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World ‘dangerously unprepared’ for future pandemics unless leaders tackle inequalities, UNAIDS warns

In an urgent call to action ahead of World AIDS Day on 1 December, the agency focused on ending the disease as a public health threat by 2030, said that if transformative measures are not taken, the world will stay trapped in the COVID-19 crisis and remain dangerously unprepared for all future pandemics.

Infection every 2 minutes

The message comes as the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that at least 310,000 children were newly infected with HIV in 2020, or one child every two minutes.

Another 120,000 children died from AIDS-related causes during the same period, or one child every five minutes.

Their latest HIV and AIDS Global Snapshot warns that the COVID-19 pandemic is deepening the inequalities that have long driven the HIV epidemic, putting vulnerable children, adolescents, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers at increased risk of missing life-saving HIV prevention and treatment services.

Progress ‘off track’ 

“Progress against the AIDS pandemic, which was already off track, is now under even greater strain as the COVID-19 crisis continues to rage, disrupting HIV prevention and treatment services, schooling, violence-prevention programmes and more,” Winnie Byanyima, UNAIDS Executive Director said.

“We cannot be forced to choose between ending the AIDS pandemic today and preparing for the pandemics of tomorrow. The only successful approach will achieve both”.

According to UNICEF, 2 in 5 children living with HIV worldwide, do not know their status, and just over half of children with HIV are receiving antiretroviral treatment (ART).

“Unless we ramp up efforts to resolve the inequalities driving the HIV epidemic, which are now exacerbated by COVID-19, we may see more children infected with HIV and more children losing their fight against AIDS,” Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director said.

Inequality defines infection patterns

The UNAIDS report found that some countries, including some with the highest rates of HIV, have made “remarkable progress” against AIDS.

However, it pointed out that new HIV infections are not falling fast enough to stop the pandemic, with 1.5 million new HIV infections in 2020 and growing HIV infection rates in some countries.

It also noted that infections are following lines of inequality. Six in seven new HIV infections among adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa are occurring among adolescent girls.

Gay men and other men who have sex with men, sex workers and people who use drugs, face a 25–35 times greater risk of acquiring HIV worldwide.

According to UNICEF, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 89 per cent of new HIV paediatric infections and 88 per cent of children and adolescents living with HIV worldwide. Some 88 per cent of AIDS-related child deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa.

COVID-19 undercuts response

Many countries saw significant disruptions in HIV services due to COVID-19 in early 2020, according to UNICEF’s report.

HIV infant testing in high burden countries declined by 50 to 70 per cent, with new treatment initiations for children under 14 years of age, falling by 25 to 50 per cent.

Lockdowns also contributed to increased infection rates due to spikes in gender-based violence and limited access to follow-up care. Several countries also experienced substantial reductions in health facility deliveries, maternal HIV testing and antiretroviral HIV treatment initiation.

Fewer people living with HIV initiated treatment in 2020 in 40 of the 50 countries surveyed, according to UNAIDS. Harm reduction services for people who use drugs were also disrupted in 65 per cent of 130 countries the agency analysed.

‘Pandemics grow’ amidst division

The UNAID report examined five critical elements that it said must be urgently implemented to halt the AIDS pandemic but are under-funded and under-prioritized.

These include community-led and community-based infrastructure, equitable access to medicines, vaccines and health technologies and supporting workers on the pandemic front lines.

It also reiterated that human rights must be at the centre of pandemic responses, with people-centred data systems that highlight inequalities. “Pandemics find space to grow in the fractures of divided societies…work to end pandemics cannot succeed unless world leaders take the steps that will enable them to do so,” said Helen Clark, Co-Chair of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, in the UNAIDS report.

Echoing those concerns, Ms. Fore said “building back better in a post-pandemic world must include HIV responses that are evidence-based, people-centred, resilient, sustainable and, above all, equitable.

“To close the gaps, these initiatives must be delivered through a reinforced health care system and meaningful engagement of all affected communities, especially the most vulnerable.”

