Rising cases of coronavirus in Africa threaten to overrun fragile healthcare systems and test the continent’s much-touted resilience to the disease, according to the World Health Organization’s regional office for the continent.
The global health body stated that infections were on the rise in at least 12 countries in Africa including Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya and Guinea.
Across the continent, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers are stretched to the limit as the total cumulative number of infections this week rose above 4.1m, with more than 110,000 fatalities, a sharp rise on the 2.7m infections recorded at the end of December. South Africa leads with more than 1.5m reported cases and more than 52,000 deaths.
The WHO said only 7 million people had now been vaccinated in a continent of more than a billion people.
The second wave of Covid-19, which began towards the end of 2020, hit African countries more aggressively, with a 30% rise in infections compared with the first wave. However, fewer public health measures were implemented than in the first wave, according to a study this week in the Lancet medical journal.
By the end of 2020, the continent had recorded 3-4% of the global total of Covid-19 cases – and more than 65,000 deaths. But some scientists now worry that a significant underestimate of the true picture could distort the detection of new variants.
In Kenya, positivity rates are up to at least 20% and the country has some 123,000 reported cases with 14,000 cases reported this month alone. More than 2,000 Kenyans have died from the disease since March 2020.
The government and medical personnel have now sounded alarm bells, warning Kenyans of a tough time ahead. “We are in the third wave of this virus, and it’s a wave that threatens to erase all the gains we have made as a country in fighting the pandemic over the last one year,” Kenya’s health ministry tweeted, amid reports that all the country’s intensive-care unit beds had been filled by Covid-19 patients and doctors had fallen ill with the virus themselves.
Alfred Mutua, governor of Machakos county, said all ICU and high-dependency unit beds as well as all oxygen points in his area were at full capacity with Covid-19 patients. “People are waiting for others to die to get a bed,” he tweeted.
The WHO said there were inadequate facilities for testing and isolation and that healthcare workers were now bearing the brunt of the pandemic through “work overload, poor infection prevention and control measures”. Healthcare worker infections account for 3.5% of the total number of Covid-19 cases in Africa.
“Covid-19 has heavily jolted the health workforce in the African region. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 267 health worker infections have been recorded on average every day, translating to 11 new health worker infections per hour,” the WHO.
The Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union urged citizens to be cautious when visiting medical facilities. “The acute shortage of doctors across the country is detrimental to health services delivery amidst the pandemic. This month has recorded an increase in healthcare workers’ infection, there are currently 10 doctors admitted in various facilities across the country and this indicates the need for extra precaution by members of the public,” it said in a statement.
The situation was exacerbated by some healthcare workers’ reluctance to be vaccinated in what the KMPDU said was a lack of “sensitisation and awareness” among staff.
In neighbouring Tanzania, where the WHO last month called the situation “very concerning”, the government has yet to report on Covid-19 situation, with analysts hoping the new president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, will now step up action. The former president, John Magufuli, died this month and had repeatedly trivialised the threat from the disease, instead promoting prayer and herbs as a cure. There was much speculation that Magufuli had contracted the disease when he disappeared from public view.
Tanzania has lost several prominent people to Covid, including Seif Sharif Hamad, first vice-president of Zanzibar, in February. He had earlier disclosed that he had tested positive for Covid-19.
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From Afghanistan to Ethiopia, about 235 million people worldwide needed assistance in 2021. But while some crises received global attention, others are lesser known.
Humanitarian organisation Care International has published its annual report of the 10 countries that had the least attention in online articles in five languages around the world in 2021, despite each having at least 1 million people affected by conflict or climate disasters.
The findings, from a collaboration between the charity and international media monitoring service Meltwater, highlighted how the accelerating climate crisis is fuelling many of the world’s emergencies, said Laurie Lee, CEO of Care International UK.
