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.”
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”.
Escalation of violence in Gaza
The ongoing and serious escalation of violence in and around Gaza between Palestinian militants and Israel has claimed the lives of 13 Palestinians by Israeli airstrikes, including a 5-year-old child and one woman, informed Lynn Hastings, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in the territory.
In a statement published on Saturday, Ms. Hastings expressed her grave concern for the situation that has left more than 100 Palestinians injured, as well as 7 Israelis.
Residential areas in both Gaza and Israel have also been hit and 31 families in Gaza are now homeless.
“The humanitarian situation in Gaza is already dire and can only worsen with this most recent escalation. The hostilities must stop to avoid more deaths and injuries of civilians in Gaza and Israel. The principles of international humanitarian law including those of distinction, precaution and proportionality must be respected by all parties”, she urged.
Basic services in danger
Ms. Hastings warned that fuel for the Gaza Power Plant is due to run out this Saturday and electricity has already been cut.
“The continued operation of basic service facilities such as hospitals, schools, warehouses, and designated shelters for internally displaced persons is essential and now at risk”, she cautioned.
The Humanitarian Coordinator added that movement and access of humanitarian personnel, for critical medical cases, and for essential goods, including food and fuel into Gaza, must not be impeded so that humanitarian needs can be met.
She also underscored that Israeli authorities and Palestinian armed groups must immediately allow the United Nations and its humanitarian partners to bring in fuel, food, and medical supplies and to deploy humanitarian personnel in accordance with international principles.
“I reiterate the United Nations Special Coordinator’s appeal on all sides for an immediate de-escalation and halt to the violence, to avoid destructive ramifications, particularly for civilians”, Ms. Hastings concluded.
Nuclear-free world is possible, test-ban treaty chief says
Nuclear weapons will continue to pose a risk to humanity unless countries fully adhere to the treaty that prohibits their testing, a senior UN official said at a press conference in New York on Friday.
Journalists were briefed by Robert Floyd, Executive Secretary of the body that oversees the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which opened for signature 25 years ago but has yet to enter into force because it requires ratification by a handful of key countries, which have nuclear capabilities.
“Once in force, the CTBT will serve as an essential element of a nuclear weapons-free world. In order to achieve this world, we all aspire to, a universal and effectively verifiable prohibition on nuclear testing is a fundamental necessity,” he said.
World at risk
Mr. Floyd was speaking against the backdrop of the latest nuclear non-proliferation conference, which began this week at UN Headquarters after two years of pandemic-related delays.
Countries are reviewing progress towards implementing the 50-year-old Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
At the opening on Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world was “just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation, away from nuclear annihilation”.
“Until we have full adherence to the CTBT, nuclear testing and the proliferation of nuclear weapons will continue to pose unacceptable risk to humanity,” said Mr. Floyd.
Drop in testing
The CTBT complements the non-proliferation treaty, said Mr. Floyd, and it has already made a difference in the world.
“We’ve gone from over 2,000 nuclear tests conducted between 1945 and 1996, to fewer than 12 tests since the treaty opened for signature,” he said. “Only one country has tested this millennium.”
The treaty has also received near-universal support. So far, 186 countries have signed the CTBT, and 174 have ratified it, four in the last six months alone.
However, entry into force requires that the treaty must be signed and ratified by 44 specific nuclear technology holder countries, eight of which have yet to ratify it: China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Pakistan and the United States.
Asked about these countries, Mr. Floyd replied “they have their own calculus and strategic objectives and geopolitical considerations as to whether they feel free to move forward”, adding that they all support the CTBT and its objectives.
Mr. Floyd also reported on the activities of the organization that promotes the treaty, which he heads.
The CTBTO, as it has known, has built a state-of-the-art verification system to detect nuclear explosions, capable of 24/7 monitoring.
Staff also train inspectors from Member States so that they are ready to conduct on-site verifications once the treaty enters into force. Furthermore, countries use CTBTO data for civilian and scientific applications, such as tsunami warning systems and other university research.
“Even without having entered into force, the CTBT is already helping to save lives in countries around the world,” said Mr. Floyd. “Even those that have not yet ratified the treaty are benefiting from this global collaboration and technological expertise.”
Horn of Africa faces most ‘catastrophic’ food insecurity in decades
The World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Tuesday that the Greater Horn of Africa is experiencing one of the worst hunger crises of the last 70 years.
More than 37 million people are facing acute hunger, with approximately seven million children under the age of five acutely malnourished in the region.
While finding food and safe water is the absolute priority, WHO said that ensuring a strong health emergency response is needed to avert preventable disease and deaths.
The UN agency is calling for $123.7 million to respond to rising health needs and prevent a food crisis from turning into a health crisis.
“The situation is already catastrophic, and we need to act now,” said Ibrahima Soce Fall, WHO Assistant Director General for Emergencies Response. “We cannot continue in this underfunding crisis”.
The Horn of Africa includes Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya.
“There are now four seasons where the rain didn’t come as predicted and a fifth season is estimated to also fail. Places where there is drought the problem keeps worsening and worsening,” said WHO Incident Manager Sophie Maes.
“In other places like South Sudan, there have been three years of consecutive flooding with almost 40 per cent of the country being flooded. And we are looking at something that is going to get worse in the near future.”
Over 37 million people in the region are projected to reach the third level of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification scale (IPC3) and higher in the coming months.
This means that the population is in crisis, and only marginally able to meet minimum food needs by depleting essential livelihood assets or through crisis-coping strategies.
The effects of drought are particularly severe in eastern and southern Ethiopia, eastern and northern Kenya, and southern and central Somalia.
Food insecurity in South Sudan has reached the most extreme levels since independence in 2011, with 8.3 million people comprising 75 per cent of the population facing severe food insecurity.
Cost of inaction
Acute malnutrition leads to increased migration as populations move in search of food and pasture, according to WHO.
And disruptions often result in deteriorating hygiene and sanitation as outbreaks of infectious diseases, like cholera, measles, and malaria, are already on the rise.
Moreover, weak vaccination coverage and health services with insufficient resources could see a widespread increase in the number of disease outbreaks in country and across borders.
Care for severely malnourished children with medical complications will be severely impacted and result in high child mortality rates.
Disruptions in access to health care can further increase morbidity and mortality, as emergency conditions force populations to modify their health-seeking behaviour and prioritize access to life-saving resources such as food and water.
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