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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE

Bi-Weekly Briefing

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, and Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), chaired the hybrid briefing, attended by the spokespersons and representatives of the World Meteorological Organization, of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Tropical Cyclone Batsirai

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said that Madagascar, which was still recovering from Tropical Storm Ana, was bracing for much more powerful Tropical Cyclone Batsirai. The storm was currently the equivalent of a category 3 storm and was forecast to strengthen to category 4, with winds of up to 200 km/hour. Batsirai was expected to make landfall on 5 February, on the east coast, and then to curve away from Mozambique. Waves at sea were already 8 to 15 metres high, but the chief threat was from rainfall. Batsirai was expected to bring rainfall of 150 to 300 mm, which could cause dramatic flooding whether it fell on areas of saturated land or on drought-affected areas.

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the United Nations and its humanitarian partners were ramping up preparedness efforts in anticipation of Tropical Cyclone Batsirai, including the pre-deployment of search and rescue capacity and response teams to areas likely to be impacted, the placement of aircraft on standby to support rapid assessment and response and the purchase of humanitarian supplies to increase available stocks. At least 131,000 people had been affected by Tropical Storm Ana across Madagascar, including 71,000 who had been displaced, and at least 58 people had died. Humanitarian responders had mobilized cash, food, water, sanitation and hygiene items, as well as health and protection for people displaced by flooding.

Pasqualina Disirio, World Food Programme (WFP) Country Director in Madagascar, said that Madagascar was facing multiple crises at once, chiefly drought and recent Tropical Storm Ana, which had hit amid the crucial rice crop season. Tropical Cyclone Batsirai was expected to be a major crisis, affecting at least 600,000 people and displacing 150,000. The authorities were holding meetings to coordinate preparedness efforts and the advance response. Some evacuations had taken place on the east coast along with the distribution of hot meals. That type of event highlighted the importance of access to flexible advance funding in order to make preparations.

Replying to questions from journalists, Ms. Disirio said that the estimated impact of the storm was based on experience with a storm of similar strength some 10 years ago. The Government had issued alerts to the population, had requested people to work from home and had closed schools for possible use as shelters.

Update on clinical care for coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Janet Diaz, World Health Organization (WHO), Clinical Lead on COVID-19, said that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 was not a mild disease. Patients could present with the entire

clinical spectrum of disease, though it was not yet known what proportion of patients developed each level of severity and how much of the reduced risk of severe disease and death was linked to the virus itself and how much to prior immunity. Bearing that in mind, WHO had launched a new online tool called the COVID-19 clinical care pathway, a concise and easy-to-understand summary of the key actions that health workers were recommended to take when caring for patients suspected of having COVID-19. The pathway could be summed up using the acronym CARE, which stood for confirm, assess, respond and evaluate. It was important to confirm infection through a PCR or antigen test as rapidly as possible and to assess a person’s symptoms, risk factors and severity of illness, then to respond with the appropriate treatment – for mild or moderate, WHO recommended the monoclonal antibody treatment sotrovimab and for severe or critical, it recommended oxygen therapy, corticosteroids, venous thromboembolism prophylaxis and an interleukin-6 receptor blocker. The final step was to evaluate the clinical response as well as the recovery for up to three months.

In response to questions, Dr. Diaz said that the clinical care pathway, including the downloadable pdf version, was currently available in English and would be translated into the other United Nations languages. Information, including guidelines and training modules, was also available through MAGICapp. Preliminary studies had shown that the casirivimab and imdevimab cocktail of monoclonal antibodies appeared to be less effective against the Omicron variant. A webinar was planned on the neurological and mental health manifestations of so-called long COVID.

World Cancer Day

Margaret Harris, for the World Health Organization (WHO), on the occasion of World Cancer Day, said that cancer was one of the world’s leading causes of death, and its burden was growing. An estimated 20 million people had been diagnosed with cancer in 2021, and 10 million had died. However, care for cancer, reflected the inequalities of the world. The clearest distinction is between high- and low-income countries, with comprehensive treatment reportedly available in more than 90 per cent of high-income countries but less than 15 per cent of low-income countries. Therefore, the theme for that year’s World Cancer Day was “closing the care gap”. WHO efforts were focused on breast and cervical cancer and childhood cancer and was targeting its initiatives at low- and middle-income countries, where the biggest public health gains were to be made.

Refugees in the Benishangul Gumuz region of Ethiopia

Boris Cheshirkov, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR and partners were rushing life-saving aid to more than 20,000 refugees who had fled clashes around two refugee camps in the Benishangul Gumuz region of Ethiopia between unidentified armed groups and federal forces. Following the eruption of violence, the refugees had made their way to three different sites closer to Assosa, the regional capital. UNHCR was working with the Ethiopian Government’s Refugee and Returnees Service and partners to provide the most urgent assistance to the displaced refugees. It was also working to install basic services at the new temporary site identified by the regional authorities and to begin relocating refugees there. Three other refugee camps in the Benishangul Gumuz region remained fully accessible, and all services there were functioning. In addition to supporting the refugees, the Government, UNHCR and partners had been providing assistance to those internally displaced in the region, reaching over 100,000 people in 2021 with clothing, shelter, psychosocial support and emergency items.

The full briefing note is available here.

Replying to journalists, Mr. Cheshirkov said that the clashes in Benishangul Gumuz were unrelated to the situation in Tigray and that the refugees, who were overwhelmingly from the Sudan and South Sudan, had been cohabiting in the same camps.

