A vote in Burundi, a vaccine price war, and COVID-19 innovation in Africa: The Cheat Sheet

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

The leader of Burundi’s opposition CNL party, Agathon Rwasa, addresses supporters during a campaign rally in Ngozi province on 27 April. The country's coronavirus response is taking a backseat as the election looms. (Evrard Ngendakumana/REUTERS)

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

On our radar

Troubling times in Burundi

Burundians head to the polls on 20 May, and the ruling party – expected to win whichever way people vote – won’t let coronavirus get in its way. On Wednesday, four senior World Health Organisation officials were expelled, with unnamed government officials citing “interference” in the country’s management of the pandemic. Humanitarian sources told TNH the UN’s health agency has been sidelined from participating in the response, while doctors and nurses in Bujumbura say cases have spiked as campaign rallies draw packed crowds across the country. The elections are the first since President Pierre Nkurunziza won a disputed third term in office, sparking an ongoing political crisis that has forced hundreds of thousands to flee the country. Nkurunziza is not seeking re-election this time round, but his ruling party has spent the campaign period clamping down on dissenters, while clashes this week between members of opposing parties have left some residents fearing a new outbreak of violence. Read our latest on the situation.

Affordable coronavirus medicine

The wording of a resolution about COVID-19 has been a hot topic among diplomats in the run-up to the virtual World Health Assembly next week, especially over pharmaceuticals. This year, the annual meeting of the members of the World Health Organisation will tackle a “de minimis” agenda: COVID-19 and not much else. It would usually be reviewing reams of documents about the organisation's work and $4.8 billion two-year budget. This time, diplomats have been haggling over one conspicuous 2,500-word text on the pandemic. It was a “torturous” process to bridge differences between the various drafters, according to analyst James Love. Love, and other WHO-watchers, say the language about the pricing of drugs and vaccines was disputed, with the United States seeing calls in the original version for affordable access to drugs as a threat to the intellectual property of Big Pharma. Africa Confidential pointed out that potentially “stratospheric profits” would be dented by the enforcement of rules on cheaply-licensed versions of drugs.

Necessity is the mother of African invention

African countries, trying to buy the COVID-19 medical kit they so urgently need, often lack the clout to get to the front of the international queue – even if they have the money. So domestic developers are stepping forward. Across the continent, engineering students – from Nigeria to Kenya to Ethiopia – are offering a raft of home-grown solutions: from locally-built ventilators to contactless hand sanitisers. But they are all eclipsed by our favourite: a C-3PO-style medical assistance robot in Senegal. There are inevitably apps-a-plenty, some showcased in an MIT Africa COVID-19 challenge, and it wouldn’t be a disaster if the Kenyan crowdsourcing mapping platform Ushahidi wasn’t in on it. The harder stuff is around developing reliable COVID-19 rapid diagnostic tests, or RDTs. An RDT from Senegal’s Institut-Pasteur Dakar, in partnership with a UK-based diagnostic manufacturer, is currently undergoing a validation process. It would cost less than $1 and yield results in minutes. African venture capital is also recognising value in these inventions: one Nigerian “living lab” is dangling funding for COVID-19 innovation. Africa is clearly not waiting to be saved from coronavirus. Look out for TNH’s upcoming story on how African countries are overcoming access restrictions on testing equipment.

Oil, and Nigeria’s ugly fall

Nigeria’s woes are mounting. As a major oil producer – crude sales make up half of government revenue and 90 percent of forex earnings – the country has long been vulnerable to dips in price. But it has taken a coronavirus hammering. At one stage down to $12 a barrel, prices are now up to around $20, but that’s still below Nigeria’s cost of production. The IMF is predicting the economy will contract by 3.4 percent this year – perhaps too conservatively, notes a Chatham House report. The fallout won’t be pleasant. Nigeria already has the most extreme levels of poverty in the world. COVID-19 lockdowns have deepened its urban crime problem, with whole neighbourhoods coming under attack. Kidnapping remains a growth industry, and the inability of the police to respond has led six southwestern states to set up their own security outfit. In the northwest, longstanding banditry continues, forcing 23,000 people to flee into Niger last month. Deadly pastoralist-farmer clashes rumble on in the centre of the country. The prospect of all this getting worse as a result of deepening COVID-related poverty, is almost too awful to contemplate.

