Infection and death rates in many African countries have turned out to be much lower than initially feared. As the number of infections dips sharply in South Africa, experts there are exploring a startling hypothesis, as our Africa correspondent Andrew Harding reports from Johannesburg.
Crowded townships. Communal washing spaces. The impossibility of social distancing in communities where large families often share a single room...
For months health experts and politicians have been warning that living conditions in crowded urban communities in South Africa and beyond are likely to contribute to a rapid spread of the coronavirus.
"Population density is such a key factor. If you don't have the ability to social distance, the virus spreads," said Professor Salim Karim, the head of South Africa's ministerial advisory team on Covid-19.
But some experts are now posing the question, what if the opposite is also true? What if those same crowded conditions also offer a possible solution to the mystery that has been unresolved for months? What if those conditions - they are asking - could prove to give people in South Africa, and in similar settings globally, some extra protection against Covid-19?
"It seems possible that our struggles, our poor conditions might be working in favour of African countries and our populations," said Professor Shabir Madhi, South Africa's top virologist and an important figure in the hunt for a vaccine for Covid-19.
In the early stages of the pandemic, experts across Africa - echoed by many leaders - appeared to agree that the continent faced a severe threat from the virus.
"I thought we were heading towards a disaster, a complete meltdown," said Professor Shabir Madhi.
Even the most optimistic modelling and predictions showed, for example, that South Africa's hospitals - and the continent's most developed health system - would be quickly overwhelmed.
And yet, today South Africa is emerging from its first wave of infections with a Covid-19 death rate roughly seven times lower than Britain's.
Scientists acknowledge that reliable data is not always easy to come by and all these figures are likely to change. But even if deaths have been under-reported here - perhaps by a factor of two - South Africa has still performed impressively well, as have many other parts of the continent, where many hospital beds remain empty, and where infection graphs have almost entirely avoided the pronounced peaks and sharp angles seen in so many other parts of the world.
By Andrew Harding
BBC Africa correspondent, Johannesburg

As countries grapple with severe disruptions to education caused by COVID-19, several UN agencies – as part of the Global Education Coalition – issued new guidelines on Thursday to help Governments make decisions on safely reopening schools for the world’s 1.3 billion students affected by ongoing closures.

Launched in March by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP) and World Bank, the Coalition works to foster inclusive learning opportunities.

“Rising inequality, poor health outcomes, violence, child labour and child marriage are just some of the long-term threats for children who miss out on school”, said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “Unless we prioritize the reopening of schools – when it is safe to do so – we will likely see a devastating reversal in education gains.”

Indeed, the adverse effects of school closures on children’s safety and learning are well documented.

Millions rely on schools for food

In the poorest countries, children often rely on schools for their only meal of the day. David Beasley, World Food Programme Executive Director explained that with many schools now closed, 370 million children are missing out on these meals, as well as the health support they normally receive. “When schools reopen, it is critical that these meal programmes and health services are restored,” he said.

The agencies are urging Governments to assess the benefits of classroom-based instruction compared to remote learning, and risk factors related to reopening of schools. In those calculations, they note the inconclusive evidence around the infection risks related to school attendance.

While far from straightforward, the decision of when and how to reopen schools should be a priority. “Once there is a green light on the health front, a whole set of measures will need to be in place to ensure that no student is left behind”, said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

Right to education

The guidelines provide all-round advice for Governments and partners to facilitate reopening, she said. “We share one goal: to protect and advance the right to education for every learner.”

In terms of policy, the guidelines recommend having clear directives in place for school opening and closure during public health emergencies. Expanding equitable access for marginalized and out-of-school children is also important, as are efforts to standardize remote learning practices.

They also recommend addressing the impact of COVID-19 on education and investing in education systems to stimulate recovery and resilience.

Soap and water

In the area of safety, they advise ensuring conditions are in place to reduce disease transmission and promote healthy behaviour. This includes access to soap and clean water for safe handwashing and protocols on social distancing.

Practices that compensate for lost instructional time, strengthen teaching methods that work, and build on hybrid learning models are also covered, as are ways to ensure students’ wellness and protection, including through the provision of essential school-based services such as healthcare.

Focus on ending marginalization

Throughout, the guidelines prioritize the most marginalized. They cover how to expand school opening policies and practices to those who are often excluded –particularly displaced and migrant children - by making critical communications available in relevant languages and accessible formats.

"Once schools begin to reopen, the priority becomes reintegrating students into school settings safely and in ways that allow learning to pick up again”, said Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education.

“To manage re-openings, schools will need to be logistically prepared with the teaching workforce ready”, he said. That includes plans specifically to support learning recovery of the most disadvantaged students.

