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Vaccine nationalism, Congolese collapse, and MSF independence: The Cheat Sheet

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

(Louise O'Brien/TNH)

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

On our radar

Vaccines for the rich

Mass COVID-19 vaccinations have begun in Britain and could start in the United States as early as next week, but people in poorer parts of the world will have to wait a good deal longer before receiving their jabs. While rich countries have bought up enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over, nine out of 10 people in the Global South won’t get the chance to be vaccinated even by the end of next year – which could create international barriers to travel and trade. According to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, all Moderna’s doses and 96 percent of Pfizer/BioNTech’s have been acquired by rich countries. Oxford/AstraZeneca – whose vaccine is less efficacious but doesn’t require super-cold storage temperatures – will set aside 64 percent of their doses for people in developing nations, but that still means a shortfall for years to come. Poorer countries are reliant on COVAX, an initiative that aims to provide worldwide access, but the effort is badly underfunded. Vaccine campaigners are urging pharmaceutical companies to waive intellectual property rights to allow generic production through the World Health Organization – echoing the fight for global access to affordable HIV antiretrovirals.

A tale of two presidents in Congo

After months of bitter feuding, the fragile ruling coalition that governs the Democratic Republic of Congo is on the brink of collapse. On 8 December, supporters of President Félix Tshisekedi clashed in parliament with members of their coalition partner, which is led by former leader Joseph Kabila. Plastic buckets were flung down a staircase as besuited lawmakers brawled in front of police. Tshisekedi took power in January last year following long-delayed elections that were reportedly rigged in a secret deal between him and Kabila, who held power from 2001 to 2019. But Tshisekedi has since been shackled by pro-Kabila groups, which hold the majority of seats in parliament. The latest dispute follows the president’s decision to appoint three new judges to the country’s constitutional court – a body that had long favoured Kabila. Tshisekedi is now seeking a new parliamentary majority, and has vowed to hold fresh elections if he fails. The standoff could trigger instability across Congo, where more than five million people are currently displaced by violence.

MSF is no ‘Lone Ranger’

While Médecins Sans Frontières prides itself on independence, getting things done usually requires the agency to work with government health workers. In some fragile states, like South Sudan, MSF runs its own clinics and services more or less independently. Elsewhere, it’s a partner of the national Ministry of Health, acting in a more supportive role. While over 80 percent of MSF projects interact with governments one way or another, a new study found “a persistent myth – that of MSF as the Lone Ranger, the heroic actor and leader”. The review, written by MSF staff and outside consultants, opens with a recommendation that working more closely with ministries of health could have longer-lasting impacts on a larger number of people and would be more “ethical” and, maybe, less “colonial”. However, there are issues of principle at stake too: Some argue that strengthening the systems of “strong states” while being silenced or limited in access could be seen as part of a political project, “in contradiction to humanitarian action”.

Troubles grow in Tigray

The situation in Tigray is “spiralling out of control”, the UN’s human rights chief warned this week. Despite government claims of victory, fighting has continued between government forces and those of the fugitive Tigray regional government, the TPLF, as well as units of the Eritrean army siding with Addis Ababa. The insecurity has denied humanitarian access to hundreds of thousands in desperate need. Even in the regional capital, Mekelle, captured by the government at the end of November, there are shortages of food, fuel, money, and basic medication. Fighting has also been reported around camps sheltering Eritrean refugees, where food rations ran out at the beginning of the month. In one of those camps, Histats, an International Rescue Committee staff member was killed last month in unclear circumstances. The Danish Refugee Council has also reported the killing of three of their security guards but again there are few details. On 6 December government security forces shot at and briefly detained UN staff on an assessment mission near the Shimelba refugee camp – despite assurances of access by the government. A new agreement was announced this week between the Addis Ababa and the UN, but it does not amount to the “unfettered” access the aid community has been seeking.

Deadly protests in Iraq’s Kurdish north

At least eight people are dead after a week of protests over unpaid civil salaries in northern Iraq, where around 1.3 million people are employed by the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. The unrest, which began on Sunday in the city of Sulaymaniyah, has seen people set fire to government buildings and the offices of political parties, and security forces opening fire into crowds. The KRG has long struggled to regularly pay all of those on its payroll, like teachers and healthcare workers, but its finances are particularly bad right now due to the crash in oil prices and the economic pressures of COVID-19. Iraq’s central government and the KRG are supposed to share oil and gas revenues, but the relationship is contentious, to say the least. On Wednesday, Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani blamed Baghdad for the delayed salary payments, saying the government had not yet sent the KRG its share of the budget.

Disasters drive dire economic forecasts

In the latest sign of how the COVID-19 pandemic and disasters are combining to fuel economic turmoil, a World Bank forecast published this week said a torrent of powerful typhoons and severe flooding will shrink the Philippines’ struggling economy by 8.1 percent this year. The country has been hit by a string of storms – at least five since October – that unleashed wide-scale flooding and sparked a humanitarian appeal topping $50 million. At least 400,000 homes were damaged, and some 50,000 people are still displaced. And while October forecasts had already predicted a 6.9 percent contraction this year, largely due to COVID-19, World Bank economists now say November’s “extensive damage and losses” from typhoons and floods are driving a more pessimistic outlook. Climate change makes extreme weather more volatile, but the hidden damage goes beyond immediate casualties and displacement. Frontline countries are pushing for funding to pay for repeat damages. But with little so-called “loss and damage” money available, politicians and activists in Vanuatu and elsewhere are exploring how to press the issue using international courts.

