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COVID-19 rise in Europe a great concern, says WHO regional chief

INTERNATIONAL, 15 October 2020, Health - COVID-19 is now the fifth leading cause of death in Europe, where nearly 700,000 cases were reported this week: the highest weekly incidence since the pandemic began in March, the regional head of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) told journalists on Thursday. 

Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge said the tightening up of restrictions by governments is “absolutely necessary” as the disease continues to surge, with “exponential increases” in cases and deaths. 

“The evolving epidemiological situation in Europe raises great concern: daily numbers of cases are up, hospital admissions are up, COVID-19 is now the fifth leading cause of death and the bar of 1,000 deaths per day has now been reached,” he reported. 

Cases reach record highs 

Dr. Kluge said overall, Europe has recorded more than seven million cases of COVID-19, with the jump from six million taking just 10 days. 

This past weekend, daily case totals surpassed 120,000 for the first time, and on both Saturday and Sunday, reaching new records. 

However, he stressed that the region has not returned to the early days of the pandemic. 

“Although we record two to three times more cases per day compared to the April peak, we still observe five times fewer deaths. The doubling time in hospital admissions is still two to three times longer,” he said, adding “in the meantime, the virus has not changed; it has not become more nor less dangerous.” 

Potential worsening a reality 

Dr. Kluge explained that one reason for the higher case rates is increased COVID-19 testing, including among younger people. This population also partly accounts for the decreased mortality rates.  

“These figures say that the epidemiological curve rebound is so far higher, but the slope is lower and less fatal for now. But it has the realistic potential to worsen drastically if the disease spreads back into older age cohorts after more indoor social contacts across generations,” he warned. 

Looking ahead, Dr. Kluge admitted that projections are “not optimistic”.  

Reliable epidemiological models indicate that prolonged relaxing of policies could result in mortality levels four to five times higher than in April, with results visible by January 2021. 

He stressed the importance of maintaining simple measures already in place, as the modelling shows how wearing masks, coupled with strict control of social gathering, may save up to 281,000 lives across the region by February. 

This assumes a 95 per cent rate for mask use, up from the current rate, which is less than 60 per cent. 

Restrictions ‘absolutely necessary’ 

“Under proportionately more stringent scenarios, the model is reliably much more optimistic, still with slightly higher levels of morbidity and mortality than in the first wave, but with a lower slope – as if we should rather expect a higher and longer swell instead of a sharp peak, giving us more reaction time,” said Dr. Kluge. 

“These projections do nothing but confirm what we always said: the pandemic won’t reverse its course on its own, but we will.” 

The WHO bureau chief underlined the importance of targeted national responses to contain COVID-19 spread. 

“Measures are tightening up in many countries in Europe, and this is good because they are absolutely necessary,” he said. “They are appropriate and necessary responses to what the data is telling us: transmission and sources of contamination occur in homes and indoor public places, and within communities poorly complying with self-protection measures.” 

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Rights experts urge UAE to halt repatriation of Yemeni nationals

INTERNATIONAL, 15 October 2020, Human Rights - The repatriation of 18 Yemeni nationals previously held at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, should be halted, as their lives could be in danger, UN-appointed human rights experts said on Thursday. 

In an appeal to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where the Yemeni men were resettled after their release, the independent experts cautioned that “their forced return (to Yemen would) put their lives at risk”. 

After more than five years of fighting, Yemen’s armed conflict has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian emergencies. 

The fact that non-State armed actors control parts of the country “does not allow the provision nor compliance with diplomatic assurances”, the experts said, adding that such assurances “where provided, do not release States from their international obligations …in particular the principle of non-refoulement”. 

‘Continuous arbitrary detention’ 

The independent experts, or Special Rapporteurs, also noted with concern that that the men faced “continuous arbitrary detention at an undisclosed location” in the UAE. They were allegedly forced to sign documents agreeing to their repatriation, the experts said, or else “remain indefinitely in Emirati detention…without charge or trial”.  