Mexico: Over 95,000 registered as disappeared, impunity 'almost absolute'

Those are some of the key findings shared by the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, at the end of a visit between 15 and 26 November, noting that more than 100 disappearances allegedly took place just during the course of their fact-finding mission.  

In a statement, the Committee urged Mexican authorities to quickly locate those who have gone missing, identify the deceased and take prompt action to investigate all cases. 

Family members of the young disappeared in Ayotzinapa.
Family members of the young disappeared in Ayotzinapa., by UNIC Mexico/Antonio Nieto

Open access 

The delegation went to 13 Mexican states and held 48 meetings with more than 80 different authorities. Members also met hundreds of victims, and dozens of victims’ collectives and civil society organisations, from almost every part of the country.   

They witnessed exhumations and search expeditions in the states of Morelos, Coahuila and the state of Mexico, visited the Human Identification Centre in Coahuila, and went to several federal, state and migrant detention centres.   

This was their first visit to the country, granted under article 33 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons against Enforced Disappearance. 

For the Committee, Mexico’s acceptance of the visit is a clear expression of the State’s openness to international scrutiny and support. 

“We acknowledge that some legal and institutional progress has been made in recent years, but enforced disappearances are still widespread and impunity is almost absolute”, the experts said in a statement.  

With more than 52,000 unidentified bodies of deceased people, the Committee argues that “the fight against impunity cannot wait.” 

Organised crime ‘collusion’ 

During the visit, they received “worrying information”, both from authorities and victims, about varying patterns in the way enforced disappearances are investigated in different regions. 

They also point to “scenarios of collusion between State agents and organised crime”, with some enforced disappearances “committed directly by State agents.”  

The Committee also notes with concern that several of the recommendations made in 2015 and 2018, are still pending implementation.  

A protest rally in Mexico City on the case of Ayoitzinapa rural school attended by the 43 disappeared students..
A protest rally in Mexico City on the case of Ayoitzinapa rural school attended by the 43 disappeared students.., by UNIC/Mexico

“In this sense, we stress that disappearances are not only a phenomenon of the past, but still persist”, they say. 

Impunity and inaction 

During these two weeks, the Committee heard victims describe a society overwhelmed by the phenomenon of disappearances, as well as systemic impunity, and their powerlessness in the face of the inaction by some authorities. 

They pointed out that day by day, in their search for answers and justice, they suffer [from] indifference and lack of progress. They have vehemently expressed to us their pain and that disappeared persons are not numbers, but human beings”, the Committee recalled.   

The experts believe that the root causes of the problem have not been addressed and that the adopted security approach is “not only insufficient, but also inadequate.” 

The Committee is made up of 10 independent experts, appointed by the States Parties to the Convention. Four members took part in the visit. 

A final report will be discussed and adopted by the plenary of the Committee during its 22nd session, which will take place in Geneva between 28 March and 8 April 2022. 

UN chief calls for nuclear weapons-free Middle East  

Antonio Guterres was speaking in New York at the second session of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction.  

Since 1967, five such zones have been established around the world: Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa and Central Asia. They include 60 per cent of all UN Member States and cover almost all of the Southern Hemisphere.   

For the Secretary-General, expanding such zones would help build a safer world.   

“That is particularly the case in the Middle East, where concerns over nuclear programmes persist, and where conflicts and civil wars are causing widespread civilian casualties and suffering, undermining stability and disrupting social and economic development”, Mr. Guterres explained.  

The Busher nuclear power plant in Iran. Talks about the country's nuclear deal have restarted.
The Busher nuclear power plant in Iran. Talks about the country’s nuclear deal have restarted., by Photo: IAEA/Paolo Contri

Iran Deal 

The UN chief also reiterated his call for all parties to exercise restraint and avoid escalation. 

In this context, he highlighted the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known commonly as Iran Nuclear Deal, saying that the return to dialogue is “an important step.” 

