INTERNATIONAL, 7 April 2021, Health - Addressing misinformation and countering vaccine hesitancy features prominently in a political declaration launched at the United Nations General Assembly, as countries pledged to “work together as one” to defeat the pandemic, and help people and the planet to recover better.
“We strongly believe that ‘no one can be safe, until everyone is safe’, and that equitable and affordable access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines must be ensured to have a speedy recovery and contribute to putting an end to the pandemic”, the text said.
“We pledge to treat COVID-19 vaccination as a global public good by ensuring affordable, equitable and fair access to vaccines for all.”
‘Deep concern’ over uneven distribution
While committing to solidarity and intensified international cooperation, countries expressed concern that despite international agreements and initiatives, the “distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is still uneven worldwide, both among and within countries”.
“We are deeply concerned about the low availability of COVID-19 vaccines in low and middle income countries”, they said, calling for a “significant increase” in support for contracts provided by the UN-backed equitable shots initiative, COVAX, with vaccine producers, and not limiting the availability of vaccines as a result of competing bilateral contracts.
The political declaration also included a commitment by countries to address misinformation and tackling vaccine hesitancy, key challenges to successful inoculation campaigns against COVID-19 globally.
Countries highlighted the importance of increasing acceptance of the need to fully vaccinate populations across the world. Stating that they will cooperate with the UN’s ‘Verified’ initiative, they called on the UN system overall to help counter so-called vaccine hesitancy in all parts of the world.
Launched in May last year, the ‘Verified’ initiative is aimed at promoting and sharing compelling, clear content and fact-based advice, to fight conspiracies and hate speech, and foster global solidarity.
Melissa Fleming, Under-Secretary-General of the UN Department of Global Communications (DGC) underlined the Organization’s efforts to vaccinate the world and ensure that that no one is left behind.
“The statements endorsed by Member States reinforce their commitment to our Verified Initiative and to our work to produce and disseminate factual, timely, targeted, clear, accessible, multilingual and science-based information”, she added.
Global Media and Information Literacy Week
Separately, the General Assembly proclaimed a new Global Media and Information Literacy Week, to be observed annually from 24-31 October.
In a resolution adopted on 25 March, the Assembly noted the importance of information literacy and media for sustainable development as well as empowerment of people, and highlighted the need to equip people with the tools necessary to identify and prevent the spread of misinformation and disinformation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Assembly also reaffirmed the need to ensure that the fight against disinformation and misinformation “promotes and does not infringe on individuals’ freedom of expression and access to information”.
INTERNATIONAL, 6 April 2021, Health - The benefits of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine are still “largely positive” and outweigh risk of rare but serious blood clots, according to an official with the World Health Organization (WHO), speaking on Tuesday during the agency’s regular press briefing from Geneva.
Dr Rogério Pinto de Sá Gaspar, Director for Regulation and Prequalification, was responding to a journalist’s question regarding links between the vaccine and cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, a rare blood clotting syndrome.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) on Tuesday denied that it had established any link, following reports that one of its experts stated there was a connection.
Expert meetings underway
Meanwhile, an EMA committee that monitors the safety of medicines has been meeting to assess the data, which is also being reviewed by a regulatory body in the United Kingdom. WHO is following both proceedings.
“What we can say is that the appraisal that we have for the moment, and this is under consideration by the experts, is that the benefit risk assessment for the vaccine is still largely positive”, said Dr Pinto de Sá Gaspar.
He reported that “thrombolytic events” are rare, and are now being categorized in terms of their distribution within the population.
“For the time being, there is no evidence that the benefit risk assessment for the vaccine needs to be changed”, he added. “And we know from the data coming from countries like the UK and others, that the benefits are really important in terms of reduction of the mortality of populations that are being vaccinated.”
WHO’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety is due to meet on Wednesday, which also will look at the data, with a conclusion expected later in the week.
Stigma and virus variants
WHO continues to work with a group of scientists worldwide to develop nomenclature for variants of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Many people, including health experts, have been referring to the variants by the countries in which they were first detected, something the UN agency wants to change.
“We need to make sure that any of the names that are used do not further stigmatize a person, or a last name, or a location, inadvertently”, said Dr Maria Van Kerhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, responding to a question from a South African journalist.
“There should be no stigma associated with these viruses being detected, and unfortunately we still see that happening.”
Currently there are three variants: B117, first identified in the UK; B 1.351, which was first identified in South Africa, and P1, a variant first detected in Japan but circulating in Brazil.
INTERNATIONAL, 6 April 2021, Peace and Security - Days of tribal clashes in Sudan’s West Darfur have left scores dead and thousands fleeing their homes, the UN envoy to the country said on Tuesday.
