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Lockdown deaths, Afghan gender imbalances, and Libyan meddlings: The Cheat Sheet

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A burial ceremony for COVID-19 victims in Cisternino, Italy
A burial ceremony for COVID-19 victims in Cisternino, Italy, on 30 March. New research is trying to work out how many people are dying as a result of the measures taken to contain the pandemic. (Alessandro Garofalo/REUTERS)

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

On our radar

Counting ‘lockdown victims’

People are dying from measures taken to stop them dying of COVID-19. Lockdowns and other suppression measures disrupt healthcare and so increase excess mortality. This is supported by evidence from developed countries. According to researchers at the Center for Global Development think tank, one third of excess deaths during the pandemic in the UK are not COVID-19-related. CGD has devised a “Net Health Impact” calculator that estimates the painful public health trade-offs for African countries. It predicts, using different models and variables, how many people will die of measures to suppress COVID-19 versus how many lives would be saved by those same measures. The model has some pretty big “ifs” – for example, CGD found that using different projections from Imperial College London and the WHO’s African bureau produces very different results. Nevertheless, the idea is intriguing: what is the ideal “policy equipoise” – the course of action that minimises the death toll from either cause?

In Afghanistan, a gender divide in testing

Afghan women have less access to healthcare and COVID-19 testing, and maternal care and vaccinations have fallen as a result, a new survey of Afghan health staff warns. The research, published this week by German NGO Johanniter International Assistance and its local partners, found some clinics have closed or scaled back due to fear of the coronavirus, while special screening for women was only available in half of the surveyed health facilities. Medical staff are also mostly men. “We are very concerned that women in particular no longer go to the doctor or hospital for fear of infection,” Nasreen Afzali, Johanniter’s gender and protection officer, said in a statement. “As a result, the number of treatments in mother-child care, prenatal and postnatal care, and vaccinations has dropped sharply.” It’s a problem mirrored in crisis zones across the globe: governments and aid groups have scaled back services amid coronavirus restrictions, and women’s health and protection programmes have been particularly hit. A May update from South Asian members of the International Planned Parenthood Federation offers another snapshot: post-abortion and contraception services dropped in Afghanistan and Nepal, and a maternal care centre closed in Iran. This has raised questions about which services are considered “essential”. In Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps, for example, programmes – including safe spaces for women – were scaled back in March and April, and there are early signs that gender-based violence has risen since. “Gender issues have been often deprioritised or not seen as life-saving,” aid groups warned.

A Libyan mercenary plot unravels

The latest fight for control of Libya has been rattling on for more than a year, claiming civilian lives, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, and throwing the country into a dangerous state of chaos. The main protagonists are the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and rival eastern forces commanded by General Khalifa Haftar. But plenty of foreign powers have been accused of – and/or admitted – throwing their weight behind one or other, and sometimes both. This week brought news of yet another attempt to intervene in the conflict. The Telegraph reports, based on leaked UN documents, that 20 foreign mercenaries, including former members of the RAF and the Royal Marines, were paid a tidy sum to help out Haftar by flying helicopters and piloting boats to intercept shipments of weapons sent from Turkey to the GNA and its allies. But Haftar, apparently, was not pleased with the quality of the helicopters brought in for the plot, dubbed “Project Opus”, and the foreign mercenaries were forced to abort and clear out to Malta, where they were arrested but eventually released without charge. If true, this somewhat farcical chapter in Libya’s history is yet another example of just how complicated the war has become. 

Iraq’s ‘militias’ and the ‘disappeared’ protesters

The anti-government protests rocking Iraq have slowed of late, in part thanks to fear of COVID-19. But, as a new UN report on the abduction, interrogation, and torture of protesters shows, there has not been a full reckoning of what happened to the people who for months took to the streets to stand against corruption, sectarianism, and a lack of basic services. The deliberate targeting of unarmed demonstrators has been widely reported – at least 490 people are confirmed to have been killed between October and late March – but this latest report doesn’t focus on the violent crackdown by Iraq’s security forces. It focuses instead on groups described as “militias”, and their involvement in what happened to 123 people who were taken during the demonstrations by “armed and masked men”, including 25 who remain unaccounted for. Those who returned recalled beatings, electrocution, and threats of rape during their enforced disappearances, which lasted between one day and two weeks. To this day, there has not been a single related prosecution, although Iraq’s newly minted prime minister now says the government will conduct its own investigation

