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China’s charm offensive, Ebola’s return, and COVID-19 fears for indigenous groups: The Cheat Sheet

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

Medical supplies arrive in Senegal
Medical supplies donated by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and the Alibaba Foundation to help Africa fight COVID-19 arrive in Senegal. (Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS)

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

On our radar

Chinese soft power put to the test in Africa

Sino-Africa relations are growing testy in the wake of COVID-19. Initially, in geopolitical terms, China was recovering some ground lost to the pandemic. The Jack Ma Foundation’s donation of 5.4 million face masks and a million testing kits to 54 African countries was well received. But the goodwill has turned to outrage over reports of racial discrimination against Africans in China, as tough new coronavirus restrictions were implemented. Africans living in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou were evicted from their apartments and refused entry to restaurants. Film clips showed homeless young men being pinned face-first to the pavement by police. African officials have in the past been reluctant to criticise Beijing, but Chinese ambassadors in several countries were summoned and upbraided. The United States has tried to maximize China’s discomfort. A State Department official said the episode was “a sad reminder of how hollow the PRC-Africa relationship really is.” But Beijing was soon back on a soft power offensive, with reports of doctors being dispatched to African countries to help tackle COVID-19. 

Ebola resurfaces in Congo

A 26-year-old electrician died after contracting Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo last week, just days before the epidemic that has killed more than 2,200 people was due to be declared over. Four more confirmed cases have since been reported and hundreds of contacts have been traced. On Tuesday, the World Health Organisation said the epidemic – the second deadliest on record – still constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, or PHEIC, despite the limited risk of international spread. But funding is in short supply, with the WHO requesting an additional $20 million just to ensure response teams can continue to operate on the ground. Though Congo has experience, having stamped out nine previous Ebola outbreaks, the current one has been marred by distrust between residents and responders. Threats against health workers in recent days prevented the decontamination of the 26-year-old patient’s household, while civil society groups have launched protests against what they see as the continuation of “Ebola business”. COVID-19, meanwhile, is spreading, with cases reported in the capital, Kinshasa, as well as Congo’s conflict-affected eastern provinces, including the Ebola outbreak zone of Beni. For more, read our piece on the challenges of juggling the two epidemics simultaneously.

Indigenous groups limit outside interaction

Disparities in healthcare and access to resources, as well as pre-existing health conditions, make indigneous communities more vulnerable to the impacts of coronavirus. Concerns are heightened for tribes in voluntary isolation who haven’t built up the immunity to withstand foreign infectious or contagious diseases, such as those in the Amazon. Aware of the risks, indigenous leaders have taken steps to slow the spread of the virus by issuing lockdowns, suspending tourism activities, closing roads, and setting up border patrols – to varying degrees of success. In the mountainous Cauca region of Colombia, indigenous community members have been threatened by drug traffickers seeking passage through their territory. In Brazil, where a second indigenous person has died of COVID-19, gold miners operating illegally in remote tribal areas are thought to have brought the disease in. In the United States and Canada, Native American and indigenous groups are fearful that people seeking to escape city centres for the country will risk spreading the pandemic to isolated rural areas. Deforestation, urbanisation, and infrastructure projects can also be catalysts for its spread – the first indigenous Orang Asli person contracted coronavirus in an area of Malaysia where palm oil plantations have expanded into forest lands.

Pacific Islands juggle coronavirus restrictions and cyclone response

A humanitarian response is underway in four Pacific Island countries as the damage from last week’s Cyclone Harold emerges. The Category-5 storm tore through parts of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fji, and Tonga, forcing each country to mount evacuations – and now a disaster response – in the middle of coronavirus lockdowns. Satellite analyses of southern Sanma Province in northern Vanuatu show extensive damage. Aid groups in the Pacific estimate up to 90 percent of the province’s population may have lost their homes, with significant damage to schools and health clinics. “The whole place looks as if it was bombed,” a resident of Pentecost, another northern island, told Radio New Zealand. There also appears to be extensive damage to remote southern islands in Fiji, according to the Fiji Red Cross, though full assessments have been slowed by COVID-19 restrictions and downed communications lines. Tonga is reporting extensive damage to infrastructure like roads and wharves.