They also insisted that no State has the right to expel, return or otherwise remove any individual from its territory whenever there were “substantial grounds” to believe that the person would be in danger of torture in the State of destination.  

“Resettled detainees seem to be systematically forced to return to their countries of origin where, in most cases, they may face serious risks of torture and ill-treatment,” the experts continued. 

No risk assessement 

“This repatriation process is happening without any form of judicial guarantees, or individual examination and assessment of risks, which blatantly violates the absolute prohibition of non-refoulement under international human rights and humanitarian law.” 

The development follows the experts’ earlier concerns shared with the Emirati Government in July 2020.  

“We further demand that the UAE authorities disclose the terms of the resettlement programme (with the United States), immediately release all former detainees at Guantanamo Bay resettled in the UAE, and allow them to reunite with their families”, they added.   

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. They work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. 

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Invest in rural women, help them build resilience to future crises, urges UN chief

INTERNATIONAL, 15 October 2020, Women - Rural women play a critical role in agriculture, food security and managing land and natural resources, yet many suffer from “discrimination, systemic racism and structural poverty”, the UN chief said on Thursday. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has now affected more than half the world’s women farmers with restrictions on movement, the closure of shops and markets, and disruption to their supply chains”, Secretary-General António Guterres said in his message for the International Day of Rural Women.

Health risks

The disadvantages faced by women in the COVID-19 pandemic are aggravated in rural areas where they are less likely to have access to quality health services, essential medicines and vaccines. 

Moreover, “restrictive social norms and gender stereotypes” limit rural women’s ability to access health services, according to the UN chief, who added that “a lot of rural women suffer from isolation, as well as the spread of misinformation, and a lack of access to critical technologies to improve their work and personal life”. 

Although digital channels can offer a lifeline in rural areas, providing information on access to healthcare as well as agricultural updates, “the gender digital divide is particularly wide for rural women, who make up just a quarter of users of digital agricultural solutions”, he continued.   

Women’s rights under threat

Investing in rural women has never been more critical, the Organization has highlighted.

The pandemic has heightened the vulnerability of their rights to land and resources, along with discriminatory gender norms, and in most countries, practices impede women’s exercise of land and property rights. 

Women’s land tenure security is also threatened as unemployed migrants return to rural communities, increasing pressure on land and resources and exacerbating gender gaps in agriculture and food security.

And COVID-19 widows risk disinheritance. 

Solidarity needed

Yet, despite these exposures, rural women have been at the front lines of responding to the pandemic even as their unpaid care and domestic work has increased under lockdowns

Helping rural women through the pandemic and building their resilience for the future will require “solidarity and support from all”, the top UN official explained.  

Did you know?

  • A quarter of the world’s population are rural women farmers, wage earners and entrepreneurs. 
  • Less than 20 per cent of landholders worldwide are women. 
  • In rural areas, the gender pay gap is as high as 40 per cent.
  • Reducing the gender gap in the labour force by 25 per cent by the 2025 could raise global GDP by 3.9  per cent.
  • If rural women had equal access to agricultural assets, education and markets, the number of hungry people could be reduced by 100-150 million.

Measures are needed to redistribute the burden of care between women and men, especially in the most marginalized remote villages.  

‘Invest in rural women’ 

The need to “invest in rural women” is imperative, the UN chief stated, so as to: provide them with access to the healthcare, social protection and agricultural information; close the digital divide; respond to the “shadow pandemic of violence against women”; tackle discriminatory land and inheritance laws that expose rural women to losing their sources of income; and support women’s unpaid care and domestic work.  

“On the International Day of Rural Women, let us renew our commitment to rural women in all their diversity; increase our efforts to support them through the COVID-19 pandemic; and work with them to build their resilience to future crises”, concluded the Secretary-General. 

