Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Sudan’s troubled transition
This Saturday, 11 April, marks a year since the military coup that unseated Sudan’s former President Omar al-Bashir following months of protests. A lot has changed in the country since then – not least the sight of Bashir behind bars – but the transition to democracy is far from straightforward. Last month the new Prime Minister and former UN economist Abdalla Hamdok survived a bomb attack on his convoy in Khartoum, while recent violence in Darfur has sent thousands fleeing to neighbouring Chad. The military maintains a strong influence on the country through an 11-member Sovereign Council, and could call time on Hamdok as he struggles to move things forward. Hanging over the transition is a tanking economy where inflation is surging, the currency is sliding, and ordinary Sudanese are struggling to make ends meet. Talks with rebel groups have stalled, and with little money in the coffers it’s not clear the government can really afford peace. For Bashir, more trials lie ahead. In December, a court sentenced him to two years in a correctional facility for corruption – and he’ll soon face charges relating to the 1989 coup that brought him to power and last year’s bloody crackdown on protestors in Khartoum. Watch for our story on the troubled transition next week.
Pacific countries try to ‘weatherproof’ coronavirus response
A powerful storm that ripped across four Pacific Island nations this week raised an uncomfortable question for humanitarians on coronavirus lockdown: how do you respond to a disaster during a global pandemic? Cyclone Harold – the first Category-5 storm to make landfall in the Pacific since the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus a pandemic in March – tore through parts of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga. The storm swept 27 people on a ferry overboard in the Solomon Islands; parts of Vanuatu’s northern islands saw extensive damage; some 6,000 people were evacuated in parts of Fiji; and Tonga’s ʻEua island was “devastated”, the government said. The pandemic has forced the global aid sector to rethink how it responds to disasters when faced with flight cancellations and closed borders (of course, many Pacific countries also push back against heavy-handed international aid surges). But local responders must also adapt. Vanuatu relaxed social distancing measures so people could evacuate as Cyclone Harold approached. Fiji enforced occupancy limits on evacuation centres (and separated general evacuees from coronavirus patients and their close contacts). “We had to weatherproof our COVID-19 containment efforts,” said Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama. But even as Pacific countries start to clean up, the global pandemic continues. Cyclone Harold left Fiji’s waters by 9 April; a day later, the country recorded its 16th coronavirus case: a nine-year-old girl.
Ceasefire confusion as COVID-19 arrives in Yemen
Yemeni government officials reported the country’s first case of COVID-19 on Friday, 10 April, shortly after the Saudi Arabia-led coalition announced that it would be observing a two-week unilateral ceasefire in the country, in part to help confront the global pandemic. The move was welcomed by the UN, and the office of Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths said he was working with the warring parties on a “comprehensive initiative” to end the five-year war. But a Houthi rebel spokesperson said coalition airstrikes had continued after the truce’s onset and dismissed the initiative as a “political and media manoeuvre.” The rebels were reportedly not consulted before the coalition’s Wednesday night ceasefire declaration, but on the same evening a senior Houthi figure posted on Twitter the details of his group’s plan to end the war. All of this comes on the heels of a recent increase in violence, including Saudi airstrikes on the Houthi-controlled capital city of Sana’a and shelling of a prison in the province of Taiz that reportedly killed at least five women and one child.
When PHEICs collide
Back in January, the world watched as a WHO committee debated the merits of declaring a global emergency for the new coronavirus – introducing an ambiguously pronounced acronym (PHEIC, or public health emergency of international concern) into the mainstream vocabulary. There was far less fanfare when the WHO earlier opted to maintain a PHEIC declaration for a much older disease: polio. Today, it’s clear the coronavirus pandemic – which has sickened 1.6 million people and counting – could have devastating impacts on efforts to eliminate polio and other preventable diseases. Worried that vaccination campaigns might inadvertently spread the coronavirus, the board of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative this month advised countries to postpone immunisation campaigns until at least June. “We take this decision with deep regret, knowing more children may be paralysed by polio,” the board said in a statement. Coronavirus fears had already cancelled campaigns in hotspots across the world, including the Philippines. And it’s not just polio: illnesses from diseases like measles and cholera are expected to rise in the coming weeks as coronavirus restrictions derail immunisation plans. At least 13.5 million people will miss upcoming vaccinations, according to an analysis by Gavi, the vaccine alliance of donors and health agencies.
For millions of women and girls, things just got tougher
Millions of women are struggling to get contraception, abortions, HIV testing, or access to support related to gender-based violence due to coronavirus-related restrictions and closures. More than 5,600 mobile clinics and community-based care centres offering sexual and reproductive healthcare have closed in 64 countries because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). Within the federation’s network, South Asia has seen the largest number of closures overall, with more than 1,872 clinics and other service outlets affected. Africa has seen the largest number of mobile clinics closed, with 447 shut. Countries particularly affected by the closures include Pakistan, El Salvador, Zambia, Sudan, Colombia, Malaysia, Uganda, Ghana, Germany, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, IPPF said. Some clinics and centres still operating have also reported a shortage of contraceptives and HIV-related medicine. “These figures show that millions of women and girls across the world now face an even greater challenge in trying to take care of their own health and bodies,” said Alvaro Bermejo, IPPF’s director general.