The JCPOA was signed by Iran alongside the European Union and five permanent members of the Security Council: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. However, Washington withdrew in May 2018, under the previous administration. Talks over Iran’s nuclear programme and a revival of the JCPOA, have resumed this week in Vienna. 

“All parties must ensure this valuable instrument remains effective”, he argued.    

For Mr. Guterres, the positive consequences of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons would extend beyond nuclear control.   

“It will strengthen the international bans on chemical and biological weapons. It will build trust, reduce tensions and prevent conflicts and human suffering”, he argued.  

According to him, it would also deescalate regional arms races and free much needed resources to tackle major challenges, including COVID-19, climate change, and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.   

‘New extremes’ 

The president of the General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid, also addressed the Conference, pointing out some progress such as the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the renewal of the START treaty between the United States and Russia, and the ongoing talks on the JCPOA. 

He cautioned, though, that Member States’ destructive capacity “has reached new extremes”, with many continuing to invest, innovate and build this type of weapons. 

Abdulla Shahid, President of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, briefs the media at UN Headquarters in New York.
Abdulla Shahid, President of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, by UN Photo/Cia Pak

“It is not outside the realm of possibility that, on our current trajectory, every minor geopolitical squabble could trigger catastrophic global consequences”, he said.  

Diplomacy and good faith 

Currently, it is estimated that some 15,000 nuclear weapons exist in the world. The General Assembly mandated a nuclear weapons free Middle East, for the first time, in 1974.  

Like other regions, Mr. Shahid argued, the geopolitics of this part of the world are complex, and any settlements will require sound diplomacy and negotiations based on good faith. 

“The addition of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction to the region’s politics will complicate an already challenging process, undermining trust and portending existential consequences”, he argued.  

Finally, the President of the General Assembly noted that not enough states have signed and ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), twenty-five years after its adoption.  

He also pointed to the 10th Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, taking place in New York in January, as an opportunity to renew commitments.

IOM scales up aid at EU-Belarus border, as migrant hypothermia deaths tick up  

It is estimated that there are up to 2,000 migrants and refugees at the border with Poland, predominantly Kurds from Iraq, but also Syrians, Iranians, Afghans, Yemenis, Cameroonians and others. There are large numbers of women and children among them. 

For António Vitorino, Director General of IOM, the “priority is the safety of these stranded migrants, upholding their human rights and preventing more deaths as temperatures remain well below freezing.” 

“We are committed to providing humanitarian assistance and working with authorities on both sides of the border, and those who wish to return voluntarily will be helped by IOM to do so in a safe and dignified way,” he said. 

Migrants stranded in harsh conditions on the Belarus-Poland border.
Migrants stranded in harsh conditions on the Belarus-Poland border, by UNHCR Belarus

Voluntary returns 

The agency estimates the total number of migrants and refugees currently in Belarus at around 7,000. So far, only a limited number have expressed a desire to return home voluntarily. 

However, in recent days, the Government of Iraq has organized the repatriation of over 1,000 of its citizens. Discussions with IOM to facilitate more voluntary returns are ongoing.   

IOM should be providing a charter flight for all those remaining who wish to return to Iraq in the next two weeks. The agency explained that the process is taking longer than usual because of COVID-19 restrictions. 

At least 44 people have so far been assisted by IOM to return home voluntarily, with another 38 in the pipeline. 

Humanitarian aid 

In recent weeks, on several occasions, Belarusian authorities have granted IOM, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Belarus Red Cross, access to provide aid to those stuck in makeshift camps. 

The agency and its partners used the opportunity to assess conditions and needs, distribute supplies, and help facilitate anyone considering returning home.   

IOM was also able to provide aid in late October via the Belarus Red Cross. 

Increasing numbers of migrants are moving towards the Belarus/Poland border.
Increasing numbers of migrants are moving towards the Belarus/Poland border., by Belarus Red Cross

Following the first visit to the Bruzgi border on 11 November, the agency secured food items, clothing and hygiene kits which were promptly delivered by the Red Cross. On 24 November those same recipients were supplied water and food.  

