As we all struggle to adjust to a new way of life that includes loss of freedoms, loss of income, food insecurity, healthcare systems under strain, and daily briefings from leaders using the language of lockdowns and death tolls, unknown during peacetime, there are those for whom this, and much worse, is a never-ending daily reality. An estimated 2 billion people live in areas of conflict and fragility around the world and the ICRC is calling for an immediate response by humanitarian organisations before the virus takes hold in countries ravaged by war. The UN Secretary General has called for a ‘global ceasefire’ across the world to support efforts in combating the threat of Covid-19.
Our news update this week focuses on five countries most devastated by conflict and least able to confront a new enemy that even the wealthiest of states are struggling with.
Following decades of war, Afghanistan is not well-placed to contend with an outbreak of covid-19. Many Afghans who had fled to Iran, during the conflict have returned back to their country, creating a burden on the already fragile health care system. Out of some 200,000 returnees, only 600 had been tested as of March 27 due to inadequate medical staff and equipment. Afghanistan’s Public Health Ministry have estimated that 25 million could become infected, adding that 100,000 could die, and on 28th March, Kabul, a city of 6 million, went into lockdown.
The UN Deputy Special Representative for the country is urging warring parties to come together to “prioritize national interests”, following in-fighting causing delays in the measures agreed back in February, on American troop withdrawals and Taliban anti-terrorism guarantees. Human Rights Watch suggested that “The two sides need to work together with the UN and humanitarian agencies to ensure that aid reaches the whole country, or a dire situation will become catastrophic.”
In a country with a 50 percent poverty rate and a resilience that has become a way of life, ordinary Afghans are helping each other by making masks, delivering food and landlords waiving rents to ease the burden on the most vulnerable.
Last week saw the first two cases of coronavirus in Gaza. Its delay has predominantly been attributed to the pre-existing border restrictions placed on the movement of people in Gaza. The two individuals diagnosed had recently returned from Pakistan and have since moved to isolation. Hamas, the militant organisation governing Gaza, has since closed its street markets and wedding halls, and urged citizens to practice social distancing in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Yet with an overstretched healthcare system following the Israel-Egyptian blockade and decades of cross-border conflicts between Israel and Palestine, an impending outbreak carries a high level of concern in Gaza. In one of the most densely populated areas in the world, the virus could easily rapidly spread. Combined with the overcrowded conditions, the chronic shortage of medicines, regular power cuts, scarce resources, and lack of adequate medical care has the potential to lead to a “nightmare scenario” in the event of an outbreak.
Despite these concerns, repression from Israeli authorities has persisted, with raids on Palestinian communities continuing, pleas to release 5,000 Palestinians (including children) currently held in jail being refused following positive Covid-19 tests, and a persistent siege on the Gaza strip with no end in sight.
War-torn Libya is one of the latest victims of the international coronavirus pandemic with its first case confirmed on 24th March. While to date, only 8 people have tested positive for COVID-19, testing is limited and the failing health care system will struggle to cope if the virus spreads.
With the country split between two rival governments, there will be issues in implementing safety measures to protect citizens from the deadly virus. Since the civil war erupted in 2011, there has been an ongoing shortage of doctors and lack of central authority responsible for the national healthcare system. All borders have now been closed and foreign nationals are prohibited from entering the country. Schools and cafes are closed and prayers are suspended until further notice.
Despite a humanitarian pause being announced, the UN was “alarmed that hostilities have continued around Tripoli”. Despite January’s truce, the fighting has killed over 1,000 and displaced 150,000 since April 2019. To relieve pressure on the already strained prison system, The Government of National Acord, the internationally recognised government, has freed just over 450 detainees from overpopulated correctional facilities.
Detainees and people in shelters are at paramount risk of infection, which Human Rights Watch predicts could lead to a humanitarian disaster for the country if the virus spreads.
On Sunday, Syria reported its first COVID 19 fatality, heightening fears of the devastation the virus could wreak. Ten years of conflict in Syria has led to the displacement of over half the population, 6 million of whom remain internally displaced in camps which are unprepared to respond to the pandemic.