In case you missed it

GREECE: A new law enshrines a government ban on employees of NGOs and volunteers discussing anything they see or hear while working in Greece’s refugee camps. The move is part of a broader crackdown over the past year on NGOs in Greece, particularly those advocating for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. The Greek government is also facing scrutiny over allegations it is illegally forcing asylum seekers out of the country. 

HONDURAS: Hundreds of Hondurans left the northern city of San Pedro Sula on 9 December en route for the United States. If their numbers grow, it could become a potential first migration test for the incoming administration of president-elect Joe Biden. Many told TNH the lack of assistance following last month’s back-to-back hurricanes was the reason they decided to migrate. Read our story for more.

PACIFIC: New data sheds light on how COVID-19’s economic crunch is hitting families, even in countries relatively spared by the pandemic. Half of households surveyed in Papua New Guinea reported pulling children from school; in Solomon Islands, 57 percent said they were cutting back on food. In all, some 85 percent of respondents to the World Bank phone surveys reported “coping strategies” ranging from selling harvests early, spending savings, or taking on new debt.

ROHINGYA: A “severe mental health crisis” continues for refugees in Bangladesh, Rohingya researchers with Southeast Asia-based Fortify Rights found in a two-year study interviewing hundreds of people. Researchers found signs of high levels of post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety more than three years after a Myanmar military purge labelled a genocide by most Rohingya. Mental health services are very limited in the camps.

SOUTH SUDAN: Famine is likely underway in Pibor county in Jonglei state as a result of flooding and communal violence earlier this year that cut access to aid. Five other counties in Warrap and Northern Bahr el Ghazal states are also on the brink of starvation, according to a new experts’ report, which stopped short of a categorical declaration because of the lack of data.

SUDAN: Groups of displaced people in Darfur protested on Monday against the upcoming withdrawal of the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force in the region, known as UNAMID. The mission has been deployed since 2007 but is set to wind down on 31 December when its mandate ends. Rights groups are calling for a six-month extension following a spate of recent violence in Darfur.

SYRIA: More than two years after the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad retook the the southern province of Deraa from rebels, a new report from Physicians for Human Rights says most of the population has “no access to adequate health services” due to, among other factors, a failure to rebuild facilities damaged and destroyed by conflict, and the blocking of humanitarian aid.

WESTERN SAHARA: The United States this week agreed to recognise Rabat’s claim over the disputed Western Sahara region, as part of a deal that saw Morocco become the latest Arab League country to normalise relations with Israel. The Indigenous Sahrawi people, represented by the pro-independence Polisario Front, condemned the move. The UN is trying to organise a referendum on self-determination for the territory, where a decades-old ceasefire collapsed last month.

YEMEN: The United States announced sanctions this week on Iran’s envoy to the Houthi rebel group, saying he plays a significant role in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which it classifies as terrorist. Iran sanctioned the US ambassador in response. The United States also put sanctions on five Houthi security and intelligence officials it accused of rights abuses. Aid groups have warned that expanded sanctions against the Houthis (under consideration in Washington as part of moves against Iran) would have “catastrophic impacts” on humanitarian operations. 

Weekend read

What’s driving the deadly migrant surge from Senegal to the Canary Islands?

‘You can’t say Africa is the future, but Africans have to stay in their own countries.’

This week, a court in Senegal sentenced three fathers to prison for pushing their sons – who had died in shipwrecks trying to reach the Canary Islands from the city of Mbour – to migrate. For our weekend read, journalist Ricci Shryock travelled to Mbour to find out why so many Senegalese are risking their lives on the most dangerous maritime route to Europe – more than 400 have died since the beginning of October alone. Shryock found that many are fishermen driven by economic losses from dwindling fish stocks blamed on overfishing by European and Chinese vessels. Government restrictions on movement due to COVID-19 also seem to be playing a part. And while prosecuting parents isn’t the answer – and it’s easy to focus on the smugglers selling false promises of “El Dorado” – the deeper issues it exposes are the inequity of African-European migration and the failure of European leaders to offer visas and safe, legal routes to people looking for a brighter future.

And finally…

Tiger mosquitoes head north

Tiny eggs found at a motorway service area in Namur, Belgium are further evidence of the northerly spread of the tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus, according to the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp. Warmer weather combined with international travel and trade have led to more sightings in northern Europe in recent years. The daytime biting insect can carry Zika, dengue, and West Nile virus. In 2007, it caused an outbreak of chikungunya disease, previously unknown in Europe. In Italy, and other warmer southern parts, the species is fully established, according to EU health authorities. Belgium is on the front line of the tiger mosquito’s expansion in northern Europe, where eggs and adults have been spotted but it hasn’t yet been found to breed.

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