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China shows COVID-19 Coronavirus can be ‘stopped in its tracks’

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Medical equipment supplied by the World Food Programme (WFP) arrives in Beijing. Photo courtesy of Yingshi Zhang

China’s experience in containing the spread of the new coronavirus could serve as a lesson for other countries now facing the COVID-19 pandemic, a senior official with the World Health Organization (WHO) has told UN News in an in-depth interview. 

While more than 153,00 cases of the respiratory illness have been recorded globally as of Sunday, it is on the decline in China, demonstrating that the course of the outbreak there has been altered, according to WHO Representative in the country, Dr. Gauden Galea. 

 “It is an epidemic that has been nipped as it was growing and stopped in its tracks. This is very clear from the data that we have, as well as the observations that we can see in society in general”, he told UN News in the capital, Beijing, on Saturday.  

“So that’s a big lesson: that the natural course of the outbreak does not need to be a very high peak that overwhelms health services. This lesson in containment, therefore, is a lesson that other countries can learn from and adapt for their own circumstances”. 

Understanding ‘a pneumonia of unknown cause’ 

COVID-19 is the most recently discovered of the coronaviruses which are known to cause respiratory infections such as MERS and SARS. 

WHO has been on the case since 31 December, when it was first informed that “a pneumonia of unknown cause” had been detected in Wuhan, the largest city in Hubei province in central China.   

Dr. Galea reported that there were three main questions to understand during this initial phase: How the virus was being transmitted, its severity, and control measures. 

“In a way, the first three weeks were very deeply involved in looking into the local epidemiological investigation, in asking questions of the national investigators, seeking interpretation by international networks of experts, developing risk communications around the information that we had, sending out the message across the media, reaching out to partners in the UN and in the missions in China based in Beijing”, he said. 

Dr. Galea and colleagues travelled to Wuhan from 20-21 January, just days before the city was subjected to a lockdown.  At the time, there was no overwhelming demand on the health services, though the situation had changed when Chinese and international health experts conducted a joint mission a month later. 

Dr. Galea understood that while there were shortcomings at the time, and allegations of cover-ups, creating an “alternative history” would have been difficult.   

He highlighted the “high price” paid by Wuhan’s citizens with the lockdown, thus “buying time” for the rest of China and the world. 

“But that containment was effective and did allow the rest of China to be able to contain the outbreak in a very effective manner. The shape of the epidemic and the small number of cases that were seen outside Hubei are a testimony to the success and the effectiveness”, he said.  

“It’s very important to realise that such shortcomings are not unique to China, and that very few countries are manifesting any greater speed in action”.  

From international emergency to pandemic 

Following two meetings of its Emergency Committee, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on 30 January declared the new disease a public health emergency of international concern: the agency’s highest ranking of risk assessment.   

WHO then set up what Dr. Galea described as a “research blueprint” and began shipping testing kits and personal protective equipment to other countries. 

Last week, WHO announced that COVID-19 could be characterized as a pandemic: the first to be sparked by a coronavirus

“When you realise that a public health emergency of international concern was declared on January 30, and as we speak, we are now mid-March, it’s very important to understand that any country that still has not heeded the call needs to be acting and acting fast: not least preparing the population through appropriate risk communication”, said Dr. Galea. 

Sharing lessons learned 

With the caseload in China on the decline, WHO is working to share lessons learned there for the benefit of other countries now facing COVID-19. 

Dr. Galea praised the timely cooperation with the National Health Commission, its counterpart in the country. Early and frequent exchanges resulted in sharing of the genetic sequence of the virus, as well as the specifications for designing tests so other countries would be able to identify it.  

“The biggest conclusion is that China has demonstrated that the course of the outbreak can be altered. Normally, an outbreak of this nature would have exponential growth, would reach a high peak, and would then decline naturally once all susceptible people have been infected, or developed the disease.  This has not happened in China in a number of ways,” he said.  

“One: the shape of the course of the events – the graph, the epidemic curve, as we call it, of the numbers of cases over time – appears very unnatural. It is an epidemic that has been nipped as it was growing and stopped in its tracks. This is very clear from the data that we have, as well as the observations that we can see in society in general.

“So, that’s a big lesson that the natural course of the outbreak does not need to be a very high peak that overrwhelms health services.  This lesson in containment, therefore, is a lesson that other countries can learn from and adapt for their own circumstances”.

Use the tools 

One lesson so far has been the importance of having strong national public health systems. Dr. Galea underlined the need for preparation, and the value of providing all citizens with access to health care. 

