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Global Covid-19 news digest

Africa's health dilemma: Protecting people from Covid-19 while four times as many could die of malaria

Experts across Africa are warning that as hospitals and health facilities focus on Covid-19, less attention is being given to the management of other deadly diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, which affect millions more people.

"Today if you have malaria symptoms you are in big trouble because they are quite close to Covid-19 symptoms, will you go to the hospital when it is said we should not go there?" said Yap Boum II, the regional representative for Epicenter Africa, the research arm of Doctors Without Borders.

"Hospitals are struggling because they do not have the good facilities and equipment; it will be hard to take in a patient with malaria because people are scared. As a result the management of malaria is affected by Covid-19," Boum, who is also a Professor of Microbiology at Mbarara University of Sciences and Technology in Uganda, said, pointing out that HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis were also being ignored.

In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that four times as many people could die from malaria than coronavirus. "With Covid-19 spreading, we are worried about its impacts on health systems in Africa and that this may impact negatively on the delivery of routine services, which include malaria control. The bans on movement will affect the health workers getting to health facilities and their safety from exposure," said Akpaka Kalu, team leader of the Tropical and Vector-borne Disease Programme at the WHO Regional Office for Africa.

Mamadou Coulibaly, head of the Malaria Research and Training Center at the University of Bamako, Mali, concurred that the pandemic was straining health systems in developing countries. He urged malaria-endemic countries not to disrupt prevention and treatment programmes.

Abridged from IPS, 11 May 2020,

Q&A: How Kazakhstan's transgender and lesbian women are being impacted by Covid-19

The coronavirus lockdown in Kazakhstan, and the resultant limited public oversight and limited publication engagement, has paved the way for the government to propose amendments to the country's laws around gender that could see the exclusion of the rights of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) community. Aigerim Kamidola, Legal Advocacy Officer, 'Feminita' Kazakhstan Feminist Initiative in Kazakhstan, spoke to IPS:

Inter Press Service (IPS): How has COVID-19 impacted the LBTQ community in Kazakhstan?

Aigerim Kamidola (AK): We've seen two main trends in Kazakhstan regarding LBTQ populations: first one is that the general measures, policies and legislations [around] the state's response to COVID-19 pandemic didn't take the intersectional approach at the core of it. As a result, they exacerbated the pre-existing inequalities that disproportionately affected LGBTQ people.

The second trend is measures that specifically target civil society and LGBTQ groups. Despite [the fact] that there was a state of emergency and the quarantine, when there was limited public oversight and civic and social engagement, the parliament and the government actually used the space to adopt certain legislation which actually targeted civil society groups.

IPS: What are some ways in which Covid-19 has affected the health of the members of the LBTQ community in Kazakhstan?

AK: With our allies from transgender initiatives, Feminita completed a big research project on access to healthcare of LBQ women and trans people in Kazakhstan in March. Because of the stigma by medical professionals, there's a high resentment of the LBQT community for [asking for] medical help and that increases health risks. It's not only HIV or STIs, which are normally spoken of, but also for other chronic disease and cancer-related diseases. As a result, it makes the group of people more susceptible to health risks [in the event of a] pandemic or other epidemiological diseases.

IPS: Your organisation was denied registration as an NGO last year ‒ how does this affect your ability to operate in the country and to serve the LBTQ community?

AK: We recently received the supreme court decision upholding the previous court rulings, confirming that there was no violation in a denied registration. And it surely affects the organisation's institutional development because as a non-registered organisation, you're not eligible to open a bank account, or apply for funding and hence [unable] to maybe be more effective in responding to some urgent calls. 

As a result, the initiative operates with a small group of people ‒ most of them work other jobs on the side. And they cannot pay the initial salaries, or operate sustainably or have sustainable activities. And that of course exacerbates in the pandemic.

On the other side, we see a contraction of funding too and it is [being] channelled towards the needs of pandemic response or healthcare needs. Then there's a contraction of resources to activists and civil society groups and human rights organisations needs. We know that it's just the beginning and that the financial effects of the pandemic will catch up later.

Abridged from IPS, 10 July 2020,

Slovenia: Environmental rights ripped up1

June 24 ‒ In the shadow of coronavirus, the Slovenian government has ripped up some of the country's hard-won environmental rights. Last week the list of projects it plans to bulldoze through without checks was announced.1 These include many gas projects, road construction, large hydro power projects, and a new nuclear power plant ‒ harming Slovenia's rich nature, protected species, and the climate.

As the population was on lockdown to limit the spread of the pandemic, Slovenia's government quietly suspended environmental and nature protections, by speeding up construction and development permits. Most of Slovenia's environmental and conservation NGOs, including Focus/Friends of the Earth Slovenia, suddenly find themselves unable to participate in environmental decision-making for such projects, and unable to challenge them in courts until the end of 2021. By then, many of the projects will be in progress. 

NGOs' rights to challenge development projects that would damage the environment were curtailed without warning or public consultation, and outside of the regular legislative procedure. The measures have no direct effect on coping with the pandemic.

Moreover, construction works will be able to begin on environmentally damaging projects as soon as a permit is issued – without the usual step of waiting to confirm legality regarding environmental and nature protection. 

Slovenian NGOs have responded with a (socially distanced) protest in front of the Slovenian Parliament, and several thousand emails were sent by supporters to Members of Parliament. EU NGOs have expressed their concern. And three impacted organisations are filing a complaint to the Constitutional Court. This is part of a pattern of threats to civil society rights and democracy in Europe in recent years, which has only accelerated with Covid-19. So far, there has been no governmental or EU response to the threat to democratic rights in Slovenia.