Further strain on the fragile Sahel region

Boris Cheshirkov, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that the Sahel region, already plagued by political instability, widespread violence, food shortages and the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis, was now contending with an increase in the movement of refugees from Burkina Faso, fleeing vicious attacks by armed groups. Some 7,000 Burkinabé had arrived in north-western Côte d’Ivoire since May 2021, and the influx had accelerated in the past six weeks, though it did not appear to be linked to the recent military coup in Burkina Faso. UNHCR had registered and provided assistance to over 4,000 of them.

As the regional crisis became more protracted, large parts of the region remained or had become inaccessible to humanitarian agencies trying to support the 2.5 million people forced to flee their homes in Burkina Faso, Mali and the Niger. The Sahel also faced an unprecedented rural exodus due to shrinking areas under government control, reduced access to land and various environmental challenges and was on the frontlines of the climate crisis, with temperatures increasing at 1.5 times the global average.

More than 34,000 Burkinabé were now in exile across the region, and their situation was becoming increasingly precarious as more people arrived in Côte d’Ivoire without personal belongings or food. They were being hosted by Ivorian villagers in crowded conditions, sometimes as many as 30 people to a house, and overcrowding was worsening health and sanitation.

The full briefing note is available here.

Replying to journalists, Mr. Cheshirkov said that UNHCR and partners, together with the authorities, were reviewing their contingency planning in Côte d’Ivoire to address the influx of refugees. However, there was a need for more humanitarian and development action, as well as more political solutions. In early to mid-March, UNHCR would be launching a regional appeal for the Sahel to support the local authorities in hosting refugees and IDPs. The current budget was for USD 307 million but was only 7 per cent funded.

Turkey-Greece Border

In response to a question about the death of irregular migrants along the Turkey-Greece border, Boris Cheshirkov, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR was working to verify the reports and had been receiving increasing reports of human rights violations at land and sea borders, including violent pushbacks. Such tragic deaths were avoidable, including through the establishment of regular migration pathways.

Food and fertilizer prices at record highs

Josef Schmidhuber, Deputy Director, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Trade and Markets Division, said that on 3 February FAO had published the latest Food Price Index, which had reached 135.7 points in January 2022 – 1.5 points higher than in December 2021. That rebound had been driven by higher prices for vegetable oils and dairy products but was part of a longer upward trend caused by the shifting balance between supply and demand. 2021 had seen very strong international demand across almost all regions. The supply, on the other hand, had been affected by adverse weather and climate variability, high transportation costs and record prices for agricultural inputs, particularly fertilizers. In fact, fertilizer prices had risen faster than food prices, due to higher energy prices, growing export restrictions and high transportation costs, and their use would decline as they became less affordable, though by how much remained to be seen. Naturally, that would impact the global food security situation and, consequently, rates of hunger and malnutrition, with poorer individuals and countries feeling the brunt. Indeed, the number of hungry people had jumped by 161 million between 2021 and 2020.

In response to questions, Mr. Schmidhuber said that when prices had shot up in 2008, there had been a considerable contraction in fertilizer use in Sub-Saharan Africa. Farmers in rich countries were much less responsive to changes in fertilizer prices, and places like Brazil, which was a big importer of fertilizer but had a dual agricultural structure, were unlikely to see substantial change in use. There might, however, be a shift in what types of crops were grown. While food prices were driving up headline inflation, the concern was that such volatile elements might cross over into core inflation. The agricultural sector, particularly livestock, needed to be made sustainable and FAO was exploring ways of harnessing technology to achieve that to bridge the gap between climate change mitigation and food production.

Secretary-General’s Remarks on the Olympic Games

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), drew attention to the UN Secretary-General’s remarks following his bilateral meeting with the President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach, in which he stated that “we need at this moment more than ever the message of unity and solidarity that is the message of the Olympic Games. In a moment when we see so many expressions of populism, so many expressions of racism, so many expressions of xenophobia, antisemitism, anti-Muslim hatred, to be here and to be with athletes that come from all cultures, from all countries, from all ethnicities, from all religions, it’s a fantastic message. It’s a message of tolerance, of mutual respect and a message in which it’s proven that it’s possible to compete loyally and at the same time to fraternize. This is what is needed in the world.” And the Secretary-General to add that “The Olympic Truce is the most important and most ancient symbol of the importance of peace. I had the opportunity a few days ago, to invoke the Olympic Truce to ask Ethiopians to stop fighting. When we see so many conflicts around the world we see the absolute relevance of having Olympic Games in which all countries are represented, even – unfortunately – some that are in a war situation, to have them all here and to show that peace is possible, that unity is possible and that solidarity is possible.” The full statement had already been distributed to the journalists.

International Day of Human Fraternity

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), mentioned the UN Secretary-General’s message on the occasion of International Day of Human Fraternity, where the Secretary-General said that “On the International Day of Human Fraternity, we reflect on the importance of cultural and religious understanding, and mutual respect. I am grateful to religious leaders across the world who are joining hands to promote dialogue and interfaith harmony. From deepening poverty and widening inequalities to conflict, division, and mistrust – our human family faces a cascade of challenges. To confront them, we need to challenge those who exploit differences, traffic in hate, and instill fear of ‘The Other’ in anxious hearts. Today, let us commit to stand firm against bigotry wherever and whenever we see it. Let us recognize our diversity as a richness that strengthens us all. Let us build bridges between the faiths, inspired by our common humanity. And let us come together in solidarity to create a more inclusive, peaceful and just world for all.” The full message had been distributed to journalists.

Announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) recalled that the Conference on Disarmament would hold its next public plenary meeting on Tuesday, 8 February, at 10 a.m., in room XVII. The eighty-first session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women – during which the Committee would review the reports of Gabon, Panama, Senegal, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Peru, Lebanon and the Dominican Republic – would open on Monday, 7 February, at 11 a.m.

 

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