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Afghan troubles, Sudan horse-trading, and polio’s last stand: The Cheat Sheet

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

A collage of aid-related images and words
(Louise O'Brien/TNH)

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

On our radar

Afghan peace talks clouded by floods and clashes

Afghanistan’s government claims to be on the verge of face-to-face Taliban peace talks, but conflict continues to disrupt civilian lives. Since mid-August, Taliban clashes have displaced more than 64,000 people in the northern province of Kunduz. The coronavirus complicates any potential aid response. Many displaced families have set up makeshift shelters in open spaces, in conditions the UN says are “dire”. But organised camps would magnify the risk of transmission, aid groups warn. The continuing violence comes as Abdullah Abdullah, the government official overseeing peace negotiations (and perennial claimant to the Afghan presidency), announced that Taliban talks could begin next week. These direct talks have been delayed for months as the two sides jostle over prisoner releases. War isn’t the only threat: At least 150 people have died in recent flash floods, according to Tolo News – the majority in Parwan province surrounding the capital, Kabul. 

A (partial) polio victory

Wild polio has been defeated in Africa, after decades of vaccination campaigns and billions of dollars of spending. It’s a major achievement, saving lives and wiping out a disease that caused an estimated 75,000 cases of paralysis a year in 1996. But there’s a catch: Mutant strains of the disease have, on rare occasions, developed from the polio drops administered to children. Given unsanitary conditions and patchy vaccination coverage, the weakened organism in the drops can become dangerous. Over the course of about a year, it can mutate and infect, paralyse or kill, just like the wild virus. These “vaccine-derived” polio outbreaks have led to a few hundred cases in about 20 countries this year. A new version of the polio vaccine designed to mop up these outbreaks, Novel Oral Polio Vaccine type 2 (nOPV2), could be available for emergency use before the end of the year. One possible country for early large-scale use of nOPV2 is Sudan, a WHO official told The New Humanitarian. Yemen and Sudan both reported new outbreaks of vaccine-derived polio this month. Yemen and Sudan both reported new outbreaks of vaccine-derived polio this month. Only Afghanistan and Pakistan still have wild polio.

Delisting Sudan

Sudan’s biggest foreign policy goal is to get off the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, unlocking much-needed aid and investment. But Washington has set a few hoops. One is the normalisation of relations with Israel; another is the payment of $330 million in compensation to the US victims of embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania by al-Qaeda in 1998; and the third seems to be closer alignment with Egypt in the dam dispute with Ethiopia. Since secret talks in February in Uganda, Israel has been confident Sudan is ready to resume official ties – broken off in 1967. But in Khartoum this week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was told by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok that his transitional government doesn’t have the mandate to take such a controversial step. And there is also anger that the whole country is being punished for the links former dictator Omar al-Bashir had with Osama bin Laden. Delisting is not straightforward. Even if the Gulf states helped foot the victims’ compensation bill, Congress will need to sign off, and that will likely entail some horse-trading.

Anti-Semitism row at Islamic Relief

The whole board of trustees of UK-based NGO Islamic Relief Worldwide has been replaced in a crisis over anti-Semitic and pro-extremist online postings by its trustees. One director was recently removed after postings were found that were anti-Semitic or expressed support for the armed wing of Palestinian group Hamas. His replacement also had to stand down for similar reasons, after further reporting by The Times. Both directors posted the materials in 2014 and 2015. Islamic Relief, which reported income of about $170 million in 2018, said the directors’ postings were “completely unacceptable” and that it is a “purely humanitarian organisation” without political affiliations, and it condemns terrorism and anti-Semitism. The legal regulator, the Charity Commission, is looking into the issue. The new board, led by the former chair of Islamic Relief’s US affiliate, Ihab Saad, says it is commissioning external advice on how to vet future board members and set social media policies. 

Back to school

For a snapshot of how COVID-19 has left governments around the world scrambling for the right approach, look no further than education. With the coronavirus still raging in Latin America, India, and parts of the United States, and threatening a comeback in countries as far apart as France, South Africa, and South Korea, many health authorities are continuing to urge caution about face-to-face classes. The global education picture is mixed: in China, most pupils are back, in India and several other Asian nations, they’re not; in Mexico and Peru, children are doing lessons on TV, in Brazil, some local authorities have been urging a return to school; in Europe, most children are being sent back, in the United States, many urban districts are starting the year remotely despite federal government pressure. A study by UNICEF, meanwhile, exposed the limitations of remote learning, finding that 463 million children around the world had no access to such a luxury. Separate research by Human Rights Watch looked at a range of vulnerabilities in African countries, from digital literacy to mental health to girls being disproportionately affected. Further evidence, if needed, of how COVID-19 is deepening existing inequalities.

COVID-19 news

AFRICA: The coronavirus outbreak may have passed its peak in Africa, with overall numbers trending down, according to the World Health Organization. South Africa, which has the continent's highest COVID-19 burden, has also seen a significant fall in infection rates this month. But there are concerns that limited testing may be misrepresenting the real caseload, and the relaxation of generally aggressive lockdown measures may trigger a COVID-19 resurgence. Meanwhile, scientists are still struggling to explain Africa’s low death rate. 

