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South Asia’s ‘catastrophe’, soaring food prices, and EU migration deaths: The Cheat Sheet

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(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

COVID-19 pressure builds across South Asia

South Asia is veering toward a “catastrophe”, aid groups warn, as coronavirus infections skyrocket beyond India’s borders. India’s record tallies – it topped 412,000 new cases on 6 May – and severe oxygen shortages have sparked an outpouring of international aid and airlifted supplies. But countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka are also facing soaring numbers. In Nepal, the virus has overwhelmed hospitals and pushed authorities to warn that the health system can’t cope. The country was seeing new daily cases in the dozens during March, but it hit 8,600 new infections on 6 May. “Urgent international support is needed as quickly as possible,” aid group Mercy Corps warned. In Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, hospitals are short of beds, oxygen, and basic supplies, the UN says, and parts of eastern Afghanistan have recorded a sharp rise in COVID-19 hospitalisations. India’s neighbours often depend on the country for medical equipment and vaccines, but both are in short supply. “What is happening in India right now is a horrifying preview of Nepal’s future if we cannot contain this,” said Dr Netra Prasad Timsina of the Nepal Red Cross. 

More food, more hunger?

Global food prices are 30 percent higher than last year, according to a UN index. That's despite predictions of record wheat production in 2021 and a good rice harvest in 2020. The world will consume a record 2.7 billion tonnes of grains this year, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. But more people are facing severe hunger, malnutrition, and death – a testament to troubled global food systems as well as conflict, COVID-19, and climatic disasters. Oxfam says there is a “terrifying trajectory” of worsening food shortages. A new Global Report on Food Crises produced by the EU and the UN says 2020 was the worst of the last five years and this year at least 142 million people will suffer at the worst three levels in a five-step food insecurity methodology. Over 100,000 are already at the worst, famine-like level. G7 countries, which include major contributors to international relief, said this week they would direct $1.5 billion to South Sudan, Yemen, and Nigeria, which face the gravest threat, although the statement did not say how much was new funding.

Deaths triple as EU migration trends up and rescues slow

Migration routes to Europe are showing increased activity this year. More than 10,000 asylum seekers and migrants arrived in Italy from North Africa in the first four months of 2021 – three times the number over the same period in 2020 – and the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard has already intercepted nearly 7,000 people, compared to just over 11,000 during the whole of last year. Deaths have also risen. With European countries reluctant to participate in search and rescue activities and slow to coordinate with NGOs, more than 500 people have died in the central Mediterranean compared to fewer than 150 over the same period last year. Meanwhile, around 4,300 people have made the crossing from West Africa to the Spanish Canary Islands since January, continuing a major trend from last year, and around 100 people have died on the route. Anti-migrant politicians have seized on arrival numbers to stoke a sense of crisis and push for even more hardline policies, but the uptick is a long way from the number of asylum seekers and migrants arriving in Europe between 2014 and 2017, and the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are increasing the need for many to migrate. 

The US-Venezuela thaw

President Nicolás Maduro is sending more positive signals towards the Biden administration in the hope that punitive US economic sanctions may be eased. After weeks of secret talks between the Venezuelan government and the opposition, two Maduro opponents were named onto a new five-member elections board. The United States had long accused Maduro of using the board to manipulate election results. Just a few days earlier, the seeming charm offensive towards the United States saw the release into house arrest of six jailed executives from Citgo, an American refinery owned by Venezuela’s state oil company. Shortly before that, Maduro – who had long denied the deepening humanitarian crisis in his country and resisted outside assistance – stood side-by-side with World Food Programme chief David Beasley to announce an agreement to allow emergency food supplies to 1.5 million Venezuelan children by the 2022-2023 school year.

Power cuts and cash cards in Lebanon

It has been nine months since the deadly explosion that rocked Beirut’s port, a disaster that came bang spat in the middle of Lebanon’s economic collapse. Since then, Lebanon’s political leaders have failed to form a government, food prices are soaring, and the parliament has failed to approve an emergency loan to fund electricity. Lebanon, which already has regular power cuts that force many to rely on private generators, reportedly has fuel reserves for about two months. But if the loan is not approved, a lawmaker warned this week, state-provided power could run out quickly. Meanwhile, expensive subsidies for basics like fuel, medicine, and wheat are likely to be withdrawn or changed in the coming months. Even so, a proposal by caretaker Prime Minister Hasan Diab to give vulnerable Lebanese cash cards loaded with in-demand US dollars to ease the blow has been met with scepticism and even threats of legal action.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: Shrinking donor funds are making it harder for Afghan women to access healthcare, according to a Human Rights Watch report, which warns that more cuts loom as international forces withdraw. Development aid fell by 25 percent from 2013 to 2019, HRW said, and four-year pledges at a November donor summit were about $2 billion less than the previous conference.