Crisis ongoing 

Poland, as well as Lithuania and Latvia, which are all EU members, have seen an increase in the number of migrants, many from the Middle East, trying to enter their territories via Belarus in recent months.   

The crisis has been brewing ever since the EU imposed sanctions against Belarus for cracking down on pro-democracy protests in the wake of the contested August 2020 presidential election, according to media reports.  

The regional bloc also condemned the forced landing by authorities, of a commercial flight over Belarus this past May, and the subsequent arrest of a prominent dissident and journalist.  

The EU has accused Belarus of orchestrating the migrant crisis in retaliation, which the country has denied.    

Earlier this month, Poland deployed thousands of troops to the border after migrants attempted to storm into the country. 

Omicron COVID variant underlines need for global ‘pandemic treaty’

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was addressing the start of a special three-day meeting of the organisation’s governing body in Geneva on Monday, amidst a global alert over the new strain, arguing that greater international cooperation is essential to preserve “hard won gains” against the virus.

The World Health Assembly meeting was convened to decide on the issue of a so-called “pandemic treaty”.

Tedros said the world has not responded accordingly to COVID-19, and vaccine inequity, among other challenges, has facilitated the appearance of new highly mutated variants such as Omicron.

“Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics: our current system disincentivizes countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores”, said the WHO Director General.

Praise for South Africa alert

Tedros underscored that South Africa – where Omicron was first identified just days ago – should be thanked for detecting, sequencing and reporting the new variant, and not penalized, referring to the current travel bans many countries are imposing on the African nation and its neighbours.

The UN Secretary-General also expressed his deep concern on Monday for the isolation now being felt by southern African countries due to the new restrictions imposed on travel from the region, by dozens of nations across the world.

The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa – and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world”, said António Guterres, in a strongly-worded statement.

I appeal to all governments to consider repeated testing for travellers, together with other appropriate and truly effective measures”, he added.

The UN health agency has asked governments to take science-based decisions regarding the travel bans. Mr. Guterres said it was important to take all appropriate measures to allow for travel and “economic engagement”.

A Brazilian health worker receives a COVID-19 vaccination.

© UNICEF/PAHO/Karina Zambrana
A Brazilian health worker receives a COVID-19 vaccination.

Prevent history from repeating itself

The likelihood of the potential further spread of Omicron at the global level has been defined as “very high” by WHO.

Dr. Tedros reminded that although scientists still don’t know for certain if the variant is associated with more risk of transmission and severe disease, or if it has any impact on the effectiveness of vaccines, the world shouldn’t need another ‘wake up call’.

“Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we are done with COVID-19, it is not done with us. We are living through a cycle of panic and neglect.  Hard-won gains could vanish in an instant. Our most immediate task, therefore, is to end this pandemic”, he highlighted.

The WHO chief added that our ability to end the current pandemic is a ‘test for our collective ability to prevent and respond effectively to future pandemics’.

“The same principles apply: Courageous and compassionate leadership; Fidelity to science; Generosity in sharing the fruits of research; And an unshakeable commitment to equity and solidarity.

“If we cannot apply those principles now to tame COVID-19, how can we hope to prevent history repeating?”, he asked delegates from more than 190 countries.

A man wears a face mask and gloves while sitting in a cafe in Glasgow, Scotland.

Unsplash/Ross Sneddon
A man wears a face mask and gloves while sitting in a cafe in Glasgow, Scotland.

The vaccine crisis

More than 80% of the world’s vaccines have gone to G20 countries while low-income countries, most of them in Africa, have received just 0.6% of all vaccines, Dr. Tedros emphasised.

He reiterated the message he has been sending the world for over a year: vaccine equity is not charity, but it is in every country’s best interests.

“No country can vaccinate its way out of the pandemic alone.  The longer vaccine inequity persists, the more opportunity this virus has to spread and evolve in ways we cannot predict nor prevent. We are all in this together”, he explained.