Balkan Green Energy News,

Colombia: Activists murdered during pandemic1

Since the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Colombia on March 6, more than 20 social leaders have been murdered. With the Colombian government's focus on the pandemic, The Guardian reports how "death squads in Colombia are taking advantage of coronavirus lockdowns to murder rural activists."2

On top of this, the nationwide lockdown has made many at-risk activists easy targets. Communities and their leaders have been exposed to an intensification of violence in their territories due to the presence of a variety of armed groups, including former guerrilla dissident factions, paramilitary forces, drug squads, and the military.

Already this year, 84 union and community leaders, together with 24 ex-guerrilla fighters in the process of rejoining civilian life under the peace process, have been killed. On top of killings, there are constant threats and attacks against trade union, peasant and community leaders in all regions of the country. All while those in power do nothing.

Friends of the Earth stands in solidarity with and demands justice for all those activists from various Colombian peoples' organisations who are at risk under coronavirus lockdowns. Let's stand with our brothers and sisters in Colombia to send a message to the Colombian government: Stop the killings.

We want justice for all the leaders of rural and indigenous organisations and black communities defending human rights in the country.



Malaysia: Fisher-folk switch to direct distribution

Due to the covid-19 restrictions, Malaysian fisher-folk were suddenly unable to sell their fish as usual. Restaurants, hotels and some markets were forced to close, and middlemen were no longer buying their landed catch. Fishermen lost their customers and their income. The disruption to supply chains led to a spike in the price of fish for ordinary people. However, a few fisher-folk took the initiative to work out new supply chains. They started selling their fish directly to consumers. This helped to stabilise the price of fish, and ensure that consumers could directly benefiting from it. 

Sahabat Alam Malaysia / Friends of the Earth Malaysia is now working on ways to support the fisher-folk in setting up a new delivery system called 'from fisher to consumer'. Short food supply chains like this can bypass the traditional role of middlemen, wholesalers and retailers.

Azrul Faizal Mohamed, from Sahabat Alam Malaysia / Friends of the Earth Malaysia said: "We are helping to build a network among local communities and consumers and also take orders online. This system will improve the livelihood of fishermen, promote local food security, and reduce household expenditure for consumers."

Philippines: Pandemic used to shut down protest1

In the Philippines, coronavirus is being used to shut down protest. The government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been to impose a lockdown on the general population – but not on forestry or mining industries. This means that questionable contracts and industry activities are still carrying on, but any community resistance to these damaging deals gets shut down. The police and the military are called in under the guise of upholding quarantine guidelines.

During the indigenous peoples' barricade at OceanaGold's mining site in Nueva Vizcaya2, community members were threatened with arrest for allegedly violating the quarantine rules. After nine months of peacefully blockading the mine without police interference, the community was overwhelmed by the large police presence violently dispersing the barricade ‒ and their leader Rolando Pulido was actually arrested on the grounds of supposedly violating coronavirus restrictions.

The community's barricade follows the expiration of Canadian-Australian mining company OceanaGold's mining permit and is a lawful expression of the indigenous peoples of Didipio, local governments, and solidarity groups (including Friends of the Earth Philippines) in support of a local government order suspending OceanaGold's operations. OceanaGold's operations have depleted ground water and contaminated nearby rivers of Nueva Vizcaya and displaced countless families.

Friends of the Earth joins international calls for President Rodrigo Duterte to shut down Oceana's operations and cancel its request for extension. The country's media is still largely focused on the pandemic's impact in populated areas, so there's very little coverage on how marginalised communities are being affected.

Please help spread the word so that their plight doesn't get hidden by the coronavirus crisis.


2 Mining Justice,

Spain: Covid-19 spawns powerful local food movement1

Spurred by a crisis for small food producers during Covid-19 confinement, Spain's network of women for agroecology united a record 700 organisations in support of local food markets and distribution chains.

Spain was one of the countries hardest hit by the Covid-19 crisis. Its lockdown began on 14 March 2020, and was one of the most stringent in Europe. Adults were only allowed to leave their homes once per day, to buy food or medicine, for essential work, or to walk their dogs. 

Supermarkets were able to stay open for people to visit. However, open-air markets were closed. Small agroecological producers had nowhere to sell their produce. They were marginalised and unable to maintain a livelihood. Spain's network of women for agroecology – an informal but active network of activists, researchers, producers, agrarian unions, and ecologists (including Friends of the Earth Spain) – activated in support of thousands of small producers. 

Under the banner #SOSCampesinado (S.O.S. small farmers), they brought together their network to demand that the government reopen the markets and encourage local food distribution.2 To support small producers at financial risk, they demanded public food supplies in hospitals, care homes, and school canteens purchase from local producers. And they called for small producers and cooperatives to be able to access their small-holdings. 

More than 700 organisations joined the call,3 and #SOSCampesinado became a focal point for solidarity and agroecology initiatives during the covid crisis. Across Spain, dozens of local campaigns were successful in pressurising their councils and municipalities to re-authorise open-air markets and support food sovereignty.

On April 17 ‒ the International Day of Peasant Struggles ‒ Friends of the Earth Spain explained: "The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the value of the people who work the land to produce our food. The widespread closure of food markets is generating unaffordable costs for local producers, and increasing food waste due to the impossibility of using their products. Fresh and healthy food is not reaching the public."4

Some regions of Spain, including the Basque Country, heeded to the demands of #SOSCampesinado, promoting local food supply chains and reopening local food markets; but not the central government.

The strict confinement conditions have now begun to ease conditions for small producers in Spain. But the crisis has helped unite many more voices than ever before in support of local food markets and distribution chains. A movement that will continue.





Published in Chain Reaction #139, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, May 2021.

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