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COVID-19: Preparations for southern flu season must be a priority

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Despite the ongoing global response to COVID-19, the world cannot lose sight of the significant public health risk posed by influenza, which affects every country every year and takes its own deadly toll, World Health Organization (WHO) Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on Monday. 

“As we enter the southern hemisphere influenza season…we must ensure influenza remains a top priority”, the agency chief said during his media briefing.  “Co-circulation of COVID-19 and influenza can worsen the impact on health systems that are already overwhelmed.”

Globally, more than 7.8 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 430,000 deaths caused by the virus have been reported to WHO to date, he said.  More than 100,000 cases have been reported each day for the last two weeks – almost 75 per cent of them from 10 countries in the Americas and South Asia. 

“Countries must stay alert to the possibility of resurgence,” he said.  Just last week, China reported a new cluster of cases in Beijing after more than 50 days without a single case in the city.  With more than 100 cases now confirmed, the origin and extent of the outbreak are being investigated.

‘Highly Functional’ System 

At the same time, he said more than 500 million people are vaccinated against flu each year, based on recommendations made by WHO on the composition of flu vaccines.  To know which viruses are circulating, WHO relies on information reported by 125 countries through the Global Influenza Surveillance and Reporting System, which the agency uses to make recommendations for the composition of flu vaccines.

“The infrastructure, people, skills and experience built up through [this system], WHO Collaborating Centres and National Influenza Centres have been the foundation for detecting COVID-19”, Tedros explained.  However, the system – in place since 1952 – is experiencing significant challenges, with flu surveillance either suspended or declining in many countries, and a “sharp” decline seen in the sharing of flu information and viruses, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dramatic fall in flu testing

Compared with the last three years, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of specimens tested for influenza globally, Tedros said, along with a 62 per cent drop in virus shipments to WHO Collaborating Centres and a 94 per cent fall in the number of flu viruses with genetic sequence data uploaded to the Surveillance and Response database.  

“These decreases due to a combination of issues, including the repurposing of staff and supplies, overburdened laboratories and transport restrictions”, he said.  The disruptions could lead to the loss of capacities for detecting and reporting new influenza viruses with pandemic potential.

Tedros pointed to WHO guidance on how to integrate surveillance for COVID-19 into routine influenza surveillance as an efficient a way to track the two respiratory illnesses. “This is not only cost-effective”, he said. “It’s also essential for protecting the world against the next flu season.” 

Wenqing Zhang, Director of WHO’s Global Influenza Programme, agreed that there will always be competing disease priorities or threats.  “But influenza is always there”, she said.  “This is really a very solid and highly functional foundation…to monitor influenza.” 

Every COVID-19 case must be tracked

More broadly, Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead on COVID-19, fielded questions on safely handling protests taking place in many countries.  It is important to consider whether the area is one of active virus transmission and whether there are ways to keep people physically distanced.  If someone falls ill, a system must be in place to quickly detect and monitor any subsequent cases.  

“Any opportunity where people are in crowded places and the virus is present, and appropriate proper measures are not in place, the virus can transmit”, she clarified.  “Every single case of COVID-19 is significant and must be followed up and cared for appropriately.”

New clusters, always a concern

To that point, Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said the emergence of new clusters always raises a concern, especially when the driver is not recognized.  WHO recommends taking immediate measures that involve investigating thoroughly, testing, isolating and quarantining contacts. These efforts have led to virus containment, whether related to religious communities, markets, migrant dormitories or other settings.

Beijing is a dynamic and connected city, he added, and the level of concern is reflected in the response of Chinese authorities to the latest outbreak, in the capital.  A WHO team based in Beijing, led by country representative and supported by epidemiologists permanently embedded there, are working with China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention. WHO may supplement its country office in the coming days as the investigation develops.

As to the risks of air travel, he said WHO is advising the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association and will issue considerations for travellers in the coming days.  “There is no zero risk in any environment,” he stressed. If someone falls ill, the ability to track anyone who has been on the plane is essential.  “We need to make the air travel experience as safe as possible.”

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Africa Today

Eritrea: Release journalists and politicians arrested 20 years ago

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The Eritrean authorities must immediately and unconditionally release 21 journalists and politicians who were arrested in a sweeping crackdown on dissent 20 years ago, said Amnesty International as it launched a new campaign #WhereAreEritreasDissidents

The arrests of the journalists between 21 and 23 September 2001 followed the arrest on 18 September 2001 of politicians popularly known as G-15 and the banning of independent media after they had published an open letter urging reforms.

“It is unconscionable that these brave prisoners of conscience are still languishing in jail 20 years since they were arrested for exercising their human rights, with no word from the authorities on their current circumstances, and that the ban on independent media remains in place,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa.  

“Days have turned into months, months into years and now years have turned into decades of unending anguish for these detainees, their families and loved ones. We call on President Isaias Afewerki to take meaningful steps to bring an end to this travesty of justice.”

The journalists arrested between 21 and 23 September 2001 are Dawit Isaak, Seyoum Tsehaye, Dawit Habtemichael, Mattewos Habteab, Fesseaye “Joshua” Yohannes, Amanuel Asrat and Temesegn Gebreyesus, Said Abdelkader, Yosuf Muhamed Ali and Medhanie Haile. The politicians – all members of Isaias’ ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) – include former Vice-President Mahmoud Ahmed Sheriffo and his wife and independence war heroine Aster Fissehatsion, and former foreign ministers Haile Woldetensae and Petros Solomon. Nine of the politicians and journalists have previously been reported to have died in detention, a claim the Eritrean authorities refuse to confirm.