All change on UN peacekeeping day

If you’re a UN peacekeeper, then today’s your day. Celebrate now, because change seems underway. For a start, UN peacekeeping is set to shrink, with the “big five” missions – Mali, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, and South Sudan – set to turn into the “not-so-big three”. UNAMID in Darfur is being transformed into a smaller, peacebuilding operation, and MONUSCO is planning its exit from DRC after a difficult decade. Part of the reason is the “crisis of multilateralism” – with widening fault lines within the UN Security Council over finances, principles, and geo-political rivalry. But it’s not all down to a contrarian United States. A more fundamental debate is brewing over the nature of UN peacekeeping, the role of regional forces, and what future conflicts may look like. And then there’s the more immediate problem of COVID-19. Operationally, missions are having to adapt to minimise risk (and in some countries, it’s the blue helmets identified as the threat). That means the morale-sapping reality of fewer troop rotations. But the most severe disruption could still be ahead: a global economic recession that limits funding and troop contributions at a time of potentially increased instability and risk.

In case you missed it

BURUNDI: The Catholic Church in Burundi has criticised “irregularities” in last week’s presidential vote after ruling party candidate Evariste Ndayishimiye was declared the landslide winner. The church deployed more than 2,700 observers on 20 May and found evidence of ballot box stuffing and people voting more than once, amid other discrepancies. Read our latest on the situation.

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: At least 296 people have been killed and 151 wounded since October in possible war crimes committed in Congo’s northeastern Ituri province, according to a new report from the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office. Around 1.4 million people have been displaced by the violence, which is attributed to ethnic Lendu militia groups. Read our latest for more.

ETHIOPIA: The government used extrajudicial executions, rape, and mass arrests in response to inter-communal violence and attacks by the Oromo Liberation Army in 2019, Amnesty International has alleged. The abuses occurred in the year Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize. With elections on the horizon, Amnesty warned the violations “could escalate out of control” unless the security forces are brought to heel.

HUNGER IN LATIN AMERICA/CARIBBEAN: The World Food Programme warned that the number of people going hungry in the region could quadruple this year to almost 14 million due to the knock-on effects of COVID-19 restrictions. In Guatemala, government figures already indicate a near-tripling of cases of acute malnutrition.

LOCUSTS: Pakistan’s entire land area could be threatened by crop-chomping locusts if swarms currently spotted in about 40 percent of the country’s districts aren’t contained, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation warns. Successive generations of the migratory pest are threatening food security in parts of East Africa, South Asia, and Iran

YEMEN: As the COVID-19 death count rises in Yemen, the UN and Saudi Arabia will co-host a virtual pledging conference next week, asking donors to give to what has in the past been the world’s most expensive humanitarian operation. We’ll be watching to see which countries pledge to help, as well as who actually pays up. 

Weekend read

EXCLUSIVE: Health woes, outrage, and toxins near Ethiopia gold mine

What happens when local communities aren’t consulted – or protected – from resource extraction projects? In instances from Ecuador to the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Philippines, corporate interests and profits have come first, not just ruining landscapes but also livelihoods and health outcomes – sometimes even leading to deaths and deformities. Our latest investigation centres on a gold mine in a southern region of Ethiopia that has long complained of marginalisation by the central government. Reporter Tom Gardner obtained previously unreleased studies carried out by the government and the mining company – the largest private employer in the country – revealing evidence of birth defects, mercury contamination, and environmental concerns. Despite the findings, Prime Minister Abiy may be about to let the mine – closed in 2018 in response to local protests – re-open. In the words of one resident who spoke to TNH: “We are the walking dead.”

And finally…

Rift on the Rubicon

The CEO of Team Rubicon UK, Richard Sharp, is accused of sexual harassment, being drunk and abusive, and wrestling with other guests at a booze-fuelled team getaway in August 2019. A volunteer reported that both Sharp and the head of the Australian branch of Team Rubicon both sexually harassed her at the Colorado event. The US branch has demanded Sharp be sacked. An investigation by Team Rubicon UK’s trustees found, “on the balance of probabilities”, that its CEO did not sexually harass the volunteer nor a second woman. The report did not recommend his dismissal and alleges that the American branch hampered their work. Team Rubicon UK is relaunching as RE:ACT Disaster Response. The case has deepened divisions within the leadership of Team Rubicon, which is now fighting over the trademark in the US courts. Team Rubicon US, led by former US marine Jack Wood, espouses values of “honour and service”. Its uniformed teams, when deployed to natural disasters, often enjoy close relations with the US military. The UK trustees accused Wood of cult-like behaviour and called him “messianic”. TNH’s Ben Parker discussed the wary relationship between Rubicon and other aid groups in this BBC profile of Wood


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