At the individual level, he urged people not to panic and to follow procedures for reducing the risk of spread, such as proper hand-washing, covering your nose when sneezing, coughing into your elbow, and working from home where possible. 

Said Dr. Galea: “People would have heard these things  many times, but one can never repeat them enough or with enough force. This is the way. These are the tools we have now. Use them.” 

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Human Rights

ILO calls on Belarus President to respect workers’ rights and freedoms amid protests

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The Director-General of the International Labour Organization, Guy Ryder, has called on the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, to prevent human rights violations and “ensure full respect for workers’ rights and freedoms” during the wave of protests that have swept the country in recent weeks. 

In his letter to the Belarus President, Ryder urged President Lukashenko to release and drop charges against six trade unionists who have been detained by the authorities after participating in peaceful protests and industrial action.

He reminded the President that it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure a climate free from violence, threats or pressure against peacefully protesting workers and that any such allegations should be rapidly and independently investigated.

“I must urge you to do all in your power to prevent the occurrence of human rights violations and ensure full respect for workers’ rights and freedoms,” Ryder’s letter said.

He expressed his deep concern at reports coming out of Belarus on the arrest, detention, imprisonment and mistreatment of workers’ leaders.

‘No one should be deprived of their freedom or be subject to penal sanctions for the mere fact of organizing or participating in a peaceful strike or protest,’ Ryder wrote.

The letter recalls that the ILO has been working with the Belarus government, and the national workers’ and employers’ organizations, for 16 years, helping to address issues raised by an ILO Commission of Inquiry in 2004  which was set up following serious infringements of trade union rights and freedoms in the country.

Ryder notes that while there has been some progress on these issues, “the Commission’s recommendations are far from being fully implemented.”

The intervention by the ILO Director-General follows a request made by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

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More can be done to ensure a green recovery from COVID-19 crisis

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Many countries are making “green” recovery measures a central part of stimulus packages to drive sustainable, inclusive, resilient economic growth and improve well-being in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. However some countries are also implementing measures that risk having a negative environmental impact and locking in unsustainable growth, according to new OECD analysis discussed by member country ministers today.

New OECD analysis, Making the Green Recovery Work for Jobs, Income and Growth, indicates that OECD member governments have committed USD 312 billion of public resources to a green recovery, according to a preliminary estimate that will be refined in the coming months. However, a number of other measures within broader recovery packages are going into “non-green” spending such as fossil fuel investments.

“It is encouraging to see many governments seizing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure a truly sustainable recovery, but countries should go much further in greening their support packages,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, during a Ministerial Roundtable to discuss the issue. “Climate change and biodiversity loss are the next crises around the corner and we are running out of time to tackle them. Green recovery measures are a win-win option as they can improve environmental outcomes while boosting economic activity and enhancing well-being for all.” (Read the full speech.)

The analysis finds that among OECD and other major economies, a majority of countries have included measures directed at supporting the transition to greener economies in their recovery strategies. These include grants, loans and tax relief for sustainable transport and mobility, the circular economy and clean energy research; financial support to households for improved energy efficiency and renewable energy installations; and measures to foster the restoration of ecosystems.

At the same time, some countries have unveiled measures likely to have a direct or indirect negative impact on environmental outcomes. Some of these are temporary and form part of emergency economic rescue plans; others risk having longer-term implications. Measures include plans to roll back environmental regulations, reductions or waivers of environment-related taxes or charges, unconditional bailouts of emissions-intensive industries or companies, and increased subsidies of fossil fuel infrastructure investment.

“Addressing global issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean degradation, and inefficient resource use is more important than ever as we seek to rebuild our economies and enhance resilience against future shocks,” said Spanish Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge Teresa Ribera, chairing the Roundtable. “Well designed and implemented stimulus packages can drive a recovery that is both green and inclusive, driving income, prosperity and jobs as well as accelerating action on national and global environmental goals.”

The meeting included ministers of environment, climate or ecological transition from OECD member countries and Costa Rica as well as the European Commission Executive Vice President. The Roundtable is part of the preparations of the OECD’s Ministerial Council Meeting, which will take place on 28-29 October under the chairmanship of Spain and with Chile, Japan and New Zealand as Vice-chairs. This Roundtable comes just before the OECD releases its Interim Economic Outlook on 16 September.

