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African lockdown killings, delayed elections, and a US sexual health impasse: The Cheat Sheet

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

"Black Lives Matter" supporters protest the death of George Floyd in Cape Town
"Black Lives Matter" supporters protest the death of George Floyd in Cape Town, South Africa, on 3 June. The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has caused outrage across Africa. (Armand Hough/ANA/Latin America News Agency via REUTERS)

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

On our radar

George Floyd and Africa’s poor

The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has caused outrage across Africa. Social media lit up in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and revulsion at yet another murder. African leaders, from Ghana to Namibia, have condemned the systemic racism it reveals. And yet, a week after George Floyd was choked to death, police in Kenya shot and killed a homeless man for breaking COVID-19 curfew – one of 15 people killed by Kenyan security forces so far in lockdown-related incidents. In South Africa, security forces enforcing stay-at-homes have killed at least 10 people; in Uganda it has been six. But these deaths haven’t provoked the same popular protest. Why? Under-resourced, Africa’s police forces have historically controlled through fear, and there’s middle-class complicity in that violence and impunity – plus a growth industry in additional private security. William Shoki, writing for Africa Is a Country, points out that while Africa’s cosmopolitan twitterati feel an affinity for black America, it is poor Africans who are the closest in experience to working-class people of colour in the diaspora and the injustices they face. An intersectionality of race, class, and gender frames this discrimination – and the path to its dismantling. One of George Floyd’s brothers, Terrence, offered advice to all: “Go and vote”.

COVID-19’s democratic deficit

The coronavirus pandemic is complicating Africa’s election calendar, with fears it could undermine democracy. At least nine African countries – including Nigeria, Kenya, and Zimbabwe – have postponed elections at some level, and polls are up in the air in a dozen more. The potential use of coronavirus as an excuse to prolong the rule of incumbents is now a real concern. Ethiopia has indefinitely delayed national, parliamentary, and regional voting originally due for 29 August. There are worries Somalia might add a political emergency to its health crisis by unilaterally rescheduling its polls. The Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU) this week filed a request for an advisory opinion at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights looking for guarantees for “effective protection of the right to participate in government” through elections. It is calling on the court to adjudicate legal obligations and applicable standards for upcoming polls. “To win against coronavirus, first we have to win against the virus of rigged elections,” Chidi Odinkalu, a member of PALU, told The New Humanitarian.

US objects to UN abortion compromise – again

In a repeat of a stand-off you many remember last year, the US government is refusing to agree to an upcoming UN humanitarian resolution because of its implications for women's bodies. Many years ago, diplomats agreed a careful phrase that allowed them to achieve consensus on international health issues without endless debates about abortion. “Sexual and reproductive health” was agreed as a catch-all phrase in 1994 that worked both for countries where abortion was and wasn't illegal. However, the current US administration is aligned with anti-abortion campaigers and suggests the term, especially when used at the UN, implies a human right to abortion. In May, the United States objected to its use in the recent humanitarian appeal for COVID-19. The US government claims the term is “highly divisive”, but at the UN's ECOSOC humanitarian committee last year only one other country, Jamaica, supported its stance. According to a Google search, the term appears on over 40,000 US government web pages.

Mapping Taliban control

The Taliban contest up to 60 percent of Afghanistan’s territory, according to a sanctions monitoring report prepared for the UN Security Council and published on 29 May. The finding is the latest assessment of the militant group’s reach as Afghanistan weighs peace talks, delayed since March, between Taliban leaders and the government. Estimates of Taliban control are rare. The US-led NATO mission stopped releasing district data in 2018 (these showed steady gains by the Taliban and other insurgents), and location data for “enemy-initiated attacks” this year. The last NATO figures released in October 2018 suggested insurgents controlled, influenced, or contested about 44 percent of the country’s territory. There’s growing scrutiny of Taliban governance as the country struggles to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Testing is inadequate nationwide and scarce in Taliban areas, and infections are widely believed to be an undercount. It’s not clear what the Taliban is doing to contain the virus: our story this week points to some worrying signs, and a Foreign Policy report suggests the Taliban leadership itself has been ravaged by COVID-19. Still, borders and territory don’t show the full picture: Taliban governance extends to taxation, justice, and more – even beyond areas it rules militarily. “The Taliban do not have to take territory to control it,” research by the UK-based Overseas Development Institute stressed.

