Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
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On our radar
Lockdown relief needed
Some 1.6 billion people working in the informal economy – nearly half the global workforce – are in “immediate danger” of seeing their livelihoods destroyed by the economic impacts of COVID-19 lockdowns, says the International Labour Organisation. These workers have already suffered a 60 percent drop in earnings during the first month of the crisis – above 80 percent in Africa and Latin America – with few safety nets in place to save them. Women, in particular, have been hard hit. "For millions of workers, no income means no food, no security, and no future,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder. In India, the lockdown triggered a mass exodus of millions of migrant workers back to their rural villages or into cramped relief camps. In Lebanon, the government has been rocked by violent protests over the pandemic’s impact, and is looking to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout. But as lockdowns are tentatively eased – the latest being South Africa – the issue becomes how people can return to work safely. Large and continuing support is needed for businesses and jobs, including the informal sector, says the ILO. It also calls for international coordination on stimulus packages to ensure the sustainability of the global recovery.
Fear in the favelas
Latin America’s leader in known COVID-19 deaths surpassed China this week – it now has more than 6,000. But Brazil is also in the midst of a political crisis that risks distracting its government further from the fight against the pandemic. Dismissively referred to as the “sniffles” by under-fire President Jair Bolsonaro, the virus may have been brought into Brazil’s cities by wealthy holidaymakers. But experts now fear an explosion in the densely populated favelas, or shantytowns, where there is little access to sanitation, and communities already contend with dengue, malaria, and yellow fever. With the health authorities suspected of under-reporting cases in the poorer areas, and assistance failing to reach the most vulnerable residents, local community groups have launched donation drives to provide assistance and build awareness. In Rio de Janeiro, a gang known as the Red Command is reported to be imposing COVID curfews and “pushing hand sanitiser on residents instead of crack cocaine”. Last month, the health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, suggested the government should consider engaging criminal groups to help curb the spread of COVID-19. At odds with Bolsonaro’s lax approach to the pandemic, he was soon dismissed. “I don’t think he fired me,” Mandetta later told The Washington Post. “He fired science.”
Military spending broke records last year, rising to $1,917 billion, equivalent to about $249 for every person on Earth – or $218 million per hour. The five largest spenders in 2019, were the United States, China, India, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. At $732 billion, the United States spends almost three times more than China, according to the annual review by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. By comparison, annual development spending – resources directed to low- and middle-income countries for anything from healthcare, schooling, agriculture, and clean water to emergency relief – stands at just $153 billion. Military expenses in the Middle East region are estimated to be the highest as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product: 4.5 percent compared to 1.7 percent in Asia and Europe. Burkina Faso, facing a growing insurgency, increased military spending by 22 percent, while Zimbabwe, close to economic meltdown, spent 50 percent less than in 2018.
Northeast Syria’s medical lifeline
As Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria reports two more cases of COVID-19, making a total of three (including one death), NGOs and UN officials are beginning to speak up about how a change in a key UN Security Council resolution in January is now hampering their ability to fight the virus. Thanks to what some might call more failed diplomacy between the major powers, the UN has not been able to bring aid from the northern Kurdish region of Iraq into Syria for the past four months. The border crossing located there, Yaroubieh, was never terribly busy, but it was the main way the UN brought medicines and medical supplies into that part of the country – home to around two million people – as Damascus refuses to allow them to be trucked from the capital. Aid groups say this is now restricting their ability to respond to COVID-19. UN relief chief Mark Lowcock name-checked Yaroubieh in his address to the Security Council this week, saying, “gaps in medical supplies in northeast Syria are widening”. Diplomatic efforts to re-open the border to UN shipments have so far gone just about nowhere.
Myanmar army accused of fresh ‘war crimes’ in Rakhine State
There have been widespread calls for coronavirus ceasefires across the globe, but Myanmar’s military is escalating its fight against the rebel Arakan Army in parts of Rakhine and Chin states in the country’s west. More than 100 civilians have been killed or injured in recent weeks, adding to more than 100,000 people displaced – largely beyond the reach of humanitarian aid and healthcare – since January 2019. This week, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, called for an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in an increasingly bloody conflict. She cited attacks on civilians, including air and artirllery strikes, the torture of suspected rebels, and blocking healthcare access. “Schools, houses, and a Buddhist temple have been burned or destroyed,” she said. Myanmar’s military was already facing accusations of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity for its purge of the minority Rohingya, also from Rakhine State, and its conflicts in other regions.
