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New Africa alliance aims to tackle deadly COVID ‘infodemic’

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A new network in Africa aims to combat the “infodemic” of misinformation online surrounding COVID-19 and other health emergencies on the continent, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Thursday. 

The Africa Infodemic Response Alliance (AIRA), brings together 13 international and regional organizations, together with fact-checking groups which have expertise in data and behavioural science, epidemiology, research, digital health and communications. 

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said the Alliance has the unique reach, knowledge and skills to help halt the impact of dangerous misinformation. 

“In health emergencies, misinformation can kill and ensure diseases continue to spread. People need proven, science-based facts to make informed decisions about their health and wellbeing, and a glut of information – an infodemic – with misinformation in the mix makes it hard to know what is right and real”, she said.  

Detect, disrupt, debunk 

AIRA is the first initiative of its kind, working to detect, disrupt and counter damaging misinformation on public health issues in Africa.  

Since the new coronavirus emerged late last year, digital platforms have been inundated with COVID-19 information, much of which is inaccurate and misleading, said WHO. 

The agency cited statistics from UN Global Pulse, the UN Secretary-General’s initiative on big data and artificial intelligence.  

Between February and November of this year, information about the virus has been shared and viewed over 270 billion times online, and mentioned nearly 40 million times on Twitter and web-based news sites, in the 47 countries of the WHO African Region.  

Although a large proportion of this information is inaccurate and misleading, people continue to share content on social media, whether intentionally or unknowingly, which include conspiracies around unproven treatments, false cures and anti-vaccine messages 

While it is difficult to determine exactly how much misinformation is being circulated, WHO said fact-checking organizations in Africa report that they have debunked more than 1,000 misleading reports since the start of the pandemic. 

Collaboration and support 

Among other efforts, AIRA will work collaboratively to counter false information around COVID-19 vaccines, in addition to complementing public health awareness raising and community engagement efforts, by creating demand for vaccines in the region. 

The Alliance will also support journalists and media outlets to effectively share lifesaving information based on scientific evidence and debunk disinformation on health issues. African countries will also receive assistance in developing tailored infodemic management strategies, including analysing trends and behaviours. 

AIRA members include the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, UN Global Pulse, and the UN Verified initiative: the Organization’s own campaign against pandemic misinformation globally. 

Misinformation: An old enemy

Although COVID-19 represents a new challenge to the global community, the President of the UN General Assembly recalled that the world has seen the dangers of misinformation before, including in response to disease. 

“The coverage of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine has decreased in some places, due to misinformation about the vaccine. Measles has become resurgent. Misinformation has taken us backwards”, President Volkan Bozkir said on Wednesday during an Assembly meeting on sharing best practices for the infodemic. 

He emphasized that trust in institutions is crucial, as “people are more likely to turn to less credible alternative sources of information when they do not trust traditional sources.” 

Mr. Bozkir welcomed steps taken by countries and international organizations to combat the infodemic, as well as UN efforts to counter “the scourge of misinformation, stigmatization and harmful health advice and strengthen trust in science.”

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Africa Today

Mozambique: Violence continues in Cabo Delgado, as agencies respond to growing needs

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A woman and her baby who fled their home in northern Mozambique in November 2020 are now living in a camp for displaced people. © UNHCR/Juliana Ghazi

Civilians continue to flee armed conflict and insecurity in northern Mozambique, more than two months after militants attacked the coastal city of Palma, located in Cabo Delgado province, UN agencies reported on Friday. 

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, reports that some 70,000 people have fled the city since 24 March, bringing overall displacement to nearly 800,000. 

People have been escaping daily for districts further south, or to neighbouring Tanzania. Thousands more are reported to be stranded in areas around Palma, with restricted humanitarian access. 

Shots fired, houses burned 

“Those fleeing have told UNHCR staff that the situation in Palma remains very unstable, with regular gunfire at night and torching of houses”, Spokesperson Babar Baloch said during a briefing in Geneva. 

UNHCR and partners recently assisted people living in dire conditions in remote areas around Palma, distributing relief items to some 10,000 who have been displaced. 

The agency continues to advocate for internally displaced people to receive protection and assistance, and for those seeking safety in Tanzania, to access asylum. 

Forced back into danger 

Mozambican authorities report that many people attempting to cross the river, which marks the border between the two countries, have been forcibly returned.  More than 9,600 have been pushed back since January, with 900 removals occurring over a two-day period this week. 

“UNHCR reiterates its call for those fleeing the conflict to have access to territory and asylum, and, in particular, for the principle of non-refoulement (no forced return) to be respected”, said Mr. Baloch. “Refugees must not be forced back into danger.” 

‘A children’s crisis’ 

The UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, said needs are enormous in Cabo Delgado, located in a region that has barely recovered from a deadly cyclone in 2019.  

In the wake of the attack in Palma, some 2,000 children have no idea of the whereabouts of their parents, or even if they are alive, agency Spokesperson James Elder told journalists

“What is happening in Cabo Delgado is a children’s crisis – an emergency on top of an emergency – a deadly cocktail from the impacts of climate change, conflict and COVID-19”, he said. 

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Kenya Receives $750 million Boost for COVID-19 Recovery Efforts

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To reinforce Kenya’s resilient, inclusive and green economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, the World Bank approved $750 million in development policy financing to support policy reforms that will strengthen transparency and accountability in public procurement and promote efficient public investment spending.

