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World commits to pollution-free planet at environment summit

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The world today committed to a pollution-free planet at the close of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, with resolutions and pledges promising to improve the lives of billions across the globe by cleaning up our air, land and water.

If every promise made in and around the summit is met, 1.49 billion more people will breathe clean air, 480,000 km (or around 30 per cent) of the world’s coastlines will be clean, and USD 18.6 billion for research and development and innovative programmes to combat pollution will come online.

“The science we have seen at this assembly shows we have been so bad at looking after our planet that we have very little room to make more mistakes,” said Dr. Edgar Gutiérrez, Minister of Environment and Energy of Costa Rica and the President of the 2017 UN Environment Assembly. “With the promises made here, we are sending a powerful message that we will listen to the science, change the way we consume and produce, and tackle pollution in all its forms across the globe.”

Over 4,000 heads of state, ministers, business leaders, UN officials, civil society representatives, activists and celebrities gathered at the summit in Nairobi, which ran for three days.

For the first time at a UN Environment Assembly, environment ministers issued a declaration. This declaration said nations would honour efforts to prevent, mitigate and manage the pollution of air, land and soil, freshwater, and oceans – which harms our health, societies, ecosystems, economies, and security.

The declaration committed to increasing research and development, targeting pollution through tailored actions, moving societies towards sustainable lifestyles based on a circular economy, promoting fiscal incentives to move markets and promote positive change, strengthening and enforcing laws on pollution, and much more.

The assembly also passed 13 non-binding resolutions and three decisions. Among them were moves to address marine litter and microplastics, prevent and reduce air pollution, cut out lead poisoning from paint and batteries, protect water-based ecosystems from pollution, deal with soil pollution, and manage pollution in areas hit by conflict and terrorism.

“Today we have put the fight against pollution high on the global political agenda,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment. “We have a long struggle ahead of us, but the summit showed there is a real appetite for significant positive change.

“It isn’t just about the UN and governments, though. The massive support we have seen from civil society, businesses and individuals – with millions of pledges to end pollution – show that this is a global challenge with a global desire to win this battle together.”

A large part of the impact from the assembly comes from global support. UN Environment’s #BeatPollution campaign hit almost 2.5 million pledges during the event, with 88,000 personal commitments to act.

Chile, Oman, South Africa and Sri Lanka all joined the #CleanSeas campaign during the Nairobi summit, with Sri Lanka promising to implement a ban on single-use plastic products from 1 January 2018, step up the separation and recycling of waste, and set the goal of freeing its ocean and coasts of pollution by 2030. There are now 39 countries in the campaign.

Colombia, Singapore, Bulgaria, Hungary and Mongolia joined 100 cities who were already in the #BreatheLife campaign, which aims to tackle air pollution. Every signatory has committed to reduce air pollution to safe levels by 2030, with Singapore promising to tighten fuel and emissions standards for vehicles, and emissions standards for industry.

The global momentum comes not a moment too soon, as the UN Environment report, The Executive Director’s Report: Towards a Pollution-Free Planet, lays out.

Overall, environmental degradation causes nearly one in four of all deaths worldwide, or 12.6 million people a year, and the widespread destruction of key ecosystems. Air pollution is the single biggest environmental killer, claiming 6.5 million lives each year.

Exposure to lead in paint causes brain damage to 600,000 children annually. Our seas already contain 500 “dead zones” with too little oxygen to support marine life. Over 80 per cent of the world’s wastewater is released into the environment without treatment, poisoning the fields where we grow our food and the lakes and rivers that provide drinking water to 300 million people.

There is also a huge economic cost. A recent report by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health says that welfare losses due to pollution are estimated at over USD 4.6 trillion each year, equivalent to 6.2 per cent of global economic output.

“We had two missions at this assembly,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, UN Environment’s deputy head. “One [agreeing on action] is accomplished. The second we must start tomorrow.”