The bloodshed is the latest in a resurgence of violence since the Juba Peace Agreement was signed in October, and UN peacekeepers began to withdraw.
Outbreak of violence
Clashes pitting Arab tribes against non-Arab Massalit communities in Al Geneina Town, West Darfur, began in mid-January, leading to hundreds of casualties, according to the UN.
And around 108,000 already internally displaced people have been pushed out of the Krinding camps, in the capital of the West Darfur state.
On Saturday evening, unknown assailants shot at Massalit tribesmen heading into Al Geneina, killing two and injuring two others. Tensions between the two rapidly escalated and violent clashes commenced.
To date, the UN said that 56 people have been killed, 58 injured, and thousands displaced from their homes.
There were also reports of attacks on civilians, including women and children, as well as on humanitarian facilities.
State of emergency
To contain the situation, yesterday, the country’s Security and Defence Council declared a State of Emergency.
UN Special Representative, Volker Perthes, welcomed the move and urged the government’s security forces to prevent further violence and restore order.
He noted that they should be seen to act in the interest of peace and to protect all civilians, in full compliance with international human rights standards and without any special treatment based on tribal or ethnic affiliations.
“I appeal to all parties to immediately stop fighting and call on the Government to ensure safety and access to humanitarian organizations providing services to those affected”, said Mr. Perthes. “The government should investigate and hold accountable those responsible for the violence”.
UN stands with Sudan
The UN official conveyed to the Prime Minister, government members, and others committed to the Juba Peace Agreement, that the UN and its humanitarian partners are mobilizing additional staff and resources to respond to the displacement and growing humanitarian needs from this latest round of violence.
“The UN is committed to support the Government of Sudan in fulfilling its responsibility to protect civilians and in addressing the underlying causes of this continuing violence”, he said.
The Special Representative expressed his condolences to the families of the victims and wishes for a speedy recovery to those injured.
INTERNATIONAL, 6 April 2021, Peace and Security - Levels of hunger in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are at a “staggering” record high, now affecting one-in-three people, UN humanitarians warned on Tuesday.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), 27.3 million people face “acute” food insecurity – some seven million of whom are suffering “emergency” levels of acute hunger.
This means that the central African country is home to the highest number of people in the world, who are in urgent need of food security assistance, according to the latest Integrated Phase Classification analysis.
“For the first time ever we were able to analyse the vast majority of the population, and this has helped us to come closer to the true picture of the staggering scale of food insecurity in the DRC”, said Peter Musoko, WFP’s DR Congo representative.
“This country should be able to feed its population and export a surplus. We cannot have children going to bed hungry and families skipping meals for an entire day”, he added.
Triggers for hunger
Conflict remains a key cause of hunger, particularly in the central Kasais, along with the eastern provinces of Ituri, North and South Kivu and Tanganyika, the UN agencies said.
Other main factors compounding the crisis include a slump in the country’s economy as well as the socio-economic impact of COVID-19.
Despite the official end to the DRC’s civil war in 2003, militia violence has persisted there for decades, particularly in the eastern borderlands with Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.
“The recurring conflicts in eastern DRC and the suffering they bring remain of great concern”, said Aristide Ongone Obame, FAO Representative in DRC.
Upholding that social and political stability are “essential to strengthen food security and boost the resilience of vulnerable populations”, he said there was an urgent need to focus on growing more food, and boosting livestock.
“The main agricultural season is around the corner and there is no time to waste”, said the FAO official.
Behind the numbers
The UN agencies painted a picture of Congolese forced to flee for their lives, parents watching their children fall sick for lack of food, and farmers deprived of access to their own land.
WFP staff recounted stories of families surviving on taro, a root that grows wild, or cassava leaves boiled in water.
Moreover, some who returned to their village found their homes burnt to the ground and crops stolen.
The most affected populations are mainly households headed up by women, as well as refugees, returnees, host families, the displaced and those affected by natural disasters.
Added to that are the poorest populations, with low purchasing power and limited access to food markets.
INTERNATIONAL, 6 April 2021, Climate and Environment - Support for climate adaptation in Africa is crucial, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Tuesday in appealing for greater action to provide renewable energy to hundreds of millions who still lack access to reliable and affordable electricity.
“As the continent that has contributed least to the climate crisis, Africa deserves the strongest possible support and solidarity”, he told an online dialogue for leaders convened by the African Development Bank.
Mr. Guterres warned that “adaptation must not be the neglected half of the climate equation”.
