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APEC Health Working Group Statement on COVID-19

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Reflecting the discussions of the Health Working Group which met at the 1st APEC Senior Officials Meeting, 7-8 February 2020, Putrajaya, Malaysia

We, the member economies of the APEC Health Working Group (HWG), held a special discussion on the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic, which has affected many APEC members, as part of our two-day meeting during the first Senior Officials’ Meeting in Malaysia. We express our sincere condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives in this epidemic. We reaffirm the central importance of collaboration at all levels to combat this infectious disease and commit to working together to bring this epidemic under control as fast as possible. Lessons learned from past epidemics like SARS, 2009 H1N1 and Ebola have strengthened and improved the resiliency of the global public health system. These improvements in global health security are credit to the efforts of many people, including those in the health ministries and public health infrastructures of APEC economies.

We, the  APEC Health Working Group, recognize the major efforts and actions undertaken by all affected APEC economies to control the spread of COVID-19, in parallel with continual efforts to learn more about the virus, and defeat this common enemy. This entails working in close collaboration with all stakeholders and public health officials both across the APEC region and worldwide, noting the trans-boundary nature of disease. We appreciate all member economies’ efforts on transparency and recognize the importance of the role played by all APEC member economies to share information to increase the likelihood of success of collaborative efforts to fight the epidemic. The APEC Health Working Group also stresses the importance of working with established mechanisms, such as the World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations (2005), which play a key role in supporting the global response.

We, the APEC Health Working Group, also acknowledge that the current epidemic is having other effects on APEC economies, including travel and trade. Major threats to health security can impose an extra burden on health systems and increase costs. Therefore and in line with the HWG’s recent efforts to strengthen our policy-focus and contributions on issues of health and the economy, the APEC Health Working Group sees merit in exchanging views on the public health implications of efforts to respond and control this outbreak using an economic lens. These efforts will be in harmony with the work of other international fora and allow the APEC Health Working Group to amplify regional perspectives without duplicating work done elsewhere. In particular, the APEC Health Working Group will consider best practices that were utilized by APEC member economies during the COVID-19 epidemic to support the health needs of APEC member populations, with this knowledge-exchange aiming to promote resilient health systems and further strengthen rapid emergency response capacities in the APEC region. This work is closely aligned with existing APEC Health Working Group work streams and the APEC Health Working Group will review and discuss at its meeting in August 2020 during the 3rd Senior Officials’ Meeting. At that time, the APEC Health Working Group can consider advice and recommendations it may wish to advance to APEC Ministers and Leaders. The APEC Health Working Group will also consider how the Group’s efforts can encourage economies to take action to further enhance the resilience, scalability and sustainability of health systems to promote healthy economies and people.

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COVID-19: The global food supply chain is holding up, for now

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The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic is so far having little impact on the global food supply chain, but that could change for the worse – and soon – if anxiety-driven panic by major food importers takes hold, the World Food Programme (WFP) warned on Friday.

In a new report, “COVID-19: Potential impact on the world’s poorest people: A WFP analysis of the economic and food security implications of the pandemic”, the UN agency said that global markets for basic cereals are well-supplied and prices generally low.

However, it said, given the highly globalized nature of food production and supply, commodities need to move from the world’s ‘breadbaskets’ to where they are consumed – and COVID-19-related containment measures are starting to make this more challenging.

“Disruptions are so far minimal; food supply is adequate, and markets are relatively stable,” said WFP Senior Spokesperson, Elizabeth Byrs, noting that global cereal stocks are at comfortable levels and the outlook for wheat and other staple crops is positive for the rest of this year.

“But we may soon expect to see disruptions in food supply chains”, she said, explaining that if big importers lose confidence in the reliable flow of basic food commodities, panic buying could ensue, driving prices up.

‘Behavioural change’ could rock markets

Elaborating, a seasoned grain market analyst at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), quoted anonymously in the report, said the problem is not supply, but “a behavioral change over food security”.

“What if bulk buyers think they can’t get wheat or rice shipments in May or June?  That is what could lead to a global food supply crisis,” the analyst said.

For low-income countries, the consequences could be devastating, with long-term repercussions, with coping strategies coming at the expense of such essential services as health and education.