Equity plea: rights experts

Human rights experts joined Tedros on his call on Monday, urging States to act decisively to ensure that all people have equal and universal access to COVID-19 vaccines, particularly those in low-income countries who have largely been left out of the global response.

More than 27 UN Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts sent a joint statement as a response to the announcement of the indefinite postponement of the World Trade Organization 12th Ministerial Conference, in which a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights to facilitate vaccine patents was set to be discussed.

“The postponement… should not be a reason to delay progress already made: on the contrary, it confirms the urgent need to take collective action to address vaccine inequality…”, they said, adding that the priority should be to ensure that all people everywhere can enjoy the benefits of scientific progress.

On 14 October, the experts sent 44 letters to the WTO, G7 and G20 States, the European Union and pharmaceutical companies urging equal and universal vaccine access. So far, only six responses have been received.

ICU staff working to save COVID patients in Wuhan, China, in April 2020.

Yun Liu
ICU staff working to save COVID patients in Wuhan, China, in April 2020.

Now is the moment to act

Comprehensive. Coordinated. Effective. Three words that history will not use to describe the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic”, Dr. Tedros highlighted, advocating for a new common and binding global approach to pandemics.

He said that the task was urgent but also required patience as a convention, agreement or another international instrument, will not solve every problem.

“But, it will provide the overarching framework to foster greater international cooperation and provide a platform for strengthening global health security”, he added.

The special World Health Assembly session runs until Wednesday, and by the end of the three-day virtual meeting, countries will decide if there is political will to design a new international framework to respond to future pandemics.

Financing sustainable development needed more than ever, says UN deputy chief Mohammed 

Speaking at the Building Bridges Summit for sustainable finance in Geneva, Amina Mohammed urged all those present from Government, the private sector, international organisations and civil society, to do more to push ahead with a common investment framework to improve people’s lives everywhere. 

More ambition, action 

“We need more ambition, more action, more scale, greater urgency in delivering the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement – and we certainly need more fuel, more financial resources and more investments,” she said. “The good news is that we already have a shared narrative or a linguistic bridge in the 2030 Agenda. But we still face a mismatch of metrics and languages between diplomacy and business; public and private actors.” 

Representing the Swiss federal government at the summit’s second iteration, Finance Minister Ueli Maurer highlighted its potential for concrete action, along with the need to be inclusive and transparent in the way that sustainable financing is handled. 

“I think Building Bridges, we have to do it between the population and the Government, we have to explain what we have to do,” he said. “Then we need bridges between the private sector and the Government and then I think we need bridges from Switzerland to the world.” 

According to the summit’s organisers, between 2019 and 2020, sustainable investment rose by 31 per cent in Switzerland, to over 1,500 billion francs. 

In addition to highlighting opportunities for investors and fund managers, it is hoped that the summit will contribute to creating an ordered and common approach to “net zero” financing, said Patrick Odier, President of Building Bridges initiative and chair of Lombard Odier bank. 

“We are trying actually to bring capital closer to the whole array of the Sustainable Development Goals, i.e. to try to find not only bridges – but to be concrete – instruments, metrics, methodologies that allow capital not only to set targets in certain areas that are covered by the SDGs, but also to be measurable in terms of reaching all those targets that I have said. And this is where finance is at this very moment.” 

Mr. Odier also responded to the call to end subsidies for fossil fuel industries to create a level playing field for renewable energy investment: “We all know that we have to deal with these issues of subsidies, but finance itself is not at the helm of addressing this issue,” he said. “What finance can do is basically ask the Government to play its role when it comes to trying to address the fossil industry and of course the emission problematic.” 

Unlock resources 

Highlighting the convening ambition of the summit at Geneva’s Maison de la Paix, Deputy Secretary-General Mohammed listed the issues that she hoped the week-long summit might address. 

“We need the private sector and its leadership to unlock resources for key transitions in sustainable energy and connectivity, food systems, health, education, social protection, digitalization.” 