“There is deep injustice at the heart of it. The world’s poorest are bearing the brunt of climate change – poverty, migration, hunger, gender inequality and ever more scarce resources – despite having done the least to cause it,” he said. “Add Covid-19 into the mix and we see decades of progress towards tackling inequality, poverty, conflict and hunger disappearing before our eyes.”
The number of people in need of humanitarian aid is expected to rise to 274 million this year, or one in 28 people, and more than 84 million people have been uprooted. Lee highlighted the impact of the UK’s 2021 foreign aid budget cuts, saying that it “resulted in over £166m less in humanitarian aid reaching the 10 countries mentioned in this report compared to 2019.”
First on the list, Zambia has 1.2 million malnourished people and about 60% of the 18.4 million population living below the international poverty line of $1.90 (£1.40) a day. Women produce 60% of the country’s food supply, but families headed by women faced higher poverty rates than those headed by men.
Food insecurity in Zambia has primarily been blamed on prolonged drought, but rising corn prices and flooding have contributed.
Currently in the news amid renewed tension between Russia and the west, in Ukraine, 3.4 million people were in need of assistance in 2021, after years of conflict.
“While a comprehensive political solution for the conflict is still not in sight, people in eastern Ukraine are daily forced to put their lives on the line. Along the 420-km ‘contact line’ that separates Ukrainian government-controlled territory from that of the separatists, the situation is particularly dangerous,” the report said.
Malawi is facing a food insecurity crisis, with 17% of the population severely malnourished. Droughts, floods and landslides have been predicted to worsen over the coming years. Cyclone Idai in 2019 severely affected harvests and left tens of thousands displaced.
“The climate crisis is hitting people here earlier and much harder than the people of the global north,” said Chikondi Chabvuta, advocacy lead for Care International in Malawi. “We are already seeing real-life consequences with delayed rainfall, heavy and destructive rainfall, unpredictable rainfall patterns, infertile soil, destroyed harvests.”
Central African Republic
In Central African Republic (CAR), where civil war has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, half of the population face food insecurity. A ceasefire agreement struck in October 2021 is fragile and more than 700,000 people have been internally displaced – more than half children. CAR is ranked second to last globally on the Human Development Index. “On average, a child attends school for just under four years, and girls for only three,” the report said. About 30% of children are in work.
Poverty, violence and the climate crisis are leading problems in Guatemala, which is on the migratory route to Mexico and the US. Two-thirds of the population live on less than $2 a day and 38% of the population face food insecurity.
Camps sheltering those sent back by Mexico are overcrowded, meaning many live on the streets, the report said. Guatemala is considered one of the world’s most dangerous countries, with 3,500 murders in 2020 alone. “Although about 3.3 million people in the country rely on humanitarian aid, the frequent occurrence of violence is in many cases a barrier to accessing urgently needed assistance,” said the report.
Nearly 5 million people live under the control of armed groups, and 6.7 million people are dependent on humanitarian aid.
Food insecurity has been blamed on an economic recession caused by the pandemic. It has particularly affected indigenous communities, those uprooted internally and 1.8 million Venezuelan refugees, mainly in northern Colombia.
Ranked as the country gaining the least attention in 2020, Burundi was seventh in 2021 when 2.3 million of the 12.6 million population were in need of humanitarian assistance.
The country secured only 27% of the $195m pledged in aid. Extreme weather, hunger and political unrest were among the challenges faced by Burundians. In a country where 90% of people rely on small-scale agriculture, only a third of land is suitable for cultivation, due to drought, floods and landslides. The report also highlighted structural discrimination against women – 20% of those in Burundi’s decision-making bodies are female, while 60% of the agricultural workforce are women.
Niger is deeply vulnerable to climate disasters. Persistent droughts and recurring floods have had catastrophic consequences: nearly 3 million people rely on humanitarian aid. About 1.8 million children need food assistance and almost half of all children under five are malnourished.
Militias in eastern and northern Niger have caused 313,000 people to be displaced as of last September. “Providing emergency relief is often hindered by the fact that infrastructure is destroyed, operation areas are marked by violence and rural areas are difficult to access,” the report said.