The analysis notes that a period of low oil prices offers an opportunity to scale up the introduction of carbon pricing and continue phasing out support for fossil fuels. Taxing environmentally harmful consumption and production can mitigate environmental harm while improving economic efficiency. It is crucial that energy tax reforms do not increase the share of “energy poor”, as good access to energy services is essential for good standards of living. The distributional implications of other pricing instruments, such as taxes and charges on vehicle and fuel use should be also addressed. Similarly, reform of fossil fuel subsidies, which amounted to USD 582 billion in 2019 according to OECD and IEA data, should be accompanied by transition support for industries, communities, regions and vulnerable consumers.

The OECD analysis underlines the need to monitor and evaluate the impact of recovery measures on environmental outcomes, something that was lacking after the 2008 financial crisis. It presents 13 environmental indicators that can be used to measure the impact of stimulus measures, including carbon intensity, fossil fuel support, exposure to air pollution, water stress and environmentally related tax revenue.

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Environment

10 years to restore our planet. 10 actions that count

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Against a backdrop of environmental crisis, the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is a chance to revive the natural world that supports us all.  A decade may sound like a long time. But scientists say that these next ten years will count most in the fight to avert climate change and the loss of millions of species. Here are ten actions in the strategy of the UN Decade that can build a #GenerationRestoration. 

  1. Empower a global movement  

The UN Decade aims to stop and reverse the destruction and degradation of billions of hectares of ecosystems. It is a daunting task, made more complicated by the diversity of ecosystems and the threats they are facing: from lush forests threatened by wildfires to agricultural soils so eroded that they may only carry a few more years of harvests. No single entity can steer the course in this endeavour. The UN Decade thus connects and empowers the actions of the many. Groups and individuals can get informed about restoration opportunities in their area, joining initiatives already underway, or start their own.  

  1. Invest in restoration

Restoration takes resources. Organizations driving activities on the ground are often underfunded and face financial insecurity. While the benefits of restoration far outweigh the costs, it can only happen with long-term financing. Governments, international lenders, development agencies, the private sector and individuals will have to ramp up their support. 

  1. Set the right incentives  

In the long-term, healthier ecosystems can produce bigger harvests, more secure incomes and a healthier environment. But caring for nature can also mean foregoing some of the financial gains of less sustainable practices. There are ways to change this by incentivizing restoration activities and reducing subsidies that finance harmful practices, in the agriculture and fishing industries, for example.

  1. Celebrate leadership  

Over the past years, we have witnessed incredible momentum around restoration. Campaigns to plant trillions of trees have captured the imagination of many communities. Under the Bonn Challenge, more than 60 countries have committed to bringing 350 million hectares of forest landscapes back to life. Indigenous peoples have acted as defenders of their ecosystems for generations. The UN Decade will celebrate leadership and encourage others to step up.  

  1. Shift behaviours  

Deforestation, the depletion of fish stocks and the degradation of agricultural soils are all caused by global consumption patterns. The UN Decade will work with all partners to identify and encourage restoration-friendly consumption. This can range from changes in diets to promoting restoration-based products.  

  1. Invest in research  

Restoration is complex. Practices that work in one ecosystem may have adverse impacts in another. As the climate changes, new uncertainties arise. Returning to a former state may not be desirable as hotter temperatures or shifting rainfall call for more resilient plants and crops. Scientific understanding of how to restore and adapt ecosystems is still developing. Considerable investments are needed to identify the best practices to restore our planet – one plot at a time.  

  1. Build capacity  

Thousands of conservation and restoration initiatives are already underway. The UN Decade will be fuelled by their vision, expertise and dedication. However, practitioners often face barriers that keep them from taking their projects to scale. Other critical sectors, such as finance, require more data and insights to make informed decisions. The UN Decade’s strategy seeks to build the capacity of marginalized groups that stand to lose most from the destruction of ecosystems – such as indigenous peoples, women and youth to take an active role in restoration. 

  1. Celebrate a culture of restoration 

The power to revive our environment does not lie only with governments, experts and practitioners alone. Healing the planet is a cultural challenge. The UN Decade’s strategy therefore calls on artists, storytellers, producers, musicians and connectors to join the #GenerationRestoration. 

  1. Build up the next generation 

Youth and future generations are most impacted by the current rapid destruction of ecosystems – they also stand to benefit the most from a restoration economy. The UN Decade’s strategy links the wellbeing of youth and the goals of restoration. Education for restoration will turn today’s children into ecosystem ambassadors and provide skills for sustainable jobs.

  1. Listen and learn 

We would like to hear from you. Take a quick survey to help us learn more about you and how you want to be involved.  

UN Environment

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