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Our ‘new normal’ requires human contact

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A boy studies at home while his mother sits by his side in Jessore, Bangladesh. © UNICEF/Shafiqul Alam Kiron

“Whether we are living in countries currently locked down or slowly opening up again, we all are facing a reality different from what we have ever known”, said UN Youth Envoy Jayathma Wickramanayake, moderator of the public series that is jointly sponsored by her office along with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

“Coping with COVID” offered young people a platform to connect amidst uncertainty, generate mental health awareness among youth worldwide, and strengthen demand for integrated mental health and psychosocial interventions.

Not normal

Secretary-General António Guterres said the pandemic has highlighted the fragility of our societies and the need to build back better.

Asked about what the so-called “new normal” means to him, the UN chief refused to characterize our collective state today in those terms, calling it instead “abnormal”.

“For me, human life needs human contact”, he told the participants. 

Explaining that he missed his family, friends and colleagues, Mr. Guterres maintained “we will not have a new normal before we are able to establish that contact”.

He did however, credit the ability of UN staffers over the past four months of lockdown, to easily adapt to the virtual world, which has kept the Organization “open for business”.

Mr. Guterres stressed not only the importance of universal healthcare, but that mental health needs to be given the priority it deserves.

“It is absolutely essential that governments make mental health central to their responses to COVID-19”, he spelled out.

He also stressed that youth have a “key role in helping to imagine a better future for everyone”, one that is more sustainable and inclusive. 

‘Strengthen mental health services’

Also taking part, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, acknowledged that “while “COVID-19 is a crisis, it’s also an opportunity to improve things”.

“We should use this moment to strengthen mental health services for adolescents”, he emphasized.

Noting that the full integration of mental health services for young people is “one of the greatest challenges”, he pointed out the need “to increase investment and political commitment”.

“There is no health without mental health”, he concluded. “The role of youth is crucial to make this happen”.

Top priority

For her part, UNICEF Executive Director, Henriette Fore, maintained that “mental health will be a top priority for us”. 

“Mental health and psychosocial support will be deeply engrained in all of our programmes”, she upheld, promising to “engage young people” and talk about good policies and services “in every country.” 

Although this is already being done in many countries, she underlined that “it has to be part of a primary health care system”.

Finally, Ms. Fore stressed to the young people in attendance that it is crucial not to talk “about” youth but “with” them.

‘Rainbow in every storm’

Meanwhile, Queen Mathilde of Belgium, told the virtual assembly that there was a need to “be active on all fronts: prevention, improve resilience, raise awareness, fight stigma and guarantee access to care for all”.

“We can use the momentum created by the mobilization around COVID-19 to accelerate the mobilization around mental health”, she added.

In sharing responses to an online polling session, one young speaker in the Philippines highlighted some of the challenges young people are facing as well as actions they are taking either to protect themselves or others around them, calling youth “front liners” in the response.

Commented on their engagement around the word he said: “There is a rainbow in every storm.”

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Human Rights

Over 1.9 billion people in Asia-Pacific unable to afford a healthy diet

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A child is tested for malnutrition at a UNICEF-supported health clinic in Bangladesh. According a UN report, malnutrition among young children and infants remains a pervasive problem in South Asia. UNICEF/Siegfried Modola

The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and surging food prices are keeping almost two billion people in Asia and the Pacific from healthy diets, United Nations agencies said on Wednesday.

According to the 2020 Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition, the region’s poor have been worst affected, forced to choose cheaper and less nutritious foods. The report is jointly produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO). 

“The outbreak of COVID-19 and a lack of decent work opportunities in many parts of the region, alongside significant uncertainty of food systems and markets, has led to a worsening of inequality, as poorer families with dwindling incomes further alter their diets to choose cheaper, less nutritious foods,” the agencies said

“Due to higher prices for fruits, vegetables and dairy products, it has become nearly impossible for poor people in Asia and the Pacific to achieve healthy diets, the affordability of which is critical to ensure food security and nutrition for all – and for mothers and children in particular.” 

As a result, progress is also slowing on improving nutrition, a key target for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As of 2019, over 350 million people in the region are estimated to have been undernourished, with an about 74.5 million children under five stunted (too short for their age) and 31.5 million suffering from wasting (too thin for height). 

‘Impact most severe in first 1,000 days’ 

The UN agencies went on to note that while nutrition is vitally important throughout a person’s life, the impact of a poor diet is most severe in the first 1,000 days, from pregnancy to when a child reaches the age of two. 
“Young children, especially when they start eating their ‘first foods’ at six months, have high nutritional requirements to grow well and every bite counts,” they said. 

The agencies called for an integrated systems approach – bringing together food, water and sanitation, health, social protection and education systems – to address underlying factors and achieve healthy diets for all mothers and children. 

‘Changing face of malnutrition’ 

They also highlighted the “changing face” of malnutrition, with highly processed and inexpensive foods, readily available throughout Asia and the Pacific. Often packed with sugar and unhealthy fats, such food items lack the vitamins and minerals required for growth and development and also increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

The report urged governments to invest more in nutrition and food safety to promote healthy diets, as well as regulate sales and marketing of food for consumers, especially children. It also highlighted the need for action within the private sector, given the sector’s important role in the food system and its value chains for achieving healthy diets. 

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Human Rights

Israel: ‘Halt and reverse’ new settlement construction

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A little boy stands on the remains of his family's demolished home in the West Bank. (File) UNRWA/Lara Jonasdottir

Israel’s decision to advance plans for some 800 new settlement units, most of which are located deep inside the occupied West Bank, has sparked the concern of UN Secretary-General António Guterres. 

In a statement issued on Monday by his spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, the UN chief urged the Israeli Government to “halt and reverse such decisions”, calling them “a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution, and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace”. 

‘No legal validity’ 

Mr. Guterres reiterated that Israel’s establishing of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, “has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law”. 

“Settlement expansion increases the risk of confrontation, further undermines the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and further erodes the possibility of ending the occupation and establishing a contiguous and viable sovereign Palestinian State, based on the pre-1967 lines”, he said. 

Pushing forward 

Israel has given the green light to 780 new homes in West Bank settlements on Sunday in a move widely seen as being influenced by the imminent transfer of power in the United States. 

Breaking with decades of US diplomacy, outgoing President Donald Trump, in 2019 unilaterally declared that the settlements no longer breached international law. 

Against that backdrop, Israel has been increasing construction and either approved or made plans for more than 12,000 homes in 2020, according to news reports.

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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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