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Health & Wellness

UN agencies supporting mammoth India COVID-19 vaccine rollout

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Health workers pose with a vial of COVID-19 vaccine after receiving their shots at a hospital in India. UNICEF/Vinay Panjwani

India has begun what is the world’s biggest COVID vaccination campaign so far, deploying hundreds of thousands of health workers, with the training and support of the UN World Health Organization (WHO). 

On 16 January, the first day of the campaign, 207,229 vaccine shots were given across the country, one of the worst-hit by COVID-19, with over 10 million COVID-19 infections and 150,000 deaths. 

“[We] provided technical assistance to the Government of India for the development of operational guidelines and other training materials for state and district programme managers and vaccinators, and establishing tracking and accountability frameworks”, Roderico H. Ofrin, WHO Representative in India said. 

“WHO field officers have facilitated the highest-level oversight through regular task force meetings at state and district levels, which are chaired by the Principal Secretaries (Health) at the state level, and District Magistrates at the district level”, he added. 

According to media reports, an estimated 10 million health workers are targeted to be vaccinated in the first round, followed by other front-line workers such as police, security forces and municipal staff, with plans to inoculate 300 million people by August. 

Supporting preparations 

Prior to the start of the campaign, UN agencies help with detailed preparations. 

For its part, WHO participated in dry-run simulations and provided feedback on management of vaccines, registration of beneficiaries, as well as reporting on vaccination coverage and adverse events following immunization. 

It also worked with the Government and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) on real-time reporting and problem-solving when issues arose at the vaccination sites, according to Dr. Ofrin. 

At the provincial level, WHO also supported implementation and monitoring of health policy, such as developing standard operating procedures, preparing technical briefs, and providing best practices from other parts of the India as well as other countries. 

Reliable information 

Similarly, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) supported communication and advocacy efforts to ensure the dissemination of factual information to stakeholders and communities. The agency also helped train healthcare staff in infection control and prevention, and psychosocial support to children and caregivers.  

Aside from directly supporting vaccine rollout, UN agencies continued their programmes to assist the most vulnerable communities impacted by COVID-19 and its socio-economic fallouts.  

For instance, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) supported NGOs in order to identify and register some 19,000 vulnerable households and distributed food packets; while the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) conducted awareness raising programmes on sexual and reproductive health, and prevention of gender-based violence, on behalf of some 30 million vulnerable individuals.  

The three W’s  

Though vaccination programmes are underway, continued vigilance against COVID-19 and preventing its spread remain as important as ever. 

WHO’s Dr. Ofrin urged continued vigilance over tracking cases, cluster investigation, isolation and clinical care, and quarantining to break the chain of transmission. 

Alongside, he also highlighted the “three W’s – wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance.” 

“These efforts must continue to stop the spread of COVID-19. We as individuals and communities must work with the Government to save lives and the economy by protecting health and livelihoods,” he added.

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Human Rights

Spectre of unrest, violent repression looming over Haiti

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Fire residues and debris at a protest site in Port-au-Prince in July 2018. MINUJUSTH/Leonora Baumann

Increasing political tensions in Haiti coupled with insecurity and structural inequalities could result in protests followed by violent crackdowns by authorities, the United Nations human rights office (OHCHR) warned on Tuesday.

According to the office, criminal activities, such as kidnappings, gang fights and widespread insecurity have increased, with “almost total” impunity. 

Added to the volatile mix is resurging political tensions over the timing and scope of elections and a constitutional referendum proposed by the Government, OHCHR spokesperson Marta Hurtado told journalists at a regular briefing in Geneva. 

“Calls for mass protests have been growing. This in turn raises concerns of renewed human rights violations by security forces during the policing of protests as seen during the months-long protests in 2018 and 2019, as well as during demonstrations in October and November of last year.” 

According to an OHCHR report on the unrest, protests started relatively peacefully in July 2018 but became increasingly violent over time, with many violations and abuses of the rights to life, security of the person and effective remedy.  