“There are also many other politicians, journalists and activists that were arrested and detained without charge before September 2001 and since then and they must be released too,” said Deprose Muchena

Some of the high-profile detainees in Eritrea include former Finance Minister Berhane Abraha, who was arrested in September 2018 following his publication of a book considered critical of President Isaias, and Ciham Ali,  the daughter of the defected former Minister of Information Ali Abdu, who was arrested in 2012 aged 15, as she tried to flee the country.

Amnesty International has documented extremely poor prison conditions in Eritrea, in some cases amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Prisons in Eritrea are generally overcrowded, with inadequate water and sanitation facilities and providing poor-quality food and drinking water.

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Human Rights

Torture, killings, lawlessness, still blight Burundi’s rights record

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A man carries water close to Bujumbura in Burundi. © UNICEF/Karel Prinsloo

The people of Burundi continue to endure serious human rights violations including possible crimes against humanity, the majority committed by those with links to the ruling party, UN-appointed independent investigators said on Thursday.

Despite a pledge by President Evariste Ndayishimiye to address the situation in the country after years of violent repression, crimes including arbitrary detention and execution, torture and intimidation, have not stopped, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi.

“Not only have grave human rights violations continued to occur, but in some respects the situation has deteriorated”, since President Ndayishimiye’s took office in June last year, Commission chair Doudou Diene told journalists in Geneva.

These abuses happened against a backdrop of “multiple armed attacks” by opponents of the Government since August 2020, Mr. Diene explained.

“While seeking persons allegedly involved in the armed attacks or collaborating with rebel groups, the security forces targeted mainly members from the main opposition party, the National Congress for Liberty (CNL), former members of the Tutsi-dominated Burundian Armed Forces (ex-FAB), returnees and some of their family members. Some were executed, others disappeared or were tortured while detained arbitrarily.”

Dire situation

The Commission noted that although the level of political violence in the Great Lakes nation decreased immediately after the 2020 elections – and with the country appearing to be “on the road to normalization” – the human rights situation remains “dire”.

The national poll was held after the death of President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose decision to stand for a controversial third term in 2015 sparked major protests and mass displacement, and ultimately the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry by the Human Rights Council, in 2016.

The political climate today is “highly intolerant of dissent”, the Commissioners maintained in their fifth and final report to the Human Rights Council, highlighting how members of opposition parties – notably the CNL – have been targeted, in particular since June 2021.

Imbonerakure impunity

Many security officers and others linked to the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, continued to go unpunished for their crimes, they added, pointing to agents of the National Intelligence Service (SNR), police officers – including from the Mobile Rapid Intervention Groups (GMIR) – and the Imbonerakure youth-league, whose brutality has been documented in previous Commission of Inquiry reports.

Individuals belonging to these groups are “the main perpetrators of those violations, some of which could amount to crimes against humanity”, the Commission of Inquiry report said. “They continue to enjoy widespread impunity for their actions, as has been the case since 2015.”

Justice reforms lacking

Highlighting the lack of promised structural reforms to promote accountability in the country, Commissioner Françoise Hampson said that the “rule of law in Burundi continues to erode, despite the stated intention of President Ndayishimiye to restore it”.

In common with the Commission’s previous findings, Ms. Hampson noted how testimonies gathered for its latest report pointed to an organized campaign “against those elements of the civilian population that were seen as or thought to be hostile to the government in power” – a potential crime against humanity. “Some of the violations that this year’s report detail, seem to be a continuation of that policy,” she added.

In Burundi, the judicial system could not be relied upon “to curb or remedy human rights violations”, Ms. Hampson continued, warning that the newly elected Government “has only been strengthening its control over the judiciary”.

For the past five years, the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi has documented, monitored and reported alleged human rights violations in Burundi.

It has conducted more than 1,770 interviews, including remotely, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, as well as Burundi.

The Commission is scheduled to present its report to the Human Rights Council on 23 September, 2021.

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Development

Women in Albania to Gain Greater Access to Global Digital Jobs Market

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“Digital Jobs Albania” is a new World Bank initiative that will help women in Albania gain better access to online work opportunities and connect with the global economy. The initiative will provide intensive 3-month training in digital skills for women aged 16-35 years, empowering them to access online freelancer job opportunities in graphic design, web development and digital marketing.

The emergence of online freelancer job markets is creating new opportunities for Albanians to connect with the global economy. Websites such as Upwork, Fiverr and People Per Hour allow Albanians with the right skills to access online project work commissioned by companies and individuals anywhere in the world, while staying in their local communities.

Women in particular stand to gain. The female labor force participation in Albania is still 14.6 percentage points lower than for males. The gender pay gap remains 6.6 percent, according to 2020 data from the Albanian National Statistical Authority (INSTAT). The emerging online freelancing work model can play an important role in narrowing these gaps. Flexible work hours and the ability to work from home can help more women with the right skills stay in the labor market and gain financial independence.

The Digital Jobs Albania initiative, implemented in partnership with the Government of Albania, Coderstrust (an international digital skills training provider), and EuroPartners Development (a local consulting company), will provide an online training program to equip selected participants with in-demand technical skills. It will also provide mentorship to participants and help them develop the soft skills needed to successfully compete for project work on online freelancer websites. 

“This initiative offers an exciting new opportunity for Albanian women to acquire digital skills and join the online economy – a blueprint to inspire future projects in this space,” says Emanuel Salinas, World Bank Country Manager for Albania. “No one can afford to be left behind in the ongoing digital transformation.”

The initiative is part of broader ongoing World Bank engagement in Albania to help the country leverage the economic opportunities associated with digital trade in goods and services.

“Albania has recognized the importance of digital markets as an opportunity for economic development. We have mobilized a team from across the World Bank to support this effort, through this new initiative and others in the future,” says Christoph Ungerer, the World Bank task team leader for the Albania Digital Trade Project.

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