It recalled that when a food price crisis struck in 2008, the world’s poorest households – which typically spend the largest share of income on food – suffered disproportionately.

Using the economic pillar of the Proteus food security index – and taking into account dependency on primary commodities such as fuel, ores and metals for export earnings – the report said that countries in Africa and the Middle East are most vulnerable.

Africa most vulnerable

Africa accounts for the majority of the almost 212 million people in the world who are chronically food insecure and the 95 million who live amidst acute food insecurity, the report noted.

Ms. Byrs added that labour shortages could disrupt the production and processing of labour-intensive crops in particularly, especially in vulnerable countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Other potential sources of disruption include blockages along transport routes – a particular concern for fresh produce – and quarantine measures that could impede farmers’ access to markets, he explained.

Going forward, the WFP report said that it is essential to monitor food prices and markets, and to transparently disseminate information – thus helping to strengthen government policies while also averting public panic, and social unrest.

It added that in places where food insecurity is caused by restricted access, rather than lack of availability, cash-based transfers – which can often be made through contactless solutions – should be considered as a standard response.

“Planning in-kind food assistance is essential”, the report continued, noting that supply chain disruptions are likely to affect higher-value items first.  Such items involve more tiers of suppliers, human interaction and dependency on few suppliers – putting specialized nutritious food more at risk than staples.

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Refugees in Greece: MEPs demand solidarity, warn about impact of health crisis

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The EU and its member states must help Greece manage its borders, according to Civil Liberties MEPs, who warn about the risk of COVID-19 spreading in refugee camps.

MEPs stressed that the current pandemic is yet more evidence that no country can deal with certain challenges alone. They praised the commitment to relocate 1,600 unaccompanied minors from the Greek islands to other EU countries, but requested clarification about when precisely this will happen and about which member states will participate. Some requested that relocation should also apply to other vulnerable asylum-seekers and to families.

Critical situation in refugee camps

Many MEPs are worried about a possible outbreak of COVID-19 in the overcrowded hotspots on the Greek islands, given the already dire conditions in which people are living. Some suggested transferring people to the Greek mainland or using empty hotel rooms to ensure social distancing, while others opposed any additional relocation, to avoid creating problems of public order.

The discussion also touched upon the crisis that followed Turkey’s announcement one month ago that it would let people cross into EU territory. MEPs underlined that solidarity with frontline countries is key and that migration should not be used for political purposes. Several speakers also questioned the Greek authorities’ decision not to accept any asylum requests for a month and reiterated that, as signatories to the Geneva Convention, all member states must respect the right to seek international protection.

In a debate that you can watch again online, the Civil Liberties Committee assessed on Thursday the situation at Greece’s external borders with Greek Ministers for Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, and for Citizen Protection, Michalis Chrisochoidis. Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson, and the Croatian State Secretary for European and International Affairs, Terezija Gras, presented their views to MEPs, as did Frontex Executive Director, Fabrice Leggeri, and the Director of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), Michael O’Flaherty.

MEPs call for solidarity and measures to prevent Covid19 crisis in refugee camps

The situation of refugees in Greece calls for a concerted EU response to avoid a Covid-19 outbreak, according to MEPs on the civil liberties committee.

As Europe grapples with the challenges of the coronavirus crisis, concern is also growing over the living conditions of asylum-seekers in camps on the Greek islands.

The situation at the Greek-Turkish border escalated at the beginning of March when Turkey opened its borders to asylum seekers and refugees by breaking the 2016 migration pact with the EU.

In a virtual meeting, the civil liberties committee discussed the current border situation and the need to avoid this humanitarian crisis turning into a public health issue with the Greek government. Representatives from the European Commission, Frontex and the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency joined MEPs in stressing the importance of solidarity and the unity of the European Union to help mitigate the growing crisis.

Measures in place

Together with member states and EU agencies, the Commission has set up an emergency contingency plan, regularly monitors the situation and has adopted new measures.

Two rapid border interventions were launched, additional border guards have been deployed and Greece activated the Civil Protection Mechanism, resulting in more than 90,000 items of assistance to the camps being giving to Greece by EU countries.

All migrants arriving in the hotspots undergo a mandatory health check. Newly arrived and rescued people are kept in separate areas until their medical screening has been completed.