‘Pattern of violations’ 

The report also documented violations to the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. In 2019 demonstrations, barricades were set up that blocked people’s access to hospitals and passage of ambulances. Health facilities were also attacked, severely impacting the daily lives of the Haitian people, particularly those in a vulnerable situation. 

In addition, protesters and criminal elements imposed “passage fees”, further impeding the movement of people and goods and exacerbating economic hardship. 

“The report shows a pattern of human rights violations and abuses followed by near lack of accountability,” Ms. Hurtado said. 

‘Guarantee accountability’ 

The OHCHR spokesperson called on Haitian authorities to take “immediate action” to avoid repetition of such violations and abuses by ensuring that law enforcement officers abide by international norms and standards regarding the use of force when dealing with protests; as well as ensuring that gangs do not interfere with people’s right to demonstrate peacefully. 

She also urged the Government to guarantee accountability for past violations and abuses, ensuring justice, truth, and reparations. Alongside, Haiti should take steps to address people’s grievances and the root causes that fuelled the protests, she added. 

“OHCHR stands ready to continue supporting State authorities in their fulfilment of human rights international obligations [and] expresses its willingness to continue working towards the establishment of a country office,” Ms. Hurtado said, welcoming commitments made by the Haitian National Police to reform practices documented in the report. 

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Health & Wellness

Independent panel finds critical early failings in COVID-19 response

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The global system for pandemic alert and response is “not fit for purpose”, highlighting the need for a new framework in the wake of COVID-19, experts appointed by the World Health Organization (WHO) said in an interim report presented on Tuesday. 

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response found critical elements to be “slow, cumbersome and indecisive” in an era when information about new disease outbreaks is being transmitted faster than countries can formally report on them. 

“When there is a potential health threat, countries and the World Health Organization must further use the 21st century digital tools at their disposal to keep pace with news that spreads instantly on social media and infectious pathogens that spread rapidly through travel”, said Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and co-chair of the panel.   

“Detection and alert may have been speedy by the standards of earlier novel pathogens, but viruses move in minutes and hours, rather than in days and weeks.”  

‘Lost opportunities’ at the outset 

The Independent Panel was established to review lessons learned from international response to COVID-19, which first emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. Nearly 94 million confirmed cases and more than two million deaths have been reported globally as of Tuesday. 

The panel’s second progress report said countries were slow to respond to the new coronavirus disease, noting “there were lost opportunities to apply basic public health measures at the earliest opportunity”. 

Although WHO declared on 30 January 2020 that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), the panel found many countries took minimal action to prevent spread both within and beyond their borders. 

“What is clear to the Panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January”, the report said.  

“It is also clear to the Panel that there was evidence of cases in a number of countries by the end of January 2020. Public health containment measures should have been implemented immediately in any country with a likely case. They were not.” 

The report also outlined critical shortcomings at each phase of response, including failure to prepare for a pandemic despite years of warning.  

“The sheer toll of this epidemic is prima facie evidence that the world was not prepared for an infectious disease outbreak with global pandemic potential, despite the numerous warnings issued that such an event was probable”, it said. 

Deepening inequalities 

Pandemic response has also deepened inequalities, according to the panel, with inequitable access to COVID-19 vaccines a glaring example as rollout has favoured wealthy nations. 

“A world where high-income countries receive universal coverage while low-income countries are expected to accept only 20 per cent in the foreseeable future is on the wrong footing – both for justice and for pandemic control. This failure must be remedied”, said the panel’s co chair, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia. 

The report further highlighted the need to strengthen the UN’s health agency. 

“The WHO is expected to validate reports of disease outbreaks for their pandemic potential and, deploy support and containment resources, but its powers and funding to carry out its functions are limited”, Ms. Sirleaf said. “This is a question of resources, tools, access, and authority.”   

Countries are also urged to ensure testing, contact tracing and other public health measures to reduce virus spread, are being implemented, in efforts to save lives, particularly as more infectious virus variants emerge. 

The Independent Panel began its review last September and will present a report to the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of WHO, in May.

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