African poverty protection, flood disasters, and religious messaging on COVID-19: The Cheat Sheet

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

Barrio Chiuijo, a survivor of a landmine explosion who was living in extreme poverty west of Chimoio in Mozambique in 2013. (Brent Stirton/ICRC)

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

On our radar

Africa’s soaring social protection needs

Global remittances to sub-Saharan Africa are projected to drop by $37 billion in 2020 due to COVID-19, money that typically goes to support low-income households. That’s especially bad as coronavirus is expected to drive Africa into its first recession in 25 years. An estimated 49 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty – and the World Food Programme is separately warning of a jump in the rate of hunger. How to respond? Social protection systems can help. Already, 26 sub-Saharan African countries have COVID-related social assistance schemes in place, ranging from cash transfers, food support, to tax waivers and utility bill freezes. Historically, these programmes have been weak: the money transferred has been minimal and tended to omit the informal poor. Now, looking ahead to a post-COVID world, there are calls for transformation – including the strengthening of social protection. In the West, Keynesian social spending by the state is back, point out economists like Carlos Lopez. He argues that while debt relief and humanitarian aid are welcome, “the pandemic drama may allow a more creative way of addressing Africa’s many challenges”.

Flooding hits Yemen, Congo, Burundi

This week saw another round of flash floods in Yemen, with at least eight people (maybe more) killed in Aden, as Yemen’s internationally recognised government declared its capital a “disaster city”. The country is just beginning its rainy season, which often brings cholera, dengue, and malaria, and has already seen an estimated 100,000 people impacted by heavy rains across the country between 13 and 21 April. Some 7,000 people were forced to flee their homes, as bridges collapsed and electricity and water facilities were damaged or destroyed. Elsewhere, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo floods displaced almost 80,000 people last week, and left at least 36 people dead, while thousands of homes were also flattened in neighbouring Burundi. The number of people affected by riverine and coastal flooding around the world is set to double to 147 million by 2030, according to research published this week by the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank. By 2050, the numbers will have reached “catastrophic” levels, the researchers said.

Turning to faith in COVID-19 communication

For public information campaigns about COVID-19 in Somalia to work, they should be designed within the “dominant framing” of religion, according to a new survey. About 38 percent of respondents viewed the pandemic through a religious lens, although the young, and young women in particular, raised practical and public health measures more often than their elders. The responses to an open-ended survey by the Africa's Voices Foundation (AVF) included calls to respect the advice of the government, requests for more information, and claims about unproven remedies. Second to faith-based views of COVID-19 (for example calling for trust in God and prayer) was support for medically-advised practices and governmental advice. Overall, about one in 10 submissions included some kind of rumour, stigma (including blame on outsiders and non-believers), or misinformation. Those views were held more often by displaced people, who made up 40 percent of some 7,000 responders. “Especially in Ramadan, people are turning to faith first, so any messaging needs to be with and through the sources they trust, ” Sharath Srinivasan of AVF told TNH.

Criminal COVID-19 aid in Latin America

Criminal groups in Latin America have been filling a void and distributing aid packages to vulnerable populations affected by COVID-19 lockdowns. On Monday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known for taking a softer approach in dealing with cartels than his predecessors, asked the groups – responsible for a record number of killings last month – to stop giving out aid and end the violence. In recent weeks, Alejandrina Guzmán, daughter of the imprisoned drug lord El Chapo, was filmed distributing packages emblazoned with her father’s image to the elderly, while similar media campaigns have been conducted by rival drug cartels, including methamphetamine-producers Los Viagras in the state of Michoacán and the Cartel del Golfo in Matamoros at the US border. Experts warn of a calculated move by such groups to expand their social base. In Brazil's favelas, gangs are providing aid and imposing curfews to protect against the pandemic, in contrast to President Jair Bolsonaro’s coronavirus denial. Armed groups in Colombia are also enforcing shutdowns to curb COVID-19’s spread in areas with limited health services.

