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Ukraine diplomacy, wasted COVID vaccines, and Darfur’s rising toll: The Cheat Sheet

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

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

Darfur attacks claim at least 200 lives

The death toll from attacks by Arab militias in Sudan’s Darfur region has risen to more than 200. Clashes commenced on 22 April after two Arabs were found dead near the town of Kreinik, which is in West Darfur state and is mostly populated by the non-Arab Masalit group. Militias – allegedly backed by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces – raided Kreinik in retaliation, destroying houses, schools, and clinics. The fighting then spilled into West Darfur’s capital, El Geneina, forcing the closure of the city’s hospital. Similar outbreaks of violence have rocked the area since late 2019, while fighting has hit other Darfur states too. The causes of conflict vary from place to place, but Sudan’s troubled political transition looms large. The decision to end the mandate of a UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in December 2020 has aggravated the situation. More people have been uprooted in Darfur in the last year than at any stage in the past six. See our series of 2021 reports from the ground for more.

UN chief in Moscow and Kyiv

UN Secretary-General António Guterres toured Kyiv and surrounding villages this week after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on 25 April. The goals of the trip included establishing safe evacuation routes for civilians trapped near the front lines, and supporting the investigation and prosecution of war crimes. “There is no way a war can be acceptable in the 21st century,” Guterres said. However, during his meeting with the UN chief, Putin defended the invasion and denied the Russian military had carried out war crimes, despite mounting evidence. Two rockets slammed into Kyiv on 28 April while Guterres, who acknowledged that the UN had not done enough to prevent or bring an end to the war, was in the city. One of the strikes killed a journalist in a residential building. Guterres also said Putin had agreed “in principle” to allow civilians to be evacuated from a steel plant where Ukrainian forces are making a last stand in the southeastern city of Mariupol. Meanwhile, amid growing expectation of a protracted war, the UN revised upwards the number of Ukrainian refugees it is projecting this year to 8.3 million. It initially estimated that four million people would flee the country, but the number has already reached more than 5.3 million.

More than one disaster a day by 2030, report warns

In the last two decades, there were 350-500 medium- to large-scale disaster events per year, on average. This number is already three times what it was between 1970 and 2000, but the Global Assessment Report (GAR2022) released earlier this week predicts that by 2030 the planet will experience 560 disasters yearly – in other words, more than 1.5 disasters a day. Published by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, or UNDRR, the report also warns of a more than 30 percent increase in droughts and a tripling in the number of extreme temperature events. But these hazards and their effects won’t be distributed equally. Disasters will cost low- and lower middle-income countries as much as 10 times what they will cost high- and upper middle-income countries. Regionally, Asia and the Pacific will bear the greatest economic loss, followed by Africa. Risk reduction is currently being outpaced by risk creation, and GAR2022 points to a misguided risk perception driven by optimism, underestimation, and invincibility. As UNDDR chief Mami Mizutori wrote, “With this broken risk perception, humanity itself is on a spiral of self-destruction.”

Niger’s anti-militant game plan: Fight and talk

Lawmakers in Niger have approved a bill that clears the way for more foreign troops to be deployed in the country, which is fighting several jihadist insurgencies. The move comes as French and European forces withdraw from neighbouring Mali, having fallen out with the ruling junta there. Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum had already announced plans in February to absorb some of the departing soldiers. But passing the bill through parliament legitimises the decision, amid rising anti-French sentiment in the country and the wider region. Alongside the military approach, Bazoum has also been trying to initiate discussions with jihadist leaders, even releasing militants from custody. Burkina Faso’s junta leader, Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, appears to be adopting a similar strategy – calling for local dialogue and off-ramps for insurgents while maintaining military pressure at the same time. Check out our interview with the country’s reconciliation minister for more on that.

DRC peace dialogue in Kenya

Sticking to the subject of dialogue: The first round of talks between armed groups and the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo concluded this week after negotiations in Nairobi. The Islamist Allied Democratic Forces wasn’t invited, however, while the Ituri-based CODECO was approached but didn’t attend. M23 representatives were meanwhile ordered out after their forces resumed clashes with the DRC military. The list of participants was initially unclear and analysts seemed confused by the meeting’s strategy as rebels arrived in dribs and drabs. The talks followed an East African Community summit in which heads of states agreed to set up a regional military force to fight rebels unwilling to lay down their arms – or return home, in the case of foreign groups. A UN peacekeeping mission operates in DRC but is making drawdown plans. The Ugandan army is also intervening in the country, while martial law has been declared in two volatile eastern provinces since May 2021. Still, rebel attacks and abuses by soldiers continue, and nearly three million people were displaced last year alone

Where COVID-19 vaccines go to waste

Vaccine inequity is alive and kicking, but rich countries queue-jumping and dose-hoarding are no longer the only culprits. Two thirds of the world’s population have received a COVID-19 vaccine dose, but this plummets to only 15 percent in the world’s low-income countries, according to Our World in Data, published by University of Oxford researchers. Recent media coverage has seized on vaccine wastage in low-income countries as evidence against vaccine inequality. But a new commentary published in the journal BMJ Global Health examines how vaccine wastage persists in both high- and low-income countries. Up to 30 percent of vaccines may be going unused, according to reports cited by the authors, with high rates in countries like Australia, the UK, and the Netherlands. Poorer countries recorded vaccine wastage as well, but this was often because wealthy countries donated doses that were about to expire (the WHO has said that the majority of donated doses are only weeks away from expiry). Vaccine hesitancy and misinformation, poor rollouts, and inadequate health systems all play a role, but it’s far from the only reason why inequality persists. “‘Late-date donations’ create the false impression that [high-income countries] are ‘doing their bit’ while [low- and middle-income countries] are incapable of effectively distributing vaccines,” wrote the authors, who include researchers and health experts from institutions in Australia, Spain, and the United States.

