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COVID-19 is not just seasonal, as ‘first wave’ continues

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The COVID-19 virus is likely not impacted by the changing seasons like other respiratory diseases, the UN health agency said on Tuesday, before urging much greater respect for physical distancing measures to stop it spreading.

“The season does not seem to be affecting the transmission of this virus”, said Dr. Margaret Harris, World Health Organization (WHO) spokesperson, highlighting many people’s “fixed” belief to the contrary.

“What is affecting the transmission is mass gatherings, it’s people coming together, and people not social distancing, not taking the precautions to ensure they are not in close contact.”

Globally, WHO has reported as on Tuesday morning Geneva time, 16,301,736 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 650,069 deaths.

Hotspots

The Americas remains the epicentre by region, with more than 8.7 million cases, followed by Europe (3.2 million), South-East Asia (1.8 million), Eastern Mediterranean (1.5 million), Africa (712,920) and Western Pacific (291,993).

During a scheduled virtual press conference, Dr. Harris noted that the biggest outbreak “with the most intense, the highest numbers”, remained the US, where it is the middle of summer.

Brazil had also seen high infection rates, despite being an equatorial country, the WHO spokesperson continued.

‘Later’ flu season in Global South

Turning to countries in the global south, Dr Harris noted that winter was underway there, with samples tested, indicating “high” COVID infection rates but low influenza traces. “Now the interesting thing is we are seeing from those samples, high levels of COVID, but we’re not seeing high levels of influenza at the moment. So, we’re expecting a later flu season in the southern hemisphere.”

The development is in line with WHO’s latest influenza update indicating that globally, influenza activity is currently at lower-than-expected levels.

In temperate areas of the northern hemisphere, influenza activity has “returned to inter-seasonal levels”.

In Caribbean, Central American, South American, tropical African, Southern Asia and South East Asia countries, the WHO bulletin reported that there have been only sporadic or no cases detected.

Assessing the impact on countries finding themselves having to tackle both COVID-19 and influenza at the same time, the WHO spokesperson debated whether a “melange” of respiratory diseases might prove problematic.

“That would be a concern, because if you have an increase in respiratory illness when you already have a very high burden of respiratory illness, that puts even more pressure on the health system,” she said.

‘One big wave’

Dr Harris also pushed back on the perception that a respiratory illness might come and go in several waves.

“It’s going to be one big wave”, she said. “It’s going to go up and down a bit…the best thing is to flatten it and turn it into just something that is lapping at your feet. But at the moment, first, second, third wave, these things don’t really make sense and we’re not really defining it that way.”

Asked about the WHO’s stance on charging for COVID-19 testing, the WHO official explained that this was a decision governed by countries alone. “Now we do everything we can to encourage all countries to test, because testing is absolutely essential,” she said. “You don’t know where your outbreak is if you’re not testing people. And we also encourage all countries to make access to testing wide and available”.

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Environment

Lao PDR Signs Agreement to Protect Forests and Reduce Carbon Emissions

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The Lao PDR and the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) have signed an agreement to provide up to $42 million between now and 2025 to support the country’s efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+). A ceremony today marked the launch of this forest- and climate-focused program.

Under this Emission Reductions Payment Agreement (ERPA), the World Bank commits to making payments to the Lao PDR for verified reductions of up to 8.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in northern Laos. The program aims to address the drivers and underlying causes of forest loss in six provinces (Houaphanh, Luang Prabang, Oudomxay, Luang Namtha, Bokeo, Xayabouly), encompassing a third of national territory. The region has been responsible for 40 percent of nationwide deforestation and forest degradation between 2005–15.

“We are committed to improving land use, strengthening forest protection, and enhancing forest restoration in line with the 2019 Forestry Law, the 9th National Socio-Economic Development Plan for 2021-2025, and the National Green Growth Strategy to 2030,” said Thongpath Vongmany, Vice Minister for Agriculture and Forestry. “This is an opportunity to drive economic growth and resilience with more sustainable rural land use based on participatory and integrated planning.”

The geography of northern Laos is distinct, with over 20 ethnic groups calling this mountainous region their home. Limited accessibility and infrastructure in these remote areas play a role in preserving cultural heritage, but also pose challenges for job opportunities, transportation, access to social services, and the promotion of industry and trade.

Working across sectors, the Lao emissions reduction program, entitled “Promoting REDD+ through Governance, Forest Landscapes and Livelihoods — Northern Laos”, supports better forest and land governance, land-use planning, livelihoods development, and sustainable ecosystem management to reduce pressure on forests. It also includes a benefit-sharing arrangement that will encourage communities and other stakeholders to participate.

“This innovative financing is part of World Bank support that helps the Lao PDR manage its landscapes for greener and more resilient economic growth and recovery,” said Nicola Pontara, World Bank Country Manager for Lao PDR. “This results-based funding will reduce emissions while benefiting people who depend on sustainable forests for their livelihoods.”

Lao PDR is the third country in Asia, after Indonesia and Vietnam, and the ninth country worldwide to sign an ERPA with the World Bank’s FCPF. The total value of these nine agreements, which have also been made with Chile, Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana and Mozambique, is nearly half a billion US dollars. Several other countries are expected to finalize their emission reductions programs and follow suit with ERPA signings early this year.

The Forest Carbon Partnership Facility is a global partnership of governments, businesses, civil society, and indigenous peoples’ organizations focused on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, forest carbon stock conservation, sustainable management of forests, and the enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries — activities commonly referred to as REDD+. Launched in 2008, the FCPF has worked with 47 developing countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, along with 17 donors who have made contributions and commitments totaling $1.3 billion.