Old models failing
Although Africa has abundant and untapped renewable resources, it has received just two per cent of global investment in renewable energy over the past decade, he reported.
Old models of development and energy use have failed to provide Africans with universal energy access, he said, meaning hundreds of millions of people still lack reliable and affordable electricity or are cooking with polluting and harmful fuels.
“We can provide universal access to energy in Africa primarily through renewable energy. I call for a comprehensive package of support to meet this objective ahead of COP26,” Mr. Guterres said, referring to the UN climate change conference in November.
“It is achievable. It is necessary. It is overdue. And it is smart: climate action is a $3 trillion investment opportunity in Africa by 2030," he added.
‘Major finance gap’
However, the Secretary-General pointed to “the major finance” gap blocking progress towards this goal. He urged developed countries to deliver on their $100 billion climate commitment made over a decade ago.
“Developed countries and main financers must ensure a swift shift of the billions to support African green investments, to increase resilience and to create the conditions for scaled-up private finance”, he said.
“And the private sector must step up and get organized to provide immediate, concrete solutions to governments. Local authorities can work with unions and community leaders on reskilling and social security nets.”
Commitment and fiscal autonomy
While African Governments also can lead the way by committing to ambitious adaptation and mitigation plans, they first need to regain their fiscal autonomy, he said.
The Secretary-General stressed the need to extend the debt moratorium for developing countries, made last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and even cancelling debts where appropriate.
Furthermore, Special Drawing Rights, a type of supplementary foreign reserve maintained by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), must also be made available to support Africa’s recovery.
INTERNATIONAL, 6 April 2021, SDGs - The United Nations Secretary-General on Tuesday urged everyone involved in the sport sector to help advance climate action, combat discrimination and prejudice, and ensure that global sporting events leave a positive legacy.
“Those involved in sport also have responsibilities: to reduce its environmental footprint; to meet international labour standards; to fight discrimination and prejudice of all kinds; to reject corruption; and to ensure that major global events such as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic and Paralympic Games, which bring the world together, leave a positive legacy”, Mr. Guterres said.
Helping a safe, sustainable recovery
The UN chief also noted that while the COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges to the sector, sport can contribute to a “safe and sustainable recovery”.
“Workers, fans and athletes have felt the pain of absence, of lost revenue and of dreams deferred”, Mr. Guterres noted.
“But many competitions and leagues have found new ways to create opportunities for community and joy despite the crisis … as vaccines spread hope and spectators begin to return to arenas, the world of sport has crucial contributions to make in forging a safe and sustainable recovery”, he said.
The Secretary-General added that the UN looks forward to continuing to work with sportspeople and organizations around the world to advance climate action and to promote peace, human rights and sustainable development.
“We will play and cheer again when everyone is safe from the pandemic.”
This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the International Day was marked mainly through online and social media events, around the theme of recovery from the pandemic, and the need to build back better for a more resilient and equitable world.
INTERNATIONAL, 5 April 2021, Peace and Security - Fifty-eight women and children of more than 600 who were abducted last year during vicious intercommunal fighting in South Sudan, have been reunited with their families, the UN Spokesperson told reporters on Monday.
Since December, the UN Mission in South Sudan, UNMISS, has been working with agencies, supported by the United States and the United Kingdom, to broker peace between the Lou Nuer, Murle and Dinka Bor ethnic groups.
The exchange came about following a community-led peace, negotiated in Jonglei State between the three communities.
More women yet to be released
Women and girls have been frequently abducted in Jonglei, because of their economic importance in demanding a bride price paid in the form of cattle, said UNMISS in a statement on Friday.
“The UN Mission believes that as many as 686 women and children were abducted during the clashes that took place between January and August of last year”, Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told journalists at the regular daily briefing.
“Tragically, these abductions often involve sexual violence”, he added.
After a recent peace conference in Pieri, where traditional leaders, women and so-called “cattle camp” leaders had discussed compensation for lives lost, and the return of abducted women and children, UNMISS said that UN helicopters had helped transport the freed women and children so they could be reunited with their families.
Those abducted and freed, are receiving support from Save the Children, and local NGOs Grassroots Empowerment and Development Organization (GREDO) and the Community Action Organization (CAO).
Prevent ‘cycle of revenge’
Noting that “abductions are a horrific aspect of conflict in this area”, UNMISS chief and UN Special Representative for the country, David Shearer, said that the agreement to release the abducted women and children, “is an essential step to build trust and avoid the cycle of revenge”.
INTERNATIONAL, 5 April 2021, Health - The COVID crisis "has revealed how unequal our societies are” said the UN chief in his message for World Health Day released on Monday.