Zimbabwe has acute food insecurity with increasingly extreme climate conditions and economic mismanagement causing 6.6 million people to need humanitarian aid. More than a third of the population (5.7 million) lack sufficient food.
“The harvests in many rural areas are not sufficient to secure basic food supplies and other needs. In these regions, households must rely on local markets when supplies are depleted – but the prices there are unaffordable for many,” the report said.
Poverty and violence have exacerbated the humanitarian situation in Honduras, prompting many to leave for the US. About 70% of the population live in poverty, according to a 2020 study.
There have been problems with farming due to drought, hurricanes and floods. The country has 937,000 displaced people, the highest number in Latin America.
“In Honduras, people therefore often talk about poverty being female, as it is mostly women who stay behind with the children,” the report said.
Polish minister warns of risk of war in Europe
“It seems that the risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater than ever before in the last 30 years,” Poland’s foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, who currently chairs the Vienna-based intergovernmental body, said Thursday during the latest round of talks on Russia. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said the same day Russia saw no reason for further talks with Nato, as its demands were being ignored.
Covid created 20 new ‘pandemic billionaires’ in Asia, says Oxfam | Global development
Twenty new “pandemic billionaires” have been created in Asia thanks to the international response to Covid-19, while 140 million people across the continent were plunged into poverty as jobs were lost during the pandemic, according to Oxfam.
A report by the aid organisation says that by March 2021, profits from the pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and services needed for the Covid response had made 20 people new billionaires as lockdowns and economic stagnation destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of others.
From China, Hong Kong, India and Japan, the new billionaires include Li Jianquan, whose firm, Winner Medical, makes personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers, and Dai Lizhong, whose company, Sansure Biotech, makes Covid-19 tests and diagnostic kits.
The total number of billionaires in the Asia-Pacific region grew by almost a third from 803 in March 2020 to 1,087 by November last year, and their collective wealth increased by three-quarters (74%), the report said.
The report said the richest 1% owned more wealth than the poorest 90% in the region.
Mustafa Talpur, campaigns lead at Oxfam Asia, said: “It is outrageous and highly unacceptable that poor people in Asia [were left at] the mercy of the pandemic facing severe health risks, joblessness, hunger and pushed into poverty – erasing the gains made in decades in the fight against poverty.
“While rich and privileged men increase their fortunes and protect their health, Asia’s poorest people, women, low-skilled workers, migrants and other marginalised groups are being hit hardest,” he added.
In 2020, an estimated 81m jobs disappeared and loss of working hours pushed a further 22–25 million people into working poverty, according to the International Labour Organization. Meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific region’s billionaires saw their wealth increase by $1.46tn (£1.06tn), enough to provide a salary of almost $10,000 (£7,300) to all those who lost a job.
Covid has claimed more than a million lives in just Asia, and countless more deaths will result from increased poverty and disruptions to health services. The report said women and girls were more likely to have lost jobs or income. Women are also more likely to work in frontline roles, putting them at further risk; in the Asia-Pacific region, women account for more than 70% of healthcare workers and 80% of nurses.
In south Asia, people from lower castes do the bulk of sanitation work, often without protective equipment, and face poverty and discrimination that prevent them from accessing health services. The pandemic has exacerbated this, said Oxfam.
The wealth gap is set to grow. Credit Suisse forecasts that, by 2025, there will be 42,000 more people worth more than $50m in Asia-Pacific and 99,000 billionaires. The number of millionaires by 2025 is projected to be 15.3 million, a 58% increase on 2020. Both the World Bank and IMF have said that coronavirus will cause a significant increase in global economic inequality.
Talpur said: “The political system is protecting the interests of the tiny rich elite. Governments have consistently failed to work for the majority during the pandemic. It was the juncture of global solidarity, but rich countries and big pharmaceutical companies turned away their faces.”
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