Women and girls, and COVID-19 funding

Experts and researchers say it’s time to put more money towards women and girls in the COVID-19 response. Yes – the virus has killed more men than women, but lockdown restrictions have unleashed higher levels of gender-based violence and blocked access to clinics that offer birth control, HIV testing, and counselling. Female refugees are also finding themselves even more vulnerable, as we learned in our new She Said series. A global economic downturn is likely to make things even worse for women, who perform 76 percent of the total hours of unpaid care work globally. A UN appeal for more than $6 billion in funding will target the most vulnerable, including women and girls, according to Mark Lowcock, the UN’s emergency relief chief.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: The number of people killed in an unclaimed attack on a Kabul maternity ward has climbed to 24, including at least two newborn babies. Médecins Sans Frontières, which runs the maternity unit at the hospital, called the 12 May assault “revolting”. Rights groups say it’s likely a war crime. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he would order the country’s military to resume an “offensive” stance, raising more questions about already delayed peace talks with the Taliban, which has denied involvement in the hospital strike.

ITALY: Tens (possibly hundreds) of thousands of migrants are to get temporary stay permits, allowing them to work and receive benefits, after the Italian government passed an amnesty to regularise undocumented workers. The permits, intended to help keep Italy’s economy functioning as it emerges from one of the world’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks, are eligible to all those working in agriculture, fisheries, animal breeding, and livestock, as well as to all domestic workers, including carers.

LIBYA: Health workers have come under fire as violence continues across the country. An armed group opened fire inside a Benghazi hospital on Sunday, and a Tripoli hospital was hit by shrapnel on Thursday. Keep an eye out for our upcoming reporting on what it’s like to be a healthcare worker in Libya today. 

ROHINGYA: Bangladesh reported the first coronavirus cases in the Rohingya refugee camps on 14 May. Weeks of preparation will be put to the test as aid responders pivot from preparation to containment. Read more in our new briefing: Coronavirus in the Rohingya camps: Five key issues to watch.

THE PHILIPPINES: Typhoon Vongfong barged across parts of the main Philippine island of Luzon, packing wind speeds topping 125 km/h and forcing tens of thousands to evacuate amid the coronavirus pandemic. By 15 May, the storm, known locally as Ambo, had made five separate landfalls and was starting to weaken, disaster management authorities said.

YEMEN: Clashes broke out this week between UAE-backed southern separatists and forces loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognised government, in the first major fighting between the two groups (both members of an anti-Houthi coalition) since the Southern Transitional Council declared “self-administration” in late April. The fierce battle reportedly broke out as government forces advanced towards the capital of Abyan province, and the STC brought in its own troops to repel the assault. 

Weekend read

As COVID-19 takes off in Latin America, Amazon indigenous groups fear the worst

Of the 744 members of the Siekopa’ai (Secoya) indigenous community in Ecuador, at least 15 had already contracted coronavirus by 5 May. Dozens more fled into the Amazon in an attempt to isolate from the outside world – but is their native refuge even that safe? The first indigenous person in the Amazon to die from contracting coronavirus was a 15-year-old who lived in a Brazilian state repeatedly targeted by illegal gold miners. Refusing to shut down economic activity, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has allowed traffic to continue up and down the Amazon river, despite the obvious risks posed to indigenous communities who often live days away from a hospital. Coronavirus has revealed how public health systems all over the world serve certain groups better than others – in the Amazon, some have pointed to these discrepancies and the lack of measures to protect vulnerable indigenous groups as a form of institutional racism. “The pandemic has exposed that there are no doctors and no health infrastructure in these communities,” said Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, chief coordinator of regional indigenous association COICA. “There is no education, no phone connections, no computers, no internet.”

And finally…

The cheque’s not in the post

Some TNH digging revealed that WHO member countries owed it $470 million at the end of March – the United States the most: 41 percent of its $196 million bill was overdue. But that doesn’t look so bad against what is owed to the main UN, where late payments have contributed to a “liquidity crisis”, cuts, and a hiring freeze. There, outstanding dues add up to $4.12 billion – not including specialist agencies like UNHCR and UNICEF, which are funded separately. Over half is owed by the United States, according to a report released this month. In addition, the UN owes $1.1 billion to countries like Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh as compensation for lending their soldiers and police to join UN peacekeeping missions. Under UN rules, the United States is obliged to pay about 27 percent of peacekeeping costs and 22 percent of the regular budget. China, the second-largest contributor, cleared a bill of $175 million in early May.

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