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Rape is wrong but death penalty, castration, not the answer: UN rights chief

INTERNATIONAL, 15 October 2020, Human Rights - While perpetrators of rape and other forms of sexual violence must be held accountable, capital punishment and torture are not the answer, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Thursday. 

Michelle Bachelet has issued a statement calling on governments to step up action against these crimes, improve access to justice and reparations for victims, and institute prompt criminal investigations and prosecutions for those responsible. 

Outrage and calls for justice 

Her intervention comes in the wake of recent reports of horrific rapes in numerous parts of the world, including Algeria, Bangladesh, India, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan and Tunisia. 

These incidents have prompted outrage and demands for justice. 

“I share the outrage and stand in solidarity with the survivors, and with those demanding justice. But I am concerned that there are also calls – and in some places laws already being adopted – bringing in cruel and inhuman punishments and the death penalty for perpetrators,” said Ms. Bachelet. 

Castration and capital punishment 

The UN human rights chief provided examples of these laws, such as a legal amendment instituted last month in Kaduna state, located in northwestern Nigeria. 

The law allows surgical castration for male rapists, and the removal of the fallopian tubes of women convicted of the crime: a surgery known as bilateral salpingectomy.  These procedures will be followed by the death penalty if the victim is under 14. 

Earlier this week, the government of Bangladesh approved an amendment which introduces the death penalty for rape, while in Pakistan there have been calls for public hanging and castration.  

Similar demands for the death penalty have been made elsewhere. 

Access to justice is key 

While the main argument for capital punishment in this case is the belief that it deters rape, there is no evidence to support this, according to Ms. Bachelet. 

“Evidence shows that the certainty of punishment, rather than its severity, deters crime”, she said.  

“In most countries around the world, the key problem is that victims of sexual violence do not have access to justice in the first place – whether due to stigma, fear of reprisals, entrenched gender stereotypes and power imbalances, lack of police and judicial training, laws that condone or excuse certain types of sexual violence or the lack of protection for victims.”  

 A greater role for women 

The High Commissioner stressed that the death penalty, or penalties like surgical castration or removal of the fallopian tubes, will not resolve any of the myriad barriers to accessing justice, nor will it serve a preventive role. 

“In fact, the death penalty consistently and disproportionately discriminates against the poor and most marginalized individuals, and often results in further human rights violations,” she stated, while pointing out that surgical castration and salpingectomy violate international human rights law. 

 “I urge States to adopt a victim-centred approach to fighting the scourge of rape and other sexual violence. It is crucial that women are active participants in designing measures to prevent and address these crimes, and that law enforcement and judicial officials receive the requisite training in handling such cases,” she said.  

 “Tempting as it may be to impose draconian punishments on those who carry out such monstrous acts, we must not allow ourselves to commit further violations.”

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Social protection coverage in Asia and the Pacific ‘riddled with gaps’

INTERNATIONAL, 15 October 2020, SDGs - More than half the population of the vast Asia and Pacific region lack any social protection coverage, leaving populations vulnerable to ill-health, poverty, inequality and social exclusion, a new UN report has found. 

The need for social protection safety nets has been further highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) said in a new report, launched on Thursday. 

“Comprehensive social protection creates the foundation for healthy societies and vibrant economies,” Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary of ESCAP, said in a news release, on Thursday, announcing the findings. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this imperative into sharp focus, by demonstrating the stabilizing effect well-functioning social protection systems have and how their absence exacerbates inequality and poverty,” she added. 

According to the report, The Protection We Want: Social Outlook for Asia and the Pacific, the pandemic has created an “opportunity” to strengthen social protection systems for the future.  

The economic and employment shock countries are facing due to pandemic means that social protection will remain a critical policy tool in the recovery, it added, underscoring that social protection programmes should form an integral component of any recovery plans. 

Underinvestment

Excluding health, many countries in the region spend less than 2 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on social protection, a “stark contrast” from the global average of 11 per cent, said the report. 

Across the region, about 46 per cent of the population is protected in at least one area of social protection, with South East and South Asia subregions lagging with 33 per cent and 24 per cent, respectively. 