Highlighting the inequalities and injustices that have been apparent throughout the pandemic, Secretary-General António Guterres said in his message for the day to be marked on Wednesday, that the vast majority of vaccine doses administered so far, have been confined to “a few wealthy countries” or those producing the shots cleared for distribution.
“Within countries, illness and death from COVID-19 has been higher among people and communities that contend with poverty, unfavourable living and working conditions, discrimination and social exclusion”, said Mr. Guterres.
Countries forced to ‘watch and wait’
Thanks to the COVAX initiative, the UN backed international effort to provide equitable vaccines across the world, more countries are receiving doses, “but most people in low and middle income countries still must watch and wait”, the UN chief added.
“Such inequities are immoral, and they are dangerous for our health, our economies and our societies.”
86 countries reached
To date, COVAX has shipped more than 36 million doses to 86 countries, the UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told correspondents at UN Headquarters on Monday.
Algeria received more than 36,000 doses over the weekend from COVAX, he said, helping to accelerate the vaccination campaign already underway there.
“The UN Resident Coordinator, Eric Overvest, said the new doses will help ensure that no one is left behind”, Mr. Dujarric added. “Our teams on the ground have helped to train healthcare workers, sensitize people on vaccines, and supported the cold chain.
And in Laos, the country has vaccinated more than 4,000, including frontline healthcare workers, with doses received from COVAX, Mr. Dujarric told reporters.
The UN team, led by the Resident Coordinator Sara Sekkenes Tollefsen, is supporting the country’s vaccination campaign, which began on Friday.
More than 130 million cases
As of 5 April, the World Health Organization (WHO) is reporting that there have been nearly 131,021,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including more than 2,850,520 deaths.
Up to the end of 31 March, there had been 547,727,346 vaccine doses administered worldwide.
INTERNATIONAL, 5 April 2021, Humanitarian Aid - United Nations agencies in Timor-Leste are supporting response efforts, as floods and landslides left widespread damage across the country, including in the capital, Dili.
According to media reports, at least 21 people died in the country and many more are missing. Large parts of Dili are inundated, with water levels as high as two meters reported in some neighbourhoods.
Severe damage has also been reported to critical infrastructure, including roads, bridges and medical centres. Communication networks and electricity are said to be disrupted in some of the worst affected areas.
Roy Trivedy, UN Resident Coordinator in Timor-Leste said that UN agencies and partners are supporting the national response, adding that “as an emergency response measure, [we] extend full support to the people and Government of Timor-Leste in this hour of need.”
“We are deeply concerned about the communities, especially women and children, who are often most affected by natural disasters. We will work with the authorities to mobilize all possible resources to support the response”, Mr. Trivedy added.
There are concerns that the disaster could hit COVID-19 prevention and response efforts, as a major laboratory and two quarantine facilities in Dili have been damaged. A medical supply depot is also said to have been flooded.
There are fears that the situation could deteriorate further, if the rains do not let up.
Damage has also been reported across the border, in Indonesia, where more than 40 people are reported to have died.
IOM Photo | An IOM staff member speaks with people affected by the floods in Timor-Leste.
According to Dageng Liu, UN World Food Programme (WFP) Country Director in Timor-Leste, “the priority right now is to continue evacuating and relocating of families most affected”.
He added that food and cooking facilities are also needed in evacuation centres, as are vehicles to transport people there. As of Monday, about 3,000 people are sheltering in some 11 evacuation centres in Dili.
“WFP has provided transport support to other UN agencies to move their supplies and we are fully committed to doing our part once we know more about the extent of the damages”, Mr. Liu added.
INTERNATIONAL, 4 April 2021, Health - The aim of the UN-backed COVAX scheme is to get two billion vaccine doses into the arms of around a quarter of the population of poorer countries by the end of 2021. What are the main challenges that need to be overcome, if this historic global effort is to be achieved?
Vaccines are a key part of the solution to ending the COVID-19 pandemic and, since the early stages of the crisis, the World Health Organization (WHO) has argued that there needed to be coordinated attention given to ensuring that everyone, not just people living in rich countries, would receive adequate protection from the virus, as it spread rapidly across the world.
Out of this concern grew the Global COVAX Facility, the only global initiative that is working with governments and manufacturers to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are available worldwide to both higher-income and lower-income countries.
Here are five things to know about the challenges facing COVAX, and how they can be overcome.
A health worker picks a vial of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from a cooler box in Uganda.
1) Export controls: the weakest link?
Early on in the pandemic, UNICEF built up a stockpile of half a billion syringes in warehouses outside the countries producing them. Its foresight paid off: countries put export controls on syringes, prices spiked, and supplies were limited.