Stopping the slide from poor to poorer
COVID-19 economic shocks and recession could drive 400 million to 600 million people or more into absolute poverty, erasing decades of anti-poverty gains. Drawing on those numbers from a paper published by the UN University, the NGO Oxfam called for what it dubbed an "economic rescue package for all". Rich countries “can mobilise trillions of dollars to support their own economies,” a statement from the NGO noted. “Yet unless developing countries are also able to fight the health and economic impacts the crisis will continue." Measures to limit the damage should include a stop to debt repayments and an trillion-dollar expansion of the IMF's capacity, as well as more aid and social safety nets, Oxfam says. The international NGO points out that 90 percent of work in poor countries is "informal", with no sick or unemployment pay. Even those with more formal jobs are in a precarious position: Oxfam quotes a report that a million garment workers in Bangladesh have been sent home or laid off. The NGO says $160 billion of new international aid is required for health systems alone and calls for "extraordinary solidarity taxes" on corporate profits or rich individuals as one way to pay the bill.
Stay updated with this week’s look at how COVID-19 is disrupting aid efforts around the globe and never miss a beat with our coronavirus newsletter.
In case you missed it
AFGHANISTAN: There has been another surge in Afghans returning home as Pakistan temporarily opened its borders, earlier shut due to coronavirus fears. Roughly 70,000 Afghans entered through two main border crossings this week, at times “overwhelming” coronavirus screening measures, according to the UN. Many Afghan returnees end up displaced and in need of aid, adding to the country’s many crises.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi’s chief of staff, Vital Kamerhe, was arrested on Wednesday after testifying at an inquiry into mismanagement of public funds. The case represents a setback for Tshisekedi, who had promised to break away from the corruption that characterised the rule of his predecessor, Joseph Kabila.
LIBYA: Fighting continues in Libya, displacing around 200,000 people in the past year, according to new figures from the UN’s migration agency, IOM. On Monday, heavy shelling damaged a 400-bed Tripoli hospital, in what the UN Humanitarian Coordinator Yacoub El Hillo called a “deplorable strike” on one of the country’s “potential COVID-19 assigned health facilities.”
MEDITERRANEAN: The Alan Kurdi, the migrant rescue boat run by the German NGO Sea Eye, rescued 150 stranded migrants in waters off the Libyan coast on 6 April but was unable to find a safe place to dock, having been rejected by Italy and Malta, the organisation said.
MOZAMBIQUE: Militant groups in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region launched a string of attacks this week that underline their growing power in the gas-rich area. An estimated 115,000 people have fled their homes since an insurgency began in October 2017 and hundreds have been killed. Read our coverage here.
SOUTH SUDAN: Three cases of coronavirus were confirmed this week – all UN staff members. The news triggered a xenophobic social media backlash. The army surrounded the bases of UN peacekeepers in Juba and Malakal and some humanitarian hubs. The UN is restricting staff travel as a precaution.
SYRIA: A UN inquiry found strong evidence of Syria or Russia bombing hospitals and other civilian sites in the northwest, and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons declared that the Syrian air force dropped sarin and chlorine on civilian targets in 2017.
VENEZUELA: Migrants who are no longer able to support themselves in Colombia after COVID-19 restrictions were put in place are returning to Venezuela, aid groups report. Over 2,000 people were reportedly being put up in schools and unused public buildings in the Venezuelan border state of Tachira.
This weekend may mark the official end of the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. No new confirmed case of Ebola has been recorded since 17 February, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Containing the Ebola epidemic has required huge sacrifices from residents and responders alike, as they confronted hundreds of attacks on treatment centres, medical staff and patients, and outbreaks of militia violence that hampered relief efforts. The WHO said it would wait until 12 April before officially declaring an end to the 20-month epidemic – the world’s second largest – which sickened over 3,400 people and left more than 2,200 dead. But as our weekend read points out, this moment for seeming celebration is shrouded by the arrival of a new challenge: coronavirus. Philip Kleinfeld, who has covered much of the epidemic, guides you through what turned the tide and the country’s next steps. How can response efforts be scaled down safely while monitoring for potential new flare-ups? Can resources used to tackle Ebola be used to fight COVID-19? “[Coronavirus] is a bit different… but there is a lot in place that should be maintained”, Benoit Munsch, Congo country director for CARE International, told TNH. “All the structures that we have in place could be a really huge help to this new outbreak.”
COVID-19 and other crises? There’s an UNoji for that
Once again, graphic designers commissioned by the UN’s humanitarian office have been given a challenge. They maintain a set of free relief-related icons (which absolutely no one calls UNojis) meant to help illustrate sitreps and maps. Some — rice, hospital, volcano — are pretty straightforward. But international disaster response had some tough demands for the artists: for example, how to depict “non-food items”, industry jargon for handouts like jerry-cans and tarps? The iconographers had to expand the collection: this week they added 29 new COVID-19 ones. We’re impressed with the creativity, but not 100 percent sold on the one for “ventilator”.