The Commission has allocated a budget of €350 million in continued support for Greece, where most of the refugees and migrants arrive, €50 million of which will be for medical care.

After receiving a health check, 1,600 unaccompanied minors currently staying in the hotspots on the islands will be relocated to other EU countries:, namelyGermany, France, Portugal, Finland, Lithuania, Croatia, Ireland and Luxembourg. Some will be travelling to Luxembourg next week.

With the support of the International Organization for Migration and Frontex, a voluntary scheme has been set up to encourage people to go back to their home countries.

More support needed

Notis Mitarachi, the Greek Minister for Migration and Asylum, said that many special measures had been taken to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak in the camps on the islands, but that more support was needed.

MEPs called for more support, accommodation facilities and medical equipment, extending relocations to families, extending existing asylum deadlines and considering doing interviews virtually.

The Commission has proposed an additional budget of €350 million for the construction of new camps on the mainland in Greece and new apartments, which will require approval from Parliament.

Margaritis Schinas, Commission Vice-President for Promoting the European way of life, said it was imortant to stick to our values and respect fundamental human rights and EU law. He added that the EU should also continue its work on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, set to be presented in the coming months.

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World Bank’s $350M Grant for Bangladesh Will Help Rohingya and Local Communities

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The World Bank today approved $350 million in grant financing for three projects to help Bangladesh cope with one of the world’s largest forced exodus. These grants will help Bangladesh address the needs of the host communities and the displaced Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar district for health services, response to gender-based violence, social protection, basic services and infrastructure. 

“Bangladesh has shown great leadership by providing shelter to around 1.1 million Rohingya, which is about three times of the local population in Teknaf and Ukhia upazilas. Naturally, this has placed immense strain on existing infrastructure and social service delivery, and increased health and disaster risks,” said Mercy Tembon, World Bank Country Director for Bangladesh and Bhutan. “The three grants will cater to the needs of both the host and Rohingya communities. At the same time, they will strengthen the country’s service delivery capacity and increase resilience to natural disaster and climate change.”

The $150 million Health and Gender Support Project for Cox’s Bazar District will enable 3.6 million people in Cox’s Bazar including the Rohingya to have access to health, nutrition and family planning services as well as address gender-based violence through preventive and response services.

The infant mortality rate and prevalence of stunting in Cox’s Bazar is higher than national average. The project will renovate and upgrade health facilities in Cox’s Bazar, including District Sadar Hospital and the Mother and Child Welfare Center in the localities; and the Women Friendly Spaces inside the Rohingya camps. The project will also help fill in vacant positions of health professionals and ensure adequate medical supplies. Within the Rohingya camps, the project will also provide psychosocial counseling, immunization, Tuberculosis screening and treatment and nutrition services.  

The $100 million additional financing to the Emergency Multi-Sector Rohingya Crisis Response Project will scale up access to energy, water, sanitation and disaster-resilient infrastructures for the Rohingya and the surrounding host communities.

The project will benefit about 780,800 people, including 140,800 local people with better public infrastructure. This includes access to improved water sources for 365,800 people and better sanitation for 171,800 people. It will help build 40 multi-purpose disaster shelters, accessible to 81,000 people. The project will also support renewable energy systems  using solar photovoltaic nano-grid schemes to increase access to clean electricity and install  around 4,000 solar street lights, 975 lightning protection systems and build 250 km of climate resilient roads. It will also help government agencies to strengthen institutional systems and capacities to plan, coordinate and respond to crisis and emergencies.

The $100 million additional financing to the Safety Net Systems for the Poorest Project will help provide livelihoods and income support to poor and vulnerable households in the host communities using an existing national safety net program – Employment Generation Program for the Poorest; and scale-up social assistance coverage to the Rohingya under the Emergency Multi-Sector Rohingya Crisis Response Project. The additional financing will benefit 40,000 host community households and 85,000 Rohingya households.

With these three grants, the World Bank has provided a total of $480 million in grants to enable Bangladesh to deal with the displaced population inflow. Bangladesh currently has one of the largest IDA programs totaling $11.8 billion. Since Independence, the World Bank has committed more than $30 billion in grants, interest-free, and concessional credits to the country.

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