“Innovative instruments including blended finance can all play an important role, but we need to massively scale-up that delivery.” 

UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed addresses the Building Bridges Summit in Geneva.

Building Bridges
UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed addresses the Building Bridges Summit in Geneva.

Trust deficit 

Despite the fact that there was the “leadership”, “expertise” and “tools” to achieve so much, Ms. Mohammed warned that “the truth is that the trust deficit is widening in our world”.  

And amid World Health Organization data showing that more than 80 per cent of COVID-19 vaccines have gone to G20 countries and low-income countries have received just 0.6 per cent, the UN deputy chief maintained in particular that “we have not been able to rise” to the global solidarity call. 

“Until everyone gets the vaccine, we will all be at risk, and we will not be able to take the SDGs to where they ought to be by 2030, she said. “For many, the health pandemic has been a tragedy, particularly in developed countries, but for developing countries it has a socio-economic impact that will take so much longer to recover from. 

“And so, we need the urgency of the investments in climate action, which will have multiplier effects on the SDGs.”

Violations of Palestinian rights puts two-State solution at risk UN chief warns 

In a message to mark International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. The UN chief warned that persistent violations of the rights of Palestinians, along with the expansion of Israeli settlements, risk eroding the prospect of a two-State solution

Despite being ‘encouraged’ by recent engagements between senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, the UN chief said that “containing the situation is not sufficient”. 

Two States 

Mr. Guterres reiterated that the overall goal of two States living side-by-side in peace and security remains

This includes fulfilling the “legitimate national aspirations of both peoples, with borders based on the 1967 lines and Jerusalem as the capital of both States”. 

The Secretary-General called on the parties to avoid measures that would undermine the chances for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.  He urged the parties to engage constructively “to end the closure” of the Gaza strip, and improve the living conditions of all Palestinians who continue to live under occupation. 


Mr. Guterres’ message comes ahead of a special meeting held in New York on Monday to discuss the unresolved question of Palestine and the Palestinian people’s inalienable rights.  

The occasion will be an opportunity for the international community to focus its attention on the fact that their rights as defined by the General Assembly Committee (CEIRPP) in 1975, have yet to be attained. These are namely, the right to self-determination, national independence and sovereignty and the right to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced. 

Alongside the event, a permanent exhibition has been mounted at UN Headquarters in New York, on “The Question of Palestine and the United Nations”. 

Humility needed 

Speaking at the meeting in New York, General Assembly President, Abdulla Shahid, said that the Day should be marked with a “sense of humility”.  

Reminding that peace in the Middle East has remained at the forefront of the global agenda since the UN’s founding, he said that “it is disappointing that despite the priority accorded this issue, the amount of energy expended, the multiple UN resolutions adopted, and the decades of negotiations, dialogues, and engagements, so little has been accomplished.”.  

Mr. Shahid added that Palestinians in the Gaza enclave, “are trapped inside a cycle of unemployment, limited economic opportunity and poverty – a dynamic that has been severely exacerbated by COVID-19”.  

Commending the ongoing work by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), Mr. Shahid urged the global community to guarantee “sufficient and reliable financing to ensure that Palestinian refugees receive adequate assistance”.  

Coronavirus pandemic could cost global tourism $2 trillion this year

According to the latest forecast by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the same amount was lost in 2020, making it one of the sectors hit hardest by the health crisis.

Despite recent improvements, the report warned that demand for travel could be further affected by “uneven vaccination rates around the world and new COVID-19 strains which had prompted new travel restrictions in some countries.

In the past few days, the emergence of the Omicron variant has led dozens of countries to reinstate restrictions on arrivals, or to delay relaxation in COVID-19 travel and testing rules, leading to wide uncertainty for holiday season travellers worldwide.

Spikes in oil prices and the disruption of global supply chains have also had an effect. According to the latest UNWTO data, international tourist arrivals are expected to remain 70-75 per cent below 2019 levels in 2021, a similar decline as in 2020.