In case you missed it

CUBA: The number of Cubans apprehended at the US border with Mexico soared to nearly 80,000 between October 2021 and April 2022, approaching an all-time record set during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when 125,000 people left the island. In November, Nicaragua waived visa requirements for Cubans, opening up a shorter land route into the United States compared to the dangerous Darién Gap bridging Colombia and Panama. Against this backdrop, US and Cuban authorities have resumed talks over migration for the first time in four years.

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Two Ebola cases have been confirmed in the northwestern city of Mbandaka, which has a population of roughly 1.2 million people. More than 250 contacts of the cases – which both resulted in death – had been identified as of 27 April. The outbreak is the third in Équateur province in the past four years, and the sixth in DRC since 2018.

HAITI: A spike in gang violence has left at least 20 people dead and displaced hundreds. The Caribbean country has been grappling with rampant gang violence for years, but it has expanded in recent months. The latest wave of fighting has been in the north of the capital, Port-au-Prince, in the Butte Boyer, Croix-des-Missions, Marécage, and Mapou neighbourhoods. Warring gangs already occupy the road leading to Haiti’s south, hampering aid deliveries to areas hit by the deadly earthquake in August

THE HORN OF AFRICA: Donors have pledged $1.39 billion to help fight a multi-season drought that has left more than 15 million people severely food insecure in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. The pledges were made at a high-level round table in Geneva and come amid rising alarm over the slow response to the drought, which is considered to be the worst in the region in 40 years.

LEBANON: France and Saudi Arabia announced a new joint development fund for Lebanon, pledging to give an initial $30 million to help support food security and healthcare. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador returned to the crisis-hit country earlier this month after a months-long diplomatic row over comments made by a Lebanese minister about the kingdom’s role in the war in Yemen. 

MIGRANT DEATHS: It has been a deadly week for asylum seekers and migrants trying to reach Europe by boat. Six people are dead and at least 30 are missing in a shipwreck involving Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees off the coast of Lebanon on 24 April. More than 20 people died in five separate shipwrecks off the coast of Libya and Tunisia last weekend, and 25 are feared dead after a boat capsized on the Atlantic maritime route between West Africa and the Spanish Canary Islands. Overall, more than 600 people have died trying to reach Europe by sea already this year – the vast majority in the central Mediterranean

MYANMAR: A court in junta-controlled Myanmar sentenced former civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi to another five years in prison on what rights groups said were “bogus” corruption charges. Conflict, displacement, and humanitarian needs have soared since the February 2021 military coup ousted Suu Kyi and sparked an armed resistance movement.

PAKISTAN: A 15-month-old boy was paralysed in Pakistan’s first wild polio case in more than a year, health authorities reported. Health experts consider wild polio to be endemic in only two countries – Pakistan and Afghanistan. But Malawi recently recorded its first wild polio case in three decades. And vaccine-derived polio, which can spread in under-immunised populations, continues to emerge (including in Ukraine). 

SYRIA: Seven people were killed while breaking their Ramadan fast in eastern Syria’s Deir Ezzor province on 28 April. Among those killed in the attack, which has been attributed to suspected members of the so-called Islamic State, was a former spokesperson of US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria.

UNITED STATES: The US government has launched a new programme that allows individuals and organisations to sponsor Ukrainian refugees to come to the country. It bypasses long wait times and bureaucratic hurdles faced by other asylum seekers and refugees trying to reach the US through legal pathways. Refugee advocates welcomed the programme, but they also pointed out the preferential treatment Ukrainians are receiving and called for more assistance for other nationalities seeking protection.

YEMEN: The first commercial flight out of Sana’a in six years was cancelled at the last minute on 24 April. The flight to Amman was supposed to be the first in a series from the Yemeni capital to Jordan and Egypt allowed under the terms of a ceasefire deal. The warring sides blamed each other for its indefinite postponement. 

Weekend read

Tigray’s health system ‘totally collapsed’, say health workers

Facing shortages of every kind after nearly 18 months of conflict between the federal government and rebels, health facilities in Tigray are using expired drugs, re-using equipment, and turning away patients from a system that officials acknowledge has “totally collapsed”. Tens of thousands of patients with diabetes, cancer, and HIV haven’t been treated in months, and many pregnant women are having to walk – or be carried on stretchers – for days to deliver their babies. More than half of the doctors aren’t working, either because they’ve left their posts in search of food or because they’ve been displaced by fighting. A ceasefire on 24 March raised hopes that aid would start to reach Tigray, where access was previously restricted, but officials say the few convoys arriving every couple of weeks are far from enough to meet the needs of the region’s six million people. Read the full article to find out what health workers in Tigray had to say about the tens of thousands of patients lost to a system crippled by war. 

And finally…

Retiring Ida

Hurricane Ida will be the last of its name. The Ida moniker has been unceremoniously retired from a rotating list of names used for tropical cyclones in the Atlantic, the “hurricane committee” of the UN’s World Meteorological Organization announced on 27 April. The most damaging hurricane to strike the US last year, Ida killed dozens and caused billions of dollars in destruction. Names can be retired when the storms are particularly deadly; Ida joins a list of 94 Atlantic hurricane retirees. Storm names make for frequent headline fodder, much to the ambivalence of the hurricane committee, which often takes care to note that it does more than christen cyclones. One worry, the committee says, is that the public focuses on storms’ names instead of their dangers and impacts. And climate change is ratcheting up these risks, contributing to more volatile and more damaging disasters.

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