Electioneering in the time of COVID-19
Campaigning began this week in Burundi ahead of 20 May elections that will see Pierre Nkurunziza step aside after 15 years as president but his ruling CNDD-FDD party likely retain power. Thousands of people were seen mingling at large rallies around the country, despite a growing number of COVID-19 cases. When asked about the virus last month, the president’s spokesperson described Burundi as an “exception among other nations” and “protected” by God. The small East African country has been wracked by political violence since 2015, when Nkurunziza – a former rebel leader – ran for a disputed third term in office. Crackdowns on opponents sent hundreds of thousands fleeing to neighbouring countries. Stepping into his shoes is the ruling party’s secretary-general, Evariste Ndayishimiye. He is seen by some as a reformist candidate capable of bringing Burundi out of international isolation. Others doubt he can change an increasingly authoritarian and intolerant party that spent the pre-election period clamping down on opposition officials as well as civil society groups and the media.
In case you missed it:
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Militia clashes in Central African Republic left at least 25 people dead in the latest act of violence that is undermining last year’s peace deal. The fighting involved rival factions of the FPRC – one of the country’s largest rebel groups – who split in 2019 and have been clashing ever since.
LAOS: Survivors of a hydropower dam collapse that killed dozens and displaced thousands in July 2018 are still waiting for adequate compensation, UN rights experts said this week. Many remain in temporary housing with poor access to food, water, and healthcare, the watchdogs said.
MALI: A fire tore through a makeshift camp built on a toxic landfill site in Mali’s capital city on Tuesday. The camp was housing more than 1,000 displaced people who had fled violence in the country’s central Mopti region. Residents have long complained of conditions at the site, which TNH visited last year.
NIGER: A new outbreak of polio has hit, following the suspension of door-to-door immunisation as a result of COVID-19 fears. Two children have been infected, with one paralysed. The outbreak was sparked by a mutated virus that originated in the vaccine.
SYRIA: A fuel truck bomb exploded in a market in the northern city of Afrin on Tuesday, killing at least 40 people, including 11 children. Afrin is controlled by Turkish-backed forces, and while Ankara blamed the attack on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the group denied responsibility.
How dangerous does coronavirus feel if you are living near a front line? The global nature of the pandemic has, for perhaps the first time in decades, given the world a simultaneous reference point. But the virus’s impact on human lives has been far from equal. “For migrants and refugees like me, the virus hasn’t changed that much. Fear has always been a constant, and life has never been secure.” Hassan Zakariya Omer began his life in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan – fresh air, homegrown food, and school classes under a baobab tree. But since fleeing fighting in the region when he was 20 years old, any semblance of a peaceful life has evaporated, and he now lives in Libya as a refugee. Omer sees those around him panicking over coronavirus and buying up supplies, but between dodging shells and living with no electricity or running water, it’s hard for him to consider it his biggest threat: “Of course I don’t want to get the coronavirus, but it doesn’t feel like there is much I can do.”
UK bank blocks donations to Palestinian charity
Ramadan, coupled with (ICYMI) a pandemic, makes HSBC's blockage of donations to a UK charity particularly “immoral” and a “disgrace”, according to the NGO. The news, first reported by Middle East Eye, emerged after HSBC told customers it would stop standing orders for Interpal, a 25-year-old relief and development NGO supporting Palestinians. Stringent anti-terrorism legislation, which NGOs say is hampering legitimate humanitarian work worldwide, is leading banks to “de-risk” by dropping anything that could get them in trouble, bonafide charities included. HSBC now faces another risk: criticism from across the political spectrum in the UK. Interpal denies links to extremism and terrorism, and the British courts agree: it has been awarded £170,000 in damages against two publications that falsely accused them in the last year. HSBC told Middle East Eye: “sometimes we may decide to prevent certain transactions, even if they are allowed under local laws.”