Open for business in Latin America?

Even as Latin America has become the latest epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, many countries in the region are loosening restrictions, and health experts are worried that Brazil and Mexico, in particular, may be emerging from lockdown too early. As of 5 June, Brazil overtook Italy to become third in the world in terms of confirmed COVID-19 deaths, while Mexico, which hit a new high of 1,092 daily fatalities on 3 June, said it would no longer invest in testing for the virus. Colombia, Bolivia, and Ecuador also planned gradual re-openings of their economies from this week. The World Food Programme, meanwhile, estimated that 14 million people in the region will become food insecure by the end of the year, four times the 2019 number. And in Venezuela, where NGOs say they are operating “blind” due the lack of reliable health data amid an existing humanitarian crisis, a glimmer of hope came in the form of an agreement between President Nicolás Maduro and his arch rival, opposition leader Juan Guaidó, to help raise funds to fight the pandemic.

In case you missed it

BURKINA FASO: Three attacks in 48 hours left at least 50 dead in Burkina Faso, underlying the deepening insecurity in the country as it battles a jihadist insurgency. Thirty-five people were killed in two separate incidents on 30 May when unidentified gunmen opened fire at a cattle market and on a humanitarian food convoy, while 15 were killed on 29 May in an attack on a group of traders.

COVID-19 FALLOUT: The International Committee of the Red Cross warned of greater aid dependency around the world after new survey data showed the crippling effects of the pandemic on people’s incomes. In Nigeria, 95 percent of those surveyed said their earnings had suffered, in Iraq it was 83 percent, while 75 percent of Ukrainians reported an increase in the price of basic items.

HURRICANES: There is a 60 percent chance that this year’s season (June to November) will be above average, producing between three and six major hurricanes in the Atlantic, according to US government weather-watchers. Caribbean nations are adapting plans to cope with major storms while containing COVID-19.

IRAN: Protests are flaring, partly over unpaid wages, as the economy tumbles during the coronavirus pandemic. Analysts say the protests aren’t as widespread as last year, when a rise in fuel prices drove weeks of demonstrations and a harsh crackdown. Iranian officials this week said 230 people were killed during last year’s protests – the first announced death toll. 

MOZAMBIQUE: The government said it killed 78 jihadists in Cabo Delgado last week following a high-profile attack that saw the insurgents temporarily take control of Macomia, a district capital. The conflict monitoring group ACLED said the government “offered no proof for the claim”. Read our latest on the situation for more.

YEMEN: International donors promised to give $1.35 billion for aid operations in Yemen at a virtual “pledging event” on 2 June, falling far short of the $2.4 billion the UN says it needs for work by its agencies and hundreds of affiliated NGOs for the rest of 2020. Before the conference, UN relief chief Mark Lowcock was pessimistic about both the pledges and the speed of delivery, with many key relief programmes already running out of money.

Weekend read

COVID-19 aid funding: The many pots and pitfalls

If there has been one common thread in our coronavirus coverage, it’s money, or rather, the lack of it: money for healthcare workers; money for personal protective equipment and other medical supplies; money to go see a doctor; money to continue to put food on the table in spite of sickness or lost jobs. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people who work in the informal sector, and those whose governments offer little by way of a social safety net. Meanwhile, local and national leaders are in need of sizeable stimulus packages to keep the economy running as future outlooks on containing the virus remain murky. So, where is all of this money going to come from? You may have heard of big coronavirus pledges coming in from the World Bank, the WHO, the IMF, and the private sector, but will it really land in the pockets of those who need it most? And with what strings attached? This weekend, navigate the coronavirus aid funding labyrinth with TNH Senior Editor Ben Parker. 

And finally…

COVID-19 data – from six continents?

British medical journal The Lancet is under fire for publishing – and now retracting – a study on the drug hydroxychloroquine, after a review failed to verify the data behind the original report. The study claimed to show that the drug was ineffective. US-based firm Surgisphere, whose CEO Sapan Desai, was a co-author, refused to hand over data to reviewers, citing confidentiality and commercial agreements. Surgisphere claimed to have gathered records of 96,000 COVID-19 patients from 671 hospitals on “six continents”. Scientists questioned the plausibility of the data in detail. Lancet editor Richard Horton told The Guardian it was “a shocking example of research malpractice”, while another journal retracted a second paper based on Surgisphere data.

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