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Africa on track to control pandemic this year but vigilance is key

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Migrant women and their children quarantine at a site in Niamey, Niger. © UNICEF/Juan Haro

Africa is on track to control the COVID-19 pandemic this year if current trends continue, but vigilance will remain key, the head of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) regional office said on Thursday. 

Since the first case on the continent was identified nearly two years ago, Africa has faced four waves of COVID-19, each with higher peaks or more total cases than the previous one.  

These surges were mainly driven by new variants which, though highly transmissible, were not necessarily more fatal.    

Against the odds 

On average, each wave was roughly 23 per cent shorter than the one before, with the first lasting 29 weeks, while the fourth ended in six weeks.  

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said countries have got smarter, faster and better at responding to each new surge. 

“Against the odds, including huge inequities in access to vaccination, we’ve weathered the COVID-19 storm with resilience and determination, informed by Africa’s long history and experience with controlling outbreaks,” she said.  

However, she said Africa has paid a high price in the pandemic, with more than 242,000 lives lost and tremendous damage to economies. 

COVID-19 has also pushed some 40 million people into extreme poverty, according to World Bank estimates.  

End in sight 

Meanwhile, every month that emergency containment measures stay in place costs the continent roughly $13.8 billion in lost Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 

“Although COVID-19 will be with us for the long-term, there is light at the end of the tunnel. This year we can end the disruption and destruction the virus has left in its path, and gain back control over our lives,” Dr Moeti said. 

“Controlling this pandemic must be a priority,” she added “but we understand no two countries have had the same pandemic experience, and each country must, therefore, chart its own way out of this emergency.” 

During the first COVID-19 wave, the proportion of infected people who died from the disease was high, 2.5 per cent. The figure rose during the second wave, driven by the Beta variant, reaching 2.7 per cent, but had dropped to 2.4 per cent by the Delta-powered third wave.   

In contrast, the fourth wave ratio was low, 0.8 per cent, representing the first time a wave’s surge in cases has not led to a corresponding increase in hospitalizations and deaths. 

Improving capacity 

Africa has improved capacity to manage COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, with the increased availability of trained health workers, as well as oxygen and other medical supplies. 

The number of beds in Intensive Care Units (ICUs) across the continent also rose from eight per one million people two years ago, to 20 today. 

WHO has also helped increase the number of oxygen production plants on the continent, from 68 to 115, a 60 per cent rise, through supporting the repair, maintenance and procurement of new oxygen plants.  The cost of oxygen has also decreased by 40 per cent in areas where plants have been set up.  

Even with these improvements, oxygen availability remains a concern, and a large majority of patients who require it for treatment lack access.   

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African nations leading the way on ‘food systems transformation’

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African countries are at the vanguard of a vital transformation of food systems to simultaneously address food security, nutrition, social and environmental protection – all while boosting resilience – said the UN chief on Thursday. 

António Guterres was addressing the start of a high-level policy dialogue at UN Headquarters in New York, part of the Africa Dialogue Series 2022, convened to strengthen resilience in food supplies across the continent, at a time when “decades of progress on hunger are being reversed.” 

Deep connections 

He said for too long, nutrition, food security, conflicts, climate change, ecosystems and health have been treated as separate concerns, “but these global challenges are deeply interconnected. Conflict creates hunger. The climate crisis amplifies conflict”, and systemic problems are just getting worse. 

He noted that after more than a decade of improvements, one in five Africans were undernourished in 2020, while 61 million African children are affected by stunting. Women and girls bear the brunt, and when food is scarce, “they are often the last to eat; and the first to be taken out of school and forced into work or marriage.” 

Mr. Guterres said that UN humanitarians and partners were doing their utmost to meet Africa’s needs amidst crisis, but aid “cannot compete with the systemic drivers of hunger.” 

Other “external shocks” were exacerbating the situation, such as an uneven recovery from the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, with African countries among the most heavily impacted by grain shortages and rising debt.  

Climate crisis frontline 

Building resilience also requires addressing the climate crisis. 

African farmers are on the frontlines of our warming planet, from rising temperatures to droughts and floods,” he said. 

“Africa needs a massive boost in technical and financial support to adapt to the impact of the climate emergency and provide renewable electricity across the continent.” 

He added that developed countries must deliver on their $100 billion climate finance commitment to developing countries, with the help of international financial institutions, so African countries, in particular, can invest in a strong recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, on the tide of renewable energy.  

Food systems, said the Secretary-General, “connect all these challenges”, as highlighted at last September’s UN Food Systems Summit

“Many African Member States led the call for fundamental change, through inclusive transformation pathways, which aim to address – simultaneously – food security, nutrition, social protection, environmental conservation and resilience to shocks.” 

He welcomed the African Union (AU) decision to designate 2022 as the Year of Nutrition – a pledge to act on the strong commitments made at the Summit. 

Collective expertise 

“Through national, regional and global cooperation, we must build on lessons learned and harness collective expertise. Together, we must deliver on these pathways”, Mr. Guterres added. 