In many countries, there are no schemes for numerous social protection contingencies, and responsibility for provisions such as maternity, sickness, and employment injury benefits, falling on employers. 

“These arrangements can create perverse incentives for employers. For example, employer-liability arrangements for maternity benefits can lead to discrimination against women of reproductive age,” warned the report. 

Informal employment 

Alongside underinvestment in social protection schemes, another key reason for the coverage gap is high prevalence of informal employment in the region, representing close to 70 per cent of all workers, according to the report. 

Though national and subregional differences exist, informal employment prevails in both agricultural and non-agricultural sectors, such as construction, wholesale and retail trade, accommodation, and restaurants, the report added. Women are particularly impacted as they are most often engaged in the informal economy, working in more vulnerable jobs. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the precarious situation of both women and men in the informal economy, explained Chihoko Asada-Miyakawa, Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific at ILO. 

“There is a clear need for further investment in public social protection systems if we are to avoid the stagnation of social and economic progress made across the region in recent decades,” she said. 

Recommendations 

The report identified seven key actions governments in the region can take to improve social protection. 

These include: integrating social protection as a core strategy for socio-economic development; political commitment and stepping up investments in social protection for all; closing existing social protection coverage gaps; promoting transition from the informal to the formal economy; and embedding social dialogue at all steps from design and implementation to follow-up and evaluation. 

The report also calls for strengthening gender-responsiveness of social protection systems by ensuring that schemes address the specific vulnerabilities faced by women, men, girls, and boys; and leveraging new technologies to enhance the effectiveness, efficiency, and accessibility of social protection. 

By stepping up their commitments to universal social protection, countries in Asia and the Pacific would “also be taking a critical step towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), while being better prepared to deal with current and emerging challenges,” added the report. 

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Three billion people globally lack handwashing facilities at home: UNICEF

INTERNATIONAL, 15 October 2020, Health - Although handwashing with soap is vital in the fight against infectious diseases, including COVID-19, billions of people around the world do not have ready access to a place to do it, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Thursday. 

According to new estimates from UNICEF, 40 per cent of the world’s population – or 3 billion people – do not have a handwashing facility with water and soap at home. The number is much higher in least developed countries, where nearly three-quarters go without. 

Kelly Ann Naylor, Associate Director of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene at UNICEF, said that it was “unacceptable” that the most vulnerable communities are unable to use the simplest of methods to protect themselves and their loved ones. 

“The pandemic has highlighted the critical role of hand hygiene in disease prevention. It has also stressed a pre-existing problem for many: handwashing with soap remains out of reach for millions of children where they’re born, live and learn.”  

“We must take immediate action to make handwashing with soap accessible to everyone, everywhere – now and in the future,” she urged. 

The situation is also alarming at schools: 43 per cent globally (70 per cent in least developed countries) lack a handwashing facility with water and soap, affecting hundreds of millions of school-age children, according to the estimates.  

 ► See also: Everything you need to know about washing your hands to protect against coronavirus  

‘Hand Hygiene for All’

Against this backdrop, UNICEF, along with the UN World Health Organization launched the “Hand Hygiene for All” initiative to support the development of national roadmaps to accelerate and sustain progress towards making hand hygiene a mainstay in public health interventions. 

This means rapidly improving access to handwashing facilities, water, soap and hand sanitizer in all settings, as well as promoting behavioural change interventions for optimal hand hygiene practices, said UNICEF. 

The initiative brings together international, national, and local partners, to ensure affordable products and services are available and sustainable, especially in vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. 

The estimates were released on Thursday, coinciding with Global Handwashing Day, which serves as a platform to raise awareness on the importance of handwashing with soap. 

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Continued violence strains Colombia peace process, Security Council hears

INTERNATIONAL, 14 October 2020, Peace and Security - Enormous challenges remain on the road to lasting peace in Colombia, where despite ongoing attacks and stigmatization, the vast majority of former FARC-EP fighters who laid down their weapons under a 2016 peace agreement with the Government, remain engaged in the reintegration process, the head of the UN mission in the South American country says.

