appropriate” number of asylum seekers who had arrived in Greece and Italy. The 160,000 people, many fleeing war in Iraq and Syria, were to have been found places across most of the EU member states to ease pressure on the countries that were the point of arrival.​

GREECE: The Greek government barred movement in and out of the Ritsona refugee camp, north of Athens, for at least 14 days on 2 April after 20 residents tested positive for coronavirus. A woman from the camp had already become the first refugee in Greece confirmed to have COVID-19, after she tested positive in a nearby hospital where she was giving birth.

SOMALIA: After years of pressure from Amnesty International and others, the US military has pledged to release more details quarterly on civilian casualties in its Africa operations. Airstrikes by the US government regularly target the extremist Al-Shabab group. But according to Amnesty International, deaths and injuries of civilians have rarely been acknowledged nor has compensation been offered.

SOUTH SUDAN: The country is facing a widespread food crisis with most rural households having exhausted their harvests. Some areas in Jonglei State will be struggling with famine – despite food deliveries by the World Food Programme.

UKRAINE: The International Committee of the Red Cross delivered a planeload of supplies for coronavirus patients in Ukraine to help those – many of them elderly – living near the front line in the country’s east. The war in the Donbass region, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives, will enter its seventh year on 6 April as tentative moves to de-escalate the conflict have stalled.

UN FUNDING: The UN has introduced a third major funding appeal for COVID-19, seeking an additional $1 billion. Norway backed the new Response and Recovery Multi-Partner Trust Fund with $14 million, arguing that developing countries need help to plan for recovery as well as emergency response. This trust fund joins the $2 billion emergency aid appeal from the UN as a whole, WHO’s $675 million response plan, and additional funding appeals from UNICEF and others.

ZIMBABWE: More than four million people in rural Zimbabwe are food insecure – equivalent to 45 percent of the country’s rural population. The worst hit areas are Hwange, Kariba and Binga districts in the northwest. A total of six million are in need of aid.

Weekend read

Coronavirus in the city: A Q&A on the catastrophe confronting the urban poor

If there’s an ideal environment for COVID-19 to spread, it’s probably in some of the world's megacities. As in refugee camps, the close proximity in which people live, combined with poor sanitation, make informal settlements and slums a tinderbox. Attempts to enforce quarantine measures can be extremely ineffective, especially when people need to work to feed themselves and their families, and social distancing and self-isolation aren’t achievable. So, despite these challenges, we’re wondering, has the aid sector done enough to prepare for a pandemic hitting the urban poor? In our weekend read, we ask this question and several more to Robert Muggah, principal of The SecDev Group and co-founder of the Igarapé Institute. He told us that the threat of a pandemic has been on the aid sector’s radar for years, but that the speed and scale of this coronavirus outbreak has caught many by surprise. For Muggah, though, the disease itself is arguably not the greatest concern: “The most significant threat of the COVID-19 pandemic may not be from the mortality and morbidity from infections,” he warned, “but the political and economic fallout from the crisis.”

And finally…

It’s a good time to be the face screaming in fear emoji

With perhaps a little too much screen time on our hands, we decided to brush up some social media research skills in the pursuit of open-source eye candy and spurious sentiment analysis. We downloaded tweets containing the word “COVID” over the last couple of days, removed the re-tweets, and counted the emojis in the remaining unique 109,000 tweets. The microbe appears at number five and the face mask at number seven. According to Emojipedia (where else?), those two have seen the largest rises compared to normal emoji usage. The face screaming in fear emoji (number 32 in our sample) is also enjoying a period of unaccustomed popularity. Overall though, happy and laughing emojis are doing pretty well – all things considered.

These are the 100 most frequently occurring emojis in about 109,000 unique tweets containing the word “COVID”. Larger = more common. Source: Twitter API on 1-2 April 2020.


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