Given the extent to which COVID 19 has overwhelmed western healthcare systems, the potential catastrophic risk it poses to Syria is almost unfathomable. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has warned that access to healthcare is extremely poor in Syria given bombing of civilian areas and destruction of over 50% of hospitals. The London School of Economics released a research paper on Syria’s healthcare capacity last week stating that the maximum number of cases that can be ‘adequately treated’ is 6,500.
The World Health Organisation has mobilised an urgent response, delivering tests and protective gear. However, aid agencies have been unable to deliver supplies given closure of the border with Iraq. Human Rights Watch has reported that Turkish authorities are failing to supply water to north eastern areas of Syria, hindering the ability of agencies to protect against an outbreak of the virus.
Mr Pederson, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, has called for a nationwide ceasefire to allow for a ‘common effort’ against COVID 19. This has sparked hopes that a coordinated fight against the new coronavirus could unite forces and encourage a political settlement to end the conflict. However, the situation remains dire as the already vulnerable population of war-torn Syria faces the new threat of a COVID 19 crisis.
How can Yemen, a country described already as experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, possibly cope with the looming threat of coronavirus? 80 percent of the population is at risk of hunger and disease, 17.8 million are without safe water and sanitation, 19.7 million are without adequate health care and the country has suffered the worst cholera epidemic ever recorded, at 2.3 million infected since 2015.
Last week, Yemen entered a 6th year of war, and with fighting continuing to rage, the UN Secretary General’s call for a ceasefire, to focus on the fight against coronavirus, appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Despite lulls in the fighting during 2019, recent weeks have seen an alarming re-escalation in the conflict between Houthi rebels and the Saudi led coalition, which includes the US and UK. A group of UN regional experts have called for warring parties to release political prisoners on both sides, to mitigate the risks of the spread of Covid-19 due to the overcrowded and squalid conditions in detention centres.
Yemen is the only country in the Middle East yet to record a case of coronavirus, due largely to having been placed under siege since the start of the war, with airports closed to commercial airlines and movement in and out of the country severely restricted. However, the healthcare system in Yemen is already close to total collapse, and with news this week that the US is intending to cut aid funding for the poorest country in the Middle East, officials are warning of disastrous consequences, should an outbreak take hold.
Other stories making the news around the world
- Human Rights Watch calls for extra efforts from governments to protect people with disabilities during COVID-19 (Human Rights Watch)
- UN calls for $2.5 trillion package to help emerging economies fight coronavirus (UN News)
- Jailbreak of Somalia’s former security minister begs important questions about the country’s capacity for justice (Human Rights Watch)
- Niger: civil society calls end to harassment of human rights defenders (Amnesty International)
- Concern rises for 17 missing university students amidst COVID-19 closures and phone and internet shutdown in Ethiopia (Amnesty International)
- South Korea intensifies attention to digital sex crimes (Human Rights Watch)
- Government Internet Blackout risks lives in Rohingya refugee camps (Human Rights Watch)
South and South-east Asia
- Freedom of Expression threatened as Cambodia arrests people expressing COVID-19 concerns (Human Rights Watch)
- Philippines: curfew violators put in cages among other abuses (Human Rights Watch)
- Australia says farewell and celebrates work of inaugural National Children’s Commissioner, Megan Mitchell (Australia Human Rights Commission)
- Moscow to install massive face recognition surveillance system despite protests (Human Rights Watch)
- UK Coronavirus Act has serious implications for older people and people with disabilities (Human Rights Watch)
- New Emergency law gives sweeping powers to Hungary’s PM (Al Jazeera)
- Iran urges US to release innocent Iranian prisoners amid COVID-19 outbreak (Al Jazeera)
- Saudi Arabia Forces torture and ‘disappear’ Yemenis (Human Rights Watch)
- Undocumented Workers in Lebanon denied coronavirus treatment (Al Jazeera)
- Significant victory for Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (NY Times)
- Ohio and Texas order halt to ‘non-essential’ and ‘elective’ during COVID-19 (Human Rights Watch)
- Deadly prison riot in Bogota, Columbia leaves 23 inmates dead (NY Times)
- Venezuela called to immediately end arbitrary detention and forced disappearances (Human Rights Watch)