Diane Abad-Vergara, WHO Communications Officer for COVAX and COVID-19 vaccines, by WHO
Several countries also placed export controls on vaccines, prompting WHO to warn against “vaccine nationalism”, which encourages hoarding, and has the effect of pushing prices up and ultimately prolonging the pandemic, the restrictions needed to contain it, and human and economic suffering.
Getting doses into people’s arms requires a complex global supply chain. From the ingredients needed to produce the vaccine, to the glass and plastic stoppers and tubes, to the syringes. Because of this, export bans or controls on any of these products can cause major disruptions to vaccine rollouts.
Because of the many ways in which export controls can limit supply, poorer countries will have a much better chance of protecting their citizens if they are able to manufacture vaccines themselves.
“WHO supports countries in their efforts to acquire and sustain vaccine production technology and capacity”, says Diane Abad-Vergara, COVAX communications lead for the agency, “through such initiatives as the Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network, and helps them to build additional manufacturing bases — especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America — which will be essential to meeting ongoing demand for COVID-19 booster shots and future vaccines. Expanding production globally would make poor countries less dependent on donations from rich ones”.
Whilst all of the countries that are part of COVAX have the infrastructure needed to get pallets of vaccines off cargo planes and into refrigerated warehouses, the next steps can be more complicated.
“Ghana, the first country to receive COVAX doses, has had a good record of distributing doses”, says Gian Gandhi, UNICEF’s global COVAX coordinator, “but other countries, such as those in Francophone West Africa, have found it difficult to muster the resources needed to divide up doses and distribute them throughout their territory to the towns and villages where they’re needed. This means that, in many poorer countries, most doses are being distributed in large urban centres”.
“We want to ensure that no-one misses out”, says Mr. Gandhi, “but, in the short term, the concentration of doses in cities at least means that the vaccination of health and other frontline workers in urban areas, where the higher population density puts them at a higher risk of exposure, is being prioritized”.
3) More funding is needed to help rollout in the poorest countries
One way to speed up the vaccine rollout, and the delivery from urban warehouses to remote areas is, quite simply, cash. “Funding is a perennial concern, even in pandemic response”, says Ms. Abad-Vergara. “To continue providing vaccines to its 190 members, COVAX needs at least $3.2 billion in 2021. The faster that this funding target is achieved, the faster that vaccines can get into people’s arms.”
Contributions from several countries, particularly the EU, the UK and the US have gone a long way to closing the vaccine funding gap. However, funding for the delivery of those vaccines is more problematic.
UNICEF estimates that an additional $2 billion is needed to help the poorest 92 countries to pay for essentials such as fridges, health worker training, expenses for vaccinators, and fuel for the refrigerated delivery trucks, and is calling on donors to make $510m of this available immediately as part of a humanitarian appeal to address urgent needs.
Mongolia started vaccinating people in March with the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine provided through the COVAX facility.
4) Richer countries should share
COVAX is finding itself in competition with individual countries doing direct deals with pharmaceutical companies, putting extra pressure on the available supply of COVID-19 vaccines. At the same time, richer countries may find themselves with an over-supply of doses.
The current ‘me first’ approach will ultimately cost more, in terms of lives Diane Abad-Vergara, COVAX communication focal point, WHO
“We’re calling on these countries to share their excess doses, and engage with COVAX and UNICEF as soon as possible”, says Mr. Gandhi, “because it will take some legal, administrative and operational gymnastics to get them to where they’re needed. Unfortunately, we’re not currently seeing too many high-income countries willing to share”.
“The current ‘me first’ approach favours those who can pay most and will ultimately cost more financially, and in terms of lives”, warns Ms. Abad-Vergara. “But it’s important to note that bilateral deals do not prevent a country from either receiving doses or contributing to COVAX, particularly through dose-sharing”.
In New Delhi India, a poster plays a role in dispelling myths about the COVID-19 vaccine.
5) Vaccine hesitancy: a continued cause for concern
Despite the overwhelming evidence that vaccination saves lives, vaccine hesitancy, which exists in every country, is still a problem that needs to be constantly addressed.
This phenomenon is partly driven by misinformation surrounding all aspects of COVID-19, which was a concern even before a global health emergency was declared and, in May, the UN launched the Verified campaign, which fights lies and distorted messages, with trusted, accurate information surrounding the crisis.
“Throughout the pandemic there has been a huge amount of misinformation swirling around”, says Ms. Abad-Vergara. "WHO is working hard to combat it, as well as building trust in vaccines, and engaging different communities”.