‘Campaign of harassment’ sweeps up journalists in Kashmir

Police in Indian-administered Kashmir have used controversial anti-terror legislation to launch investigations against several local journalists, including photographer Masrat Zahra, a TNH contributor. Zahra is accused of uploading “anti-national posts” to social media – charges one media organisation calls “preposterous in the extreme”. Amnesty International India says at least 12 journalists and human rights activists across India have been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which rights groups have called “draconian”. People charged under the act face up to seven years in prison if convicted. Reporters Without Borders called for police to withdraw all charges, describing investigations against Zahra and others as a “campaign of harassment” targeting journalists in Kashmir, which has seen decades of conflict and military clampdowns. Zahra is one of only a few women photojournalists in Kashmir. In December, she contributed photos to a TNH story exploring Kashmir’s mental health crisis. Zahra told TNH that police interviewed her on 21 April, and that the investigation is ongoing. Shortly after, police in Kashmir announced a separate investigation into another journalist, Gowhar Geelani.

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:

CHAD: Forty-four suspected Boko Haram fighters have been found dead in their cells. They were among a group of 58 suspected jihadists captured during an army offensive around Lake Chad at the end of March. Autopsies on four of the dead prisoners revealed traces of a “lethal substance”. The fighting displaced more than 25,000 people. For more, read TNH’s Boko Haram coverage.

LEBANON: The UN’s agency for Palestine refugees said on 22 April that a Palestinian woman from Syria who lives in one of the Lebanon’s official Palestinian camps had tested positive for COVID-19. It was the first confirmed case in the camps, and while there are still no known cases among Syrian refugees in the country’s informal refugee settlements, restrictions on movement there are making it hard for residents to get basic healthcare.

MOZAMBIQUE: Islamist insurgents killed 52 people in Mozambique’s northernmost Cabo Delgado region, a police official said on Tuesday. The number of victims is among the highest of any incident since the militants began staging attacks in the gas-rich area in October 2017. Read our coverage here, and look out for an upcoming report on the latest violence.

MYANMAR: Several international aid groups have joined local demands for a nationwide ceasefire after a World Health Organisation driver was killed while transporting coronavirus samples from Rakhine State this week. The government blamed the 20 April attack on fighters with the rebel Arakan Army, which denied involvement.

SYRIA: Two former Syrian security officers appeared in a German court Thursday, charged with crimes against humanity in a trial that some hope will be a landmark in the attempt to bring justice for atrocities committed during the country’s nine-year war. For more on the trial and how it came to be held in Europe, read this.

Weekend read

COVID-19 turns the clock back on the war in Ukraine, as needs grow

Life in eastern Ukraine’s frontline “grey zone” is difficult enough. Being injured or killed by nearby shelling is a constant threat. Electricity and water come in sporadic bursts. Access to healthcare, jobs, and schooling has dried up over six years of conflict between Russian-backed separatists and Ukranian government forces. Those who remain in once-thriving villages try to cling on to some remnants of normality. Now, however, they also have COVID-19 to contend with. Our Weekend Read delves into what’s happened since the arrival of the coronavirus. Many people, mostly women, have already lost their jobs in light of the lockdown that began in mid-March, while the suspension of public transport has further limited people’s ability to get food and hygiene products. Meanwhile, the future of coronavirus in the region is clouded by an understaffed and stretched healthcare system, the inability to monitor and provide services to cut-off separatist regions, and the drying up of aid budgets. “Everyone’s tired of Ukraine,” Nataliia Kyrkach, head of local NGO Slavic Heart, tells TNH reporter Lily Hyde. “It has become such a protracted conflict.”

And finally…

The writing is on the wall

News monitor GDELT is a big data mine of global media and that means it’s full of news about COVID-19. We’ve used it to look at the rising use of the term “flatten the curve”, and to show that editors were at one point rolling out more stories about toilet paper than about Syria. GDELT’s Kalev Leetaru regularly publishes insights from the archive, which includes TV news captions and automated image recognition. He’s found one interesting quirk of lockdown: imagery of bookshelves on CNN has soared as more and more pundits are interviewed in their home offices in lockdown. And buzz cuts are on the rise too.

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