‘We cannot let our guard down’

Although a 58 per cent increase in tourist arrivals was registered in July-September of this year compared to the same period in 2020, this remained 64 per cent below 2019 levels, the UN body found.

In August and September, arrivals were at 63 per cent lower than 2019, which is the highest monthly result since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Between January and September 2021, worldwide international tourist arrivals stood at 20 per cent lower, compared to 2020, a clear improvement from the 54 per cent drop, over the first six months of the year. 

“Data for the third quarter of 2021 is encouraging,” UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said. “However, arrivals are still 76 per cent below pre-pandemic levels and results across the different global regions remain uneven.”

In light of the rising cases and the emergence of new variants, he added that “we cannot let our guard down and need to continue our efforts to ensure equal access to vaccinations, coordinate travel procedures, make use of digital vaccination certificates to facilitate mobility, and continue to support the sector.”

Uneven recovery

Despite the improvement seen in the third quarter of the year, the pace of recovery remains slow and uneven across world regions.

In some sub-regions, such as Southern and Mediterranean Europe, the Caribbean, North and Central America, arrivals actually rose above 2020 levels in the first nine months of 2021.

However, arrivals in Asia and the Pacific were down by as much as 95 per cent when compared with 2019, as many destinations remained closed to non-essential travel.

Africa and the Middle East recorded 74 per cent and 81 per cent drops respectively in the third quarter compared to 2019. Among the larger destinations, Croatia, Mexico and Turkey showed the strongest recovery in the period of July to September.

Caribbean rebound

The Caribbean had the highest results of any of the subregions defined by the UNWTO, with arrivals up 55 per cent compared to 2020.

International tourist arrivals “rebounded” during the summer season in the Northern Hemisphere thanks to increased travel confidence, rapid vaccination and the easing of entry restrictions in many nations.

In Europe, the EU Digital Covid Certificate has helped facilitate free movement within the European Union, the report added.

Still ‘not clear’ whether Omicron COVID variant is more transmissible or more severe than Delta: WHO

The experts of the UN health agency said researchers in South Africa and around the world are currently conducting studies to better understand the aspects of Omicron, but as of right now, it is not clear whether it is more transmissible compared to other variants, including Delta.

“The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors”, WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) explained in a statement.

The Group also highlighted that it is not clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants.

“While preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of a specific infection with Omicron”, the experts said.

They added that currently there is no information to suggest that Omicron causes different COVID-19 symptoms.

Higher risk of reinfection

However, the TAG-VE reaffirmed that preliminary evidence indicates that people who have previously had COVID-19 could become reinfected more easily with Omicron when compared to other variants of concern.

So far, the initially reported infections have been among younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease, “but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks”, the experts said.  

The group emphasised that is working with partners to understand the potential impact of this variant on vaccines, the effectiveness of current PCR tests, and existing treatments, but more information is still needed.

A volunteer carer called Trinity is working in a COVID-19 field hospital in Nasrec, Johannesburg.

IMF/James Oatway
A volunteer carer called Trinity is working in a COVID-19 field hospital in Nasrec, Johannesburg.

Keep the borders open and follow science

As a growing number of countries have imposed flight bans on southern African nations due to concerns over the Omicron variant, the UN health agency urged them to follow evidence and International Health Regulations calling for ‘borders to remain open’.

While travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19, ‘they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods’, the agency said in a statement published on Sunday.

“If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations”, WHO highlighted.

While investigations continue into the Omicron variant, the UN agency recommends countries to take a risk-based and scientific approach and put in place measures that can limit its possible spread.

“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity. COVID-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

Flight bans have been imposed on southern African countries, but so far only two have detected the new variant. Meanwhile, countries in other regions such as Europe have reported cases of Omicron.

First Person: ‘Disability reminds us that there is no such thing as normal’

This feature has been edited for clarity and length. Eddie Ndopu was talking to Melissa Fleming, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications. You can hear the full interview on the UN podcast, Awake at Night.