This development policy operation supports measures to improve medium-term fiscal and debt sustainability through greater transparency and efficiency in government spending, building on ongoing World Bank support to enhance public finance management systems. The operation provides for the establishment of an electronic procurement platform for the public sector that seeks to make government purchases of goods and services transparent. This will help increase accountability in public spending and reduce opportunities for corruption. The support also strengthens public investment management by seeking cost-savings and applying rigorous selection and monitoring and evaluation criteria to all projects. Both measures are expected to yield fiscal savings of up to $2.6 billion.

“The operation prioritizes reforms in hard hit sectors, such as healthcare, education, and energy, which have been made urgent by the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Keith Hansen, World Bank Country Director for Kenya. “In recognition of the severity of the crisis and need for a comprehensive response, we are supporting the government’s post-COVID-19 Economic Recovery Strategy, which is designed to mitigate the adverse socioeconomic effects of the pandemic and accelerate economic recovery and attain higher and sustained economic growth.”

The policy operation also prioritizes energy sector reforms to improve electricity access and ensure that Kenyans benefit from least-cost, clean energy sources. Further, the new policy framework will help strengthen Kenya Power and Lighting Company’s (KPLC’s) finances with a new competitive pricing regime.

Kenyans will also benefit from better healthcare and disease prevention, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable households, through National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) governance reforms and the establishment of the Kenya Center for Disease Control (KCDC) to strengthen disease prevention, detection, and response. Reforms will further seek to provide Kenyans with more equitable access to higher education, through a performance-based funding method to reduce the imbalances and inefficiencies created by the existing funding model for universities.

“Stabilizing the debt trajectory and reducing high debt costs is a top priority,” said Alex Sienaert, Senior Economist and Task Team Leader, World Bank Kenya. “This policy operation supports measures to reduce the budget deficit over time, such as by making public spending more efficient, whilst minimizing debt costs by helping to meet the government’s current financing requirements on concessional terms.”

DPOs are used by the World Bank to support a country’s policy and institutional reform agenda to help to accelerate inclusive growth and poverty reduction. The negative impacts of the COVID-19 crisis have made reforms that improve governance and service delivery, including those covered by this operation for Kenya, even more critical because they create better conditions for Kenya to inclusively and sustainably recover from it. Financing provided by the World Bank is offered on concessional terms, making it significantly lower than commercial loans. The total annual interest and service cost of the Kenya DPO is 3.1%.

* The World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA), established in 1960, helps the world’s poorest countries by providing grants and low to zero-interest loans for projects and programs that boost economic growth, reduce poverty, and improve poor people’s lives. IDA is one of the largest sources of assistance for the world’s 76 poorest countries, 39 of which are in Africa. Resources from IDA bring positive change to the 1.6 billion people who live in IDA countries. Since 1960, IDA has supported development work in 113 countries. Annual commitments have averaged about $21 billion over the last three years, with about 61 percent going to Africa.

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Risk of COVID-19 surge threatens Africa’s health facilities

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Health workers on Bwama Island on Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda prepare to administer COVID-19 vaccines. © UNICEF/Catherine Ntabadde

Critical health facilities across Africa risk being overwhelmed by surging COVID-19 infections, the UN health agency said on Thursday.

The appeal to the continent’s authorities to boost lifesaving facilities comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that vaccine shipments were at “a near halt”.

“The threat of a third wave in Africa is real and rising”, said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “Our priority is clear – it’s crucial that we swiftly get vaccines into the arms of Africans at high risk of falling seriously ill and dying of COVID-19.”

20% uptick in cases

As the continent struggles with vaccine shortages, the care of critically ill COVID-19 patients has lagged behind other parts of the world. While Africa has 2.9 per cent of cases globally, it accounts for 3.7 per cent of deaths.

Weak observance of preventive measures likely contributed to the crisis, along with increased population movement and interaction, and the arrival of winter in southern Africa.

In the last two weeks, the continent has recorded a 20 per cent increase in coronavirus infections, compared to the previous fortnight. “The pandemic is trending upwards in 14 countries and in the past week alone (and) eight countries witnessed an abrupt rise of over 30 per cent in cases,” WHO said in a statement.

Intensive care filling up

South Africa has seen “a sustained increase in cases”, while Uganda reported a 131 per cent week-on-week rise last week “with infection clusters in schools, rising cases among health workers and isolation centres and intensive care units filling up”.

Angola and Namibia have also witnessed a resurgence in cases, WHO said, noting that 48.6 million doses have been received in Africa and 31.4 million doses have been administered in 50 countries on the continent.

Poor treatment

Only around two per cent of the population has received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, compared with the 24 per cent global figure.

“While many countries outside Africa have now vaccinated their high-priority groups and are able to even consider vaccinating their children, African countries are unable to even follow up with second doses for high-risk groups,” said Dr. Moeti. “I’m urging countries that have reached a significant vaccination coverage to release doses and keep the most vulnerable Africans out of critical care.”

Globally, as of 3 June 2021, there have been 171,222,477 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 3,686,142 deaths, reported to WHO. As of 2 June, a total of 1,581,509,628 vaccine doses have been administered.

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