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Human Rights

UN rights experts urge Israel to respect international obligations

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Demonstrators walking towards protest site by Gaza separation fence in 2018. (file photo) UNifeed Video

UN independent rights experts on Tuesday, described Israel’s conviction of human rights defender Issa Amro earlier this month, as showing disdain for the country’s international obligations.  

The comments came after the 6 January conviction by an Israeli military court of the Palestinian human rights defender and founder of Youth Against Settlements, a Hebron-based group, which opposes settlement expansion through non-violent civil resistance.  

In a statement from the UN human rights office, OHCHR, issued on Tuesday, the experts said that the country must immediately stop using its array of military security tools “to obstruct the legitimate and indispensable work of human rights defenders.” 

“Rather than prosecuting human rights defenders, Israel should be listening to them and correcting its own human rights conduct”, the UN Special Rapporteurs said, urging the country to obey its international obligations to provide protection to human rights defenders.  

Mr. Amro was convicted of six charges related to his human rights activities between 2010 and 2016. The experts said they fear he will be imprisoned when he is sentenced on 8 February. 

Systematic pattern 

“This is part of a clear and systematic pattern of detention, judicial harassment and intimidation by Israel of human rights defenders, a pattern that has increased in intensity recently”, the experts continued.  

They said Israeli authorities had arrested Mr. Amro numerous times, with the aim of silencing those who would defend the human rights of others.  

The UN experts Mr. Michael Lynk, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, and  Ms. Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, added that convicting him for participating in demonstrations without a permit, is contrary to new developments in international human rights law.  

“The failure to notify authorities of an upcoming assembly does not in itself render the act of participating in the assembly as unlawful”, they stated. 

Mr. Amro was convicted of three counts relating to participation in demonstrations without a permit. Another two counts relate to obstructing security forces, which concerned alleged refusal to accompany Israeli law enforcement officers during arrest. He was also convicted of assault, for allegedly pushing a settlement guard in 2010. 

“This conviction is part of a pattern where Israeli military law is used to restrict and penalise Palestinians for exercising their inviolable political and civil rights.”, the experts concluded, adding that the conviction appeared to be politically motivated.  

Long history 

Mr. Amro was first put on trial in an Israeli military court in 2016 on 18 charges dating back to 2010, including incitement, entering a closed military zone, and participating in a march without a permit. He had been taking part in a peaceful protest calling for the re-opening of Shuhada Street, the former commercial centre of Hebron. 

The Special Rapporteurs and other human rights experts have sent several letters to Israel seeking clarifications regarding Issa Amro’s case, according to the OHCHR statement. 

Special Rapporteurs and independent human rights experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council and are neither UN staff nor paid for their work. 

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Environment

Climate change is a ‘global emergency’- Poll

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Almost two-thirds of over 1.2 million people surveyed worldwide say that climate change is a global emergency, urging greater action to address the crisis, results from a new UN climate survey revealed on Wednesday. 

Described as the biggest climate survey yet conducted, UN Development Programme (UNDP)’s “People’s Climate Vote” poll also showed that people supported more comprehensive climate policies to respond to the challenges. The survey covered 50 countries with over half the world’s population.

“The results of the survey clearly illustrate that urgent climate action has broad support amongst people around the globe, across nationalities, age, gender and education level,” Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator said in a news release

The poll also showed “how” people want their policymakers to tackle the climate crisis. 

“From climate-friendly farming to protecting nature, and investing in a green recovery from COVID-19, the survey brings the voice of the people to the forefront of the climate debate. It signals ways in which countries can move forward with public support as we work together to tackle this enormous challenge,” Mr. Steiner added. 

‘Biggest survey ever’ on climate change 

UNDP said that the poll was the world’s biggest survey ever of public opinion on climate change. It was conducted as countries prepare for negotiations at November’s COP26, the 26th session of Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

The survey asked respondents if climate change was a global emergency and whether they supported 18 key climate policies across six action areas: economy, energy, transport, food and farms, nature, and protecting people.  

Its target audience of 1.2 million included over half a million people under the age of 18, a key constituency on climate change that is typically unable to vote yet in regular elections. Innovations, such as distribution across mobile gaming networks, were used to ensure that the young audience were reached.  

According to UNDP, polling experts at the University of Oxford weighted the huge sample to make it representative of the age, gender, and education population profiles of the countries in the survey, resulting in small margins of error (+/- 2 per cent). 

People want broad climate policies 

The results showed that people supported “broad climate policies”, beyond the current situation, UNDP said. 

For instance, in eight of the ten survey countries with the highest emissions from the power sector, majority backed more renewable energy. In four out of five countries with the highest emissions from land-use change and enough data on policy preferences, the majority supported conserving forests and land. Nine out of ten of the countries with the most urbanized populations backed more use of clean electric cars and buses, or bicycles.   

The survey also found a direct link between a person’s level of education and their desire for climate action, according to UNDP. 

There was very high recognition of the climate emergency among those who had attended university or college in all countries, from lower-income countries such as Bhutan (82 per cent) and Democratic Republic of the Congo (82 per cent), to wealthy countries like France (87 per cent) and Japan (82 per cent).  

Findings also revealed that while younger people (under 18) were more likely to say climate change is an emergency, other age groups were not far behind, with 65 per cent aged 18-35; 66 per cent aged 36-59; and 58 per cent over 60, expressing affirmation. 

“[This] illustrated how widely held this view has become,” said UNDP. 

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