Carlos Ruiz Massieu, presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report on the work of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, told the Security Council that former combatants are working alongside their families and local communities to withstand the health and economic effects of the COVIDF-19 pandemic.

“Unfortunately, some of the areas that suffered immensely during the conflict continue to be besieged by violence from other actors who continue attacking social leaders, human rights defenders, former combatants and entire communities”, he told Council members on Wednesday, meeting via video-teleconference.

Innocents falling victim

Recent massacres in various parts of the country are a painful reminder of how innocent civilians – including young people – are falling victim to the actions of these groups, said Mr. Ruiz Massieu, who also stressed the need to improve security for women social leaders and human rights defenders.

According to the Secretary-General’s 90-day report, illegal armed groups and criminal organizations are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic – which has claimed nearly 28,000 lives in Colombia - to strengthen their social and territorial control.

During the reporting period, which ran from 27 June to 25 September, the Mission verified a total of 19 killings of former FARC-EP combatants, all of them men, for a total of 50, including two women, since the start of the year.

“Finding ways to curb the violence is imperative to deliver on the promise of the Peace Agreement,” Mr. Ruiz Massieu said, urging Colombia to finalize and implement a public policy to dismantle illegal armed groups, criminal organizations and their support networks.

Global ceasefire call

Timely responses to early warning from the national ombudsman’s office could be decisive as well in reducing violence, together with a global ceasefire – as called for by the Secretary-General – that would enable Colombia to focus all efforts on coronavirus relief, he said.

Turning to other challenges, he said that land in rural Colombia remains a pressing issue for the reintegration progress, as the Government aims to purchase more plots in former territorial areas by the end of the year.

Truth and justice will out

Support for the work of the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparations and Non-Repetition remains fundamental, as it brings victims and actors involved in the conflict together in meaningful dialogue.

He concluded by emphasizing the role of women in Colombia’s peace process, two weeks ahead of the twentieth anniversary of the Security Council’s landmark resolution 1325 (1990) on women, peace and security.

“I encourage all actors, including the Government and the FARC party, to take inspiration (from the anniversary) to redouble their efforts to fully implement the gender provisions of the (peace) agreement, together with the leadership of women’s organizations at the national and local levels,” he said.

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Talks begin to resolve disputed Lebanon-Israel maritime border

INTERNATIONAL, 14 October 2020, Peace and Security - The UN Secretary-General has welcomed the launch of ground-breaking discussions on Wednesday, over the disputed maritime border between Lebanon and Israel in the eastern Mediterranean, following a framework agreement between the two nations at the beginning of the month.

The process to resolve the long-running dispute, which could lead to the development of what news reports suggest are potentially lucrative natural gas fields under the disputed area, is being facilitated by the UN and the United States.

‘Fully committed’ to support talks

“The United Nations through its representatives is fully committed to supporting the parties in the discussions, as requested by them, as they work towards a final agreed outcome”, said a statement release by the Spokesperson for UN chief António Guterres, after the reportedly hour-long initial meeting in the Lebanese town of Naqoura.

Both sides have agreed to meet again at the end of the month, according to reports. The two nations are still formally in a state of war. 

A statement released on Wednesday by the US administration and the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, noted that the Israeli delegation was headed by Udi Adiri, Director General of the Ministry of Energy.  

The Lebanese delegation was headed by Brigadier General Bassam Yassine, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations from the Lebanese Armed Forces.    

Described as an initial meeting, the joint US and UN statement said that the representatives held “productive talks and reaffirmed their commitment to continue negotiations later this month”.

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Progress against tuberculosis ‘at risk’: WHO

INTERNATIONAL, 14 October 2020, Health - Urgent action and funding are needed to sustain progress in the global fight against tuberculosis (TB), the UN World Health Organization (WHO) has said, warning that global targets for prevention and treatment “will likely be missed”.