COLOMBIA: At least 24 people have been killed and hundreds injured in a week of angry street clashes in several cities between police and demonstrators. Prompted by a proposed tax reform (now withdrawn), the protests have fed into public anger on issues ranging from COVID-19 to social safety nets, from growing conflict fears to deep-rooted inequalities.

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: The government declared military rule in two conflict-hit provinces in the east of the country on 3 May to halt a surge in violence that has killed hundreds of people since the beginning of the year. Governors and provincial assemblies in North Kivu and Ituri have been suspended for 30 days.

EBOLA: Kinshasa has declared an end to the latest Ebola outbreak three months after it emerged in the east of Congo: There were six deaths in what was the country’s 12th Ebola outbreak since 1976. For more on the 2018-2020 outbreak in Congo, the second deadliest ever, read The New Humanitarian’s Ebola coverage.

EGYPT: Egypt has announced new restrictions in an attempt to curb its third wave of COVID-19, closing shops early and banning large gatherings for two weeks, including during Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. Egypt’s doctor’s union announced this week that 500 doctors have died of COVID-19.

HEALTHCARE: A new report has found there were at least 4,000 attacks on health workers, medical facilities, and transport vehicles between 2016 and 2020 – including airstrikes and kidnappings. Nearly 700 health workers were killed in 26 countries, with the highest number of deaths in Afghanistan, Congo, and Nigeria. Vaccinators were also targeted in several countries, including Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, and South Sudan. In India and Mexico – two countries not at war – attacks also surged during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

MYANMAR: Fighting continues in southeast Myanmar in the aftermath of the military coup. Some 2,000 more people in Karen State fled airstrikes in early May, the UN said – among more than 50,000 people displaced by conflict nationwide since the 1 February coup. Monsoon season storms have also damaged homes and supplies.

UGANDA: A former commander in Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army has been sentenced to 25 years imprisonment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes. The judgement said Dominic Ongwen’s sentence could have been longer were it not for his youth at the time he was abducted by the LRA, whose founder, Joseph Kony, is still at large. 

UNITED STATES: US President Joe Biden has announced support to suspend intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines, as cases in South Asia and South America soar. While critics worry the move will undermine pharmaceutical innovation, others like Anthony Fauci, the top US medical adviser, insist, “You can’t have people throughout the world dying because they don’t have access to a product that rich people have access to.”

YEMEN: Heavy rains and flooding across parts of Yemen have reportedly killed at least 13 people and impacted thousands of families, most of whom had already been forced to flee the country’s war. Homes, temporary shelters, food, and livestock have all been destroyed.   

Weekend read

Life at disaster’s edge: What it means to start over – again and again

“It feels like the calamity never ends. We live through one crisis after another.” So Mohammad Ahtaram, Rohingya refugee and researcher, sums up life in Bangladesh’s teeming refugee camps. In this rare first person account, he describes how a lack of proper playgrounds and formal schools is forcing kids to play on busy roads and risk being run over; how traffickers prey on children for kidnap; how women are sexually abused due to the insecurity. Life for the 900,000 Rohingya refugees in the camps is particularly fraught because “there are no proper channels for our voices to be heard”, he writes. Their precarious situation is made worse by the twin threats of recurring fires and natural disasters. In March, at least 48,000 people lost their homes to a deadly fire that spread through parts of the camps. Dozens of other smaller fires have occurred this year. Heavy rains and landslides in the monsoon and peak cyclone seasons wash away makeshift tents. Many refugees, he says, have been repeatedly displaced and survived genocide. They may be used to starting over again and again with nothing, but this is an unending crisis and they live in near-constant fear of what might happen next. For Ahtaram, it can be too much to bear: “When I think about all these terrible things, I lose my very breath.”

And finally…

New times in Tanzania?

Tanzania’s new president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, has signalled she intends to do things differently from her predecessor – the famously combative John Magufuli, who died in office in March. But it has been far from a screeching U-turn. Restrictions on the media have been lifted and she has indicated she’ll be more friendly to foreign investors. But it’s on COVID-19 where she may make a definitive mark. The virus-denying Magufuli was opposed to masks, testing, and vaccines (and was rumoured to have succumbed to the virus as a result). Hassan, instead, says she’ll be guided by science. This week, new COVID border controls were announced, and travellers from India will be quarantined – acknowledgment of the international threat the pandemic poses. But how far Hassan is willing to go with domestic anti-COVID measures remains to be seen. Magufuli’s decision to keep the economy open and avoid a lockdown was popular. Hassan has a weak political base and has avoided steps that could risk popular support. For all the new openness, Tanzania has not reported any COVID-19 data since April 2020. Its last record showed 509 infections and 16 fatalities.

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