The international community must rise to the occasion”, he declared, adding that scaling back support when demand is at an all-time high, was “not an option.” 

Official Development Assistance, or ODA, based on a percentage of available public funds, is more necessary than ever, he said. 

“I urge all countries to demonstrate solidarity, invest in resilience, and prevent the current crisis from escalating further.” 

The UN chief said that during his recent visit to Senegal, Niger, and Nigeria, he had been inspired by the resilience and determination of the people he met. 

“Women and young people in particular were committed to lasting, sustainable solutions that enable them to live in peace with their neighbours and with nature.” 

If we work together, if we put people and planet before profit, we can transform food systems, deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and leave no one behind.” 

The ambitious goals, he concluded, of ending hunger and malnutrition by the fast-approaching 2030 deadline, were realistic, and achievable. 

“The United Nations stands by your side, every step of the way.” 

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UNICEF urges leaders to keep schools safe following deadly Texas shooting

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Governments must take greater action to ensure school remains a safe place for boys and girls, the head of the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, said on Wednesday, following the latest deadly school shooting in the United States. 

At least 19 children and two teachers were killed on Tuesday when 18-year-old gunman Salvador Ramos opened fire at Robb Elementary School in the small city of Uvalde, Texas, located near the border with Mexico. 

How many more? 

Catherine Russell, UNICEF’s Executive Director, said there have already been “horrific attacks” this year on schools in Afghanistan, Ukraine, the US, West Africa and beyond. 

“Tragedy after tragedy, shooting after shooting, young life after young life: how many more children will die before government leaders act to keep children and their schools safe? Because until they do, these horrors will continue,” she said in a statement. 

Ms. Russell emphasized that outside of their homes, school is the one place where children should feel safest. 

She noted that in addition to the lives lost, “many more children, teachers and school staff who witnessed the carnage will bear the emotional and psychological scars for the rest of their lives.” 

Shock and sadness 

UN Secretary-General António Guterres was deeply shocked and saddened by “the heinous mass shooting”, saying it was particularly heart-wrenching that most of the victims are children.  

Mr. Guterres has extended his heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims and to the entire community, his Spokesperson said in a statement issued on Tuesday. 

UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed expressed her outrage in a post on Twitter. 

“When children go to school, they should only be concerned about learning,” she wrote.  “Children should not go to school fearing for their lives!” 

Ms. Mohammed said her heartfelt prayers are with the families, classmates and teachers who are mourning this “devastating loss”. 

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Zimbabwean peacekeeper selected as UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year 2021 Award

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Following reports of sexual and gender-based violence against women collecting firewood in Rubkona, South Sudan, Captain Irene Wilson Muro and and Major Winnet Zharare (2nd from the right) reached out to local women to discuss ways to stem the abuse. Photo: UNMISS

A Zimbabwean peacekeeper who recently completed her assignment with the UN Mission in South Sudan, will receive the 2021 United Nations Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award. 

Military Observer Major Winnet Zharare, 39, served in Bentiu, South Sudan in 2021-2022, and will receive the award from the Secretary-General António Guterres during a ceremony marking the International Day of UN Peacekeepers on Thursday, 26 May 2022.

Created in 2016, the United Nations “Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award” recognizes the dedication and efforts of an individual military peacekeeper in promoting the principles of UN Security Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, as nominated by Heads and Force Commanders of UN peace operations.

Secretary-General António Guterres commended Major Winnet for her award. “Major Zharare is a role model and a trailblazer. Through her service, she has demonstrated the invaluable role that women play in building trust, advocating for change and forging peace,” he said. “Her example shows how we will all gain with more women at the decision-making table and gender parity in peace operations,” Mr. Guterres added. 

Major Zharare expressed her gratitude and pride in receiving  the award which, she said, “motivated [her] to maintain [her] course towards gender equality.”

“My parents gave us equal opportunities with my brothers, so I believe that equal opportunities should be given to both men and women in all aspects of life,” she added.

Major Winnet Zharare deployed to UNMISS in November 2020. Throughout her 17-month-long service, she advocated for gender parity and women’s participation, within her own ranks, among local military counterparts, and in host communities.

As the Chief Military Information Officer in UNMISS’  Bentiu field office, she helped ensure that patrols included both women and men to improve protection efforts as well as build trust between host communities and the Mission. Her efforts also contributed to an increase in  gender-aggregated data so that issues raised by local women and girls would gain appropriate attention.

Advocating for gender parity and womens’ participation in an environment where they are traditionally excluded from decision-making, she encouraged local civilian and military authorities and community representatives to involve both men and women in meetings with the UN. Her diligence and diplomatic skills quickly gained her the trust of local military commanders who would systematically reach out to her on issues pertaining to women’s protection and rights. During her patrols and numerous community engagement initiatives, Major Zharare also successfully encouraged men and women to work together in farming and in the construction of dikes around Bentiu town to alleviate food shortages and prevent further displacement.

Major Zharare is the first Zimbabwean peacekeeper to receive this prestigious award.

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