According to the UN health agency, though TB cases fell by 9 per cent and deaths by 14 per cent between 2015 and 2019, access to TB services remains a challenge. 

“Equitable access to quality and timely diagnosis, prevention, treatment and care remains a challenge”, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, said in a news release announcing the findings. 

“Accelerated action is urgently needed worldwide if we are to meet our targets by 2022,” he urged. 

Caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis and most often affecting the lungs, TB spreads through the air when people with the disease cough, sneeze or spit. In spite of being a curable disease, many people die from TB and it is a leading cause of death of people living with HIV. 

Approximately 90 percent of those who fall sick with the disease each year live in just 30 countries. Most people who develop the disease are adults, and there are more cases among men than women 

Challenges  

In 2019, approximately 1.4 million people died from TB-related illnesses, and of the estimated 10 million people who developed the disease that year, some 3 million were not diagnosed or were not officially reported to national authorities, according to WHO. 

The situation is even more acute for people with drug-resistant TB. About 465,000 people were newly diagnosed with drug-resistant TB in 2019 and, of these, over 60 per cent were not able to access treatment.  

There has also been limited progress in scaling up access to treatment to prevent TB, said WHO, adding that funding is a major challenge. In 2020, funding for TB prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care reached $6.5 billion, about half of the $13 billion target agreed by world leaders in 2018. 

In addition, disruptions in services caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to further setbacks, said the UN health agency. 

In many countries, human, financial and other resources have been reallocated from TB to the COVID-19 response, while data collection and reporting systems have also been impacted. 

The Global Fund/John Rae
Two women who are undergoing treatment for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

COVID-19 and TB 

In line with WHO guidance, countries have taken measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on essential TB services, including by strengthening infection control.  

A total of 108 countries – including 21 with a high TB burden – have expanded the use of digital technologies to provide remote advice and support. Countries are also encouraging home-based treatment, providing all-oral treatment as well as preventive treatment, to reduce the need for patients to visit health facilities.  

Countries, civil society and other partners have joined forces to ensure that essential services for both TB and COVID-19 are maintained for those in need, said Tereza Kaseva, Director of WHO’s Global TB Programme. 

“These efforts are vital to strengthen health systems, ensure health for all, and save lives,” she added. 

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Thousands displaced by fighting in southern Afghanistan

INTERNATIONAL, 14 October 2020, Humanitarian Aid - Thousands of people have been displaced and critical health services interrupted, after fighting erupted last weekend between security forces and Taliban fighters in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, the UN humanitarian office has reported.   

There are also reports that 200 people have been killed or injured.

According to a flash update issued on Tuesday by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), several districts of Helmand, including areas near provincial capital Lashkargah, and parts of neighbouring Kandahar province have been affected. 

The highway between Lashkargah and Kandahar – Afghanistan’s second largest city – has been inaccessible due to the presence of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the update added. 

‘Protect civilians’

Meanwhile, the UN Assistance Mission in the country (UNAMA) called on the Taliban and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) “to take all feasible measures to protect civilians” .

In a message posted on its official Twitter account, the UN Mission also urged them to provide safe paths for those wishing to leave area.

Assessment challenges

According to the OCHA humanitarian update, two humanitarian teams have been working in areas of displacement, since Monday, to assess needs and have so far verified about 500 internally displaced persons, some of whom may require immediate food, water and temporary spaces for living.  

Local authorities have reported that as many as 35,000 people – some 5,000 households – may have been displaced, while health facilities reported hundreds of casualties. 

However, verifying the figures and assessing the situation have been complicated due to disruptions of electricity and telecommunication links in affected areas. 

To respond, humanitarians are supplying food and non-food items, while health partners are providing trauma kits for up to 10,000 people for three months, to address trauma needs. 

Other partners are mobilising to meet needs following the escalating violence.

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