Libya’s worsening crisis

As Libya confronts the threat of COVID-19 – humanitarians fear a large outbreak could “overwhelm” the country’s already struggling health system – it has also endured a year of escalating civil war. Civilians have reportedly been killed by rockets in the capital of Tripoli, thousands more people have been forced to flee their homes, and the violence shows no real signs of slowing down. The leader of the country’s internationally recognised government said in an interview published on Wednesday that he would not resume negotiations with his rival: the general leading eastern forces in a bid for power. Several hospitals and clinics west of Tripoli have been forced to suspend services because of the violence, and food prices have spiked in much of the country. As delivering aid in Libya was already a struggle before COVID-19, none of this bodes for the many people who need help.

WHO under fire

Battling coronavirus and re-emergent Ebola – not to mention the threat of resurgent measles and polio – the World Health Organisation is now also facing a political fight for its credibility. US President Donald Trump's funding freeze may make little difference now – the WHO's COVID-19 coffers have been comfortably filled by others. But accusations that the WHO has been too ready to accept China's version of events have become a damaging talking point, and not just among Republicans eyeing the US election in November.

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

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Militia attacks in northeastern Ituri province left more than two dozen people dead this week, according to local officials. The violence – which began in late 2017 – has been blamed on an ethic Lendu group known as CODECO.

LOCUSTS: Desert Locusts are posing “an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods” in East Africa, warns the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. Widespread rainfall in March is expected to produce a dramatic increase in numbers in the coming months, with new swarms expected in Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, and Uganda.

NIGERIA: At least 18 people have been killed by security forces enforcing COVID-19 restrictions – a higher Nigerian death toll than from the virus itself. Eight of the deaths were the result of a prison riot in Kaduna over coronavirus fears. The hashtag #lockdownimpunity is trending on social media.

PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Weeks of heavy rain triggered floods that displaced 60,000 people along the country’s southern coast in Gulf Province, the UN said, adding that thousands more may be displaced by landslides in highland areas. Local media reported that a landslide killed at least 10 people last week.

ROHINGYA BOATS: Malaysia turned away a boat carrying 200 Rohingya on Thursday, its air force said in a statement, citing coronavirus fears. The news came a day after Bangladesh’s coast guard rescued 400 people on a separate boat. Those on board said they had spent weeks at sea after being turned away by Malaysia. Rights groups fear there could be other boats adrift – a reminder of the 2015 Andaman Sea crisis, when thousands of migrants and refugees were stranded.

Weekend read

How a tech NGO got sucked into a COVID-19 conspiracy theory

A conspiracy theory often contains nuggets of truth, around which elaborately false claims are woven. Seemingly inconsequential connections are magnified to “reveal” unseen forces at play, gaining traction when shared en masse on social media. So it happened that an experimental scientific study – regarding a skin patch on rats that delivered both a vaccination and a quantum dot – was exploited in a narrative propelled by coronavirus misinformation involving Bill Gates, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and a niche tech NGO working to provide digital ID for the poor and marginalised. Our Weekend Read invites you to wade into the murky world of COVID-19 conspiracy theory with TNH Senior Editor Ben Parker. Dakota Gruener, CEO of ID2020, explains how “patently false” claims that her small New York-based non-profit was implanting microchips into unknowing people snowballed, against the backdrop of COVID-19, until staff received death threats and the FBI had to be called in. Crazy, but true.

And finally…

Some lockdown viewing?

If you can swing a Netflix password, a new biopic of Sergio Vieira de Mello drops today (trailer here). The Brazilian former head of the UN’s humanitarian coordination arm (our 1998 interview is here) was killed by a bomb in Baghdad in 2003. The trailer includes a line that may raise eyebrows: he’s described as the “most powerful official in UN history”. In his TNH (IRIN) interview, de Mello spoke of the limits of UN power: “How many times did I wish I were a diplomat or an NGO worker: it would have made my life much easier.” The movie so far has a 50 percent rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The material won’t have the freakshow appeal of Tiger King – The New York Times calls the script “slushy” – but look out for some animal charisma from lead actor and Narcos star Wagner Moura.

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