GAZA: After months of restrictions aimed at keeping COVID-19 at bay, Gaza’s two million residents were placed under lockdown this week after the first cases of community transmission were recorded, raising fears of further spread in the densely populated Palestinian territory.

GREECE: On the Greek island of Lesvos, anti-migrant protesters demonstrated against the opening of a government-run coronavirus clinic for asylum seekers and refugees, and attacked a paediatric and sexual reproductive health centre outside the Moria refugee camp run by Médecins Sans Frontières. “In what world do we live in where children and pregnant women being treated by doctors are subject to people throwing stones at them?” MSF field coordinator Marco Sandrone said in a press release following the attack. 

ROHINGYA CAMPS: Four months of “drastic” service reductions meant to contain COVID-19 have “gravely impacted” refugees in Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps, according to a new report from humanitarian analysis group ACAPS. In interviews, refugees reported sleeping in waterlogged shelters, difficulty getting food aid and water, damaged toilets, and rising insecurity. Government restrictions scaled back humanitarian services and limited aid access. Four months later, ACAPS said, many Rohingya believe the knock-on effects are “a greater threat to their overall well-being than COVID-19 itself”.

In case you missed it

EAST AFRICA: The World Food Programme had earlier this year cut food rations and cash transfers by up to 30 percent to over 2.7 million refugees in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Djibouti. Now it’s warning of deeper cuts if donors don’t provide the $323 million needed to assist refugees in the region over the next six months.

HURRICANE LAURA: The predicted “unsurvivable storm surge” turned out not to be as catastrophic as feared for Louisiana, but the hurricane – one of the strongest ever to hit the US Gulf Coast – did claim six US lives, four from falling trees. Less reported, it had already claimed dozens of lives in Haiti and the Dominican Republic as it barrelled across the Caribbean.

INTERNET: People in Indian-administered Kashmir have been on lockdown for more than a year, and so has the internet. A new report from the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society describes year-long restrictions as a “digital siege”. Indian authorities cut communications after putting Kashmir on lockdown last August. Slower 2G mobile Internet was restored this year, but the low speeds thwart everything from coronavirus preparedness to education. There’s a ray of light elsewhere: Bangladesh says it may lift a mobile internet blackout in the Rohingya refugee camps.

MALI: First they denied it, now they’ve admitted it: Mali’s coup leaders want a three-year transition before organising fresh elections – longer than they had initially signalled. Unhappy about the coup in the first place, West African states have imposed sanctions, which could not only hurt the economy, but also the humanitarian response to the conflict-affected country.

NORTH KOREA: Typhoon Bavi struck North Korea’s key rice-growing provinces of north and south Hwanghae this week, adding new pressure to a country already facing “significant humanitarian needs” from chronic malnutrition, the coronavirus, and damage from an early August storm. Aid groups report flooded roads, evacuations, and infrastructure damage, though state media said the impacts have been “smaller than expected”.

Weekend read

Homeless at home: Inside Mexico’s neglected displacement crisis

‘People are completely afraid for their lives.’

You’ll no doubt know about the uptick in asylum seekers left waiting at the southern US border since the Trump administration severely restricted immigration at the start of the pandemic. You may not know about the far greater number of Mexicans whose lives remain upended away from the border – an “invisible majority” of villagers made homeless by violence. The epicentre of this conflict is the southwestern state of Guerrero, where thousands of people have been forced from their homes as dozens of armed groups fight for control of “a portfolio of criminal ventures”, including growing marijuana and opium poppy, the trade of avocados and limes, and illegal logging. Other resource-rich states have suffered from similar violence and mass displacement. Internally displaced people – known as IDPs – outnumber registered refugees in Mexico by a factor of almost seven to one, but are at a disadvantage when it comes to qualifying for government and international aid. As Alexandra Bilak of the IDMC puts it, “IDPs are forced to flee for the same reasons as refugees, but because they don’t cross borders, they receive less attention, and less support.” Read the full story here.

And finally…

Mosquitoes stop mosquitoes

More than two years after researchers injected mosquitoes with naturally occurring Wolbachia bacteria and released them into areas of Yogyakarta city in Indonesia, cases of dengue have dropped dramatically. The trial, led by The World Mosquito Program and Indonesian partners, the Tahija Foundation and Universitas Gadjah Mada, is the first to have actually reduced incidences of dengue and, in targeted areas, cases dropped by an impressive 77 percent. However, if using mosquitoes to help halt mosquito-borne dengue sounds a bit unusual that’s because it is. Until now, the mainstay of prevention efforts has been showering mosquitoes with chemicals and destroying breeding grounds. Last year, the WHO said dengue, which spread rapidly during 2019, was a top 10 global health threat due to the absence of effective interventions. But hopes are high that the Wolbachia method may be a game-changer. As good news is thin on the ground in global health right now, here’s a bit more – this intervention comes with no additional safety concerns and trials are already underway in other dengue-endemic countries.

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