In the end, schools must look at how they can “reopen better”. The agencies say the best interests of children and overall public health considerations – based on an assessment of associated benefits and risks to education, public health and socioeconomic factors – must be central to these decisions.


The COVID-19 crisis has caused a dramatic spike in the number of Syrian refugees in need of emergency assistance in the last three months, UN humanitarians said on Tuesday, in an appeal for funding to confront new challenges posed by the health emergency.

Now into its tenth year, the Syrian conflict has created more than 5.5 million refugees seeking shelter in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

“The number of vulnerable refugees who lack the basic resources to survive in exile has dramatically surged as a result of the public health emergency,” said UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic.

Since pandemic lockdown measures have been implemented, Mr. Mahecic noted that in addition to families already identified as vulnerable, UNHCR had seen “another 200,000 refugees just in this period of three months who because of the impact needed emergency assistance”.

Cutting back on food, medicine

Clear signs of distress among vulnerable individuals who have lost their jobs include coping measures “that would allow them to somehow make ends meet”, he added. “We have evidence of people trying to skip meals in order to spread out the food so it can last longer, they may skip taking medication, anything that is considered right now something where they can cut costs.”

Calling for additional support to sustain humanitarian initiatives, Mr Mahecic explained that in Jordan, only 17,000 out of 49,000 newly identified families in need had received help, “as UNHCR is lacking the funds to extend its programmes”.

Prior to the pandemic, the majority of Syrian refugees in the region were living below the poverty line, according to the UN agency, while a recent survey in Jordan showed that only 35 per cent of refugees said they had a secure job to return to after the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.

More than six million internally displaced Syrians and other vulnerable groups remain inside Syria, according to UNHCR.

Before the onset of the virus, the agency’s $5.5 billion Syria Refugee Response and Resilience Plan 2020 appeal was only 20 per cent funded across the region. It is now updating its requirements to cope with additional needs and has appealed for strong international support to countries sheltering those in need.

“Host communities have shown great solidarity, but they have also suffered loss of livelihoods as a result the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mr Mahecic, adding that nine in 10 Syrian refugees in the region live in towns or villages, not in camps.

If refugees are safe, so are host communities

Beyond the immediate emergency, the UNHCR spokesperson highlighted the need to ensure that refugees were included in countries’ national public health responses to COVID-19, in addition to other basis services, including education.

“It is a very important point that the refugees, internally displaced, stateless people are included in the national public health responses,” he said. “Only if everybody’s being looked after and everybody’s safe, we can all be safe.”

Fonte: UN.ORG

A medida que las economías de todo el mundo están pasando apuros con la crisis económica que ha desencadenado el COVID-19, las Naciones Unidas hicieron hoy una llamada a adoptar medidas robustas que puedan garantizar la estabilidad económica.

La comunidad global ha ofrecido suspensiones parciales de deuda a 76 países de bajos ingresos y el FMI ha ofrecido servicios de ayuda con deudas a 25 de los países más pobres. Estos no cubren deudas comerciales y multilaterales o países con ingresos medios y no serán suficientes para evitar el impago.

Las dificultades para afrontar serán un obstáculo para los países para combatir la pandemia del coronavirus y supondrán un desvío a la hora de alcanzar los Objetivos de Desarrollo Sostenible (ODS).

En su último informe sobre deuda, publicado en el día de hoy, el Departamento de Asuntos Económicos y Sociales de la ONU (ONU DAES) presenta opciones para una paralización total de servicios relativos a deuda bilateral, multilateral y comercial para todos los países en desarrollo que lo soliciten, incluyendo países de ingresos medios. Estas medidas podrían ser facilidades crediticias centrales para países que soliciten ayuda, gestionadas por una institución financiera internacional. El informe, no obstante, no hace una llamada universal a una moratoria para todos los países de ingresos medios ya que esto pondría en riesgo su acceso a los mercados financieros.

Las moratorias darían tiempo a los países para concebir soluciones de deuda sostenible, para “reconstruirnos mejor”. El informe también presenta otras propuestas alternativas para ayudar con la deuda, señalando sin embargo que esta ayuda debería formar una parte más amplia de las estrategias de financiación y de recuperación que tengan en cuenta las necesidades de inversión para los ODS, como por ejemplo acuerdos marcos financieros a nivel nacional integrados que cada país lidere.

La crisis del COVID-19 ha puesto de manifiesto las lagunas en la arquitectura actual de la deuda soberana internacional actual que debería abordarse una vez el mundo se recupere. Es una oportunidad para que la comunidad internacional se una bajo el auspicio de las Naciones Unidas, que sin ser un acreedor se presenta como un foro neutral para el diálogo inclusivo entre los deudores y acreedores soberanos y otras partes interesadas para debatir cómo seguir adelante.


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