“At the age of two, I was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a degenerative condition that affects the muscles and results in progressive weakness. In other words, the older I get, the weaker I become, and my doctors gave my family a prognosis that I wouldn’t live beyond the age of five. I have outlived myself by 25 years and counting. 

However, I’m grappling with the physical manifestation of this rare disease and what is doing to my body: What I was able to do five years ago, I’m no longer able to do today. I had dreams of becoming an artist. I used to sketch incessantly, and now I’m no longer able to do that. But, on the other hand, my disability has really been a gift in the sense that it has allowed me to dream new dreams.

I still have my spirit. I still have my mind and I still want to be of service to humanity and the world. And so, while I move through the world, with great difficulty, I know that there is so much more that I’m able to offer.

‘The wind beneath my sails’

My mother has truly been the wind beneath my sails. I admire my mother, not just as a parent, but as a human being, who, in many ways, has sacrificed so much of her own life in order to step in and not just be a primary caregiver but really be my biggest advocate.

Because of my degenerative condition, I need to be turned at night every two hours to prevent pressure sores from forming. My mom did that for the better part of my life. Every day, seven days a week.

I need to wake up to three hours ahead of time to get dressed. I need assistance, with bathing, with clothing, with feeding, every aspect of my life that’s physical. All of that needs to be facilitated. Right now, I have a team that consists of about four people but my mum did all of that, for twenty-something years, single-handedly.

The reason why I was able to attain a mainstream education at the age of seven and become one of only a handful of disabled children in the entire country to be enrolled in a regular school, is because of my mum’s persistence, knocking on every door and being told, “This is not going to work”. She didn’t just do it as my mom. I think she did it because she believed deeply that I am deserving of a life that is truly open, and so I really owe her a debt of gratitude. 

I have since gone on to graduate from Oxford with a Master’s in Public Policy and became the first African with this degenerative disability to do that. Ever. For me, that’s not just a personal achievement, it also feels like a symbolic victory for all of the disabled kids around the world who never get to see the inside of a classroom.

New Sustainable Development Goals Advocate, Edward Ndopu, Founder, Global Strategies on Inclusive Education, Republic of South Africa.

UN Photo
New Sustainable Development Goals Advocate, Edward Ndopu, Founder, Global Strategies on Inclusive Education, Republic of South Africa.

 ‘I believe I’m a leader’

The turning point was when I was offered admission into the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg. It’s a Preparatory School for future world leaders. I made it all the way to the finalist weekend, and they called and said, ‘we’re not sure we’re able to meet your needs’.

I wrote a letter to the founders of the Academy and I said, ‘My name is Eddie. I believe I’m a leader, I think you’ve made a mistake. I really, really need to be in the school, because I have a dream to make education accessible and inclusive for all of the children with disabilities on the continent of Africa. I want to be able to do that.’ 

Then, one Sunday afternoon, the phone rang. My Mum said, ‘It’s for you’ and I got the phone and they said, “we got your letter, congratulations. You’ve made it into the inaugural class.” That made me an activist and I’ve never turned back since.

I spent those two years becoming the person that I think I was meant to be, and I was exposed to the world. I started a civil rights campaign called the Global Strategy for Inclusive Education and I presented it at the World Economic Forum. I was 19 years old. I won a scholarship to attend college in Canada realized that there is no contradiction between being young and being a leader. 

‘A reminder that we are not perfect’

There are 1.2 billion disabled people in the world, covering both visible and invisible disabilities. That’s about 15 per cent of the world’s total population. People don’t know this, because I think that people are afraid of disability and don’t know how to talk about it, because disabilities are still associated with neglect, isolation, and deprivation.

Disabled people are still more likely than not to be unemployed, and to not have any access to health care. Poverty is both the cause and the consequence of disability, and the overwhelming majority of people with disabilities live in poverty. 

I think we don’t talk about disability because we insist on perfection. And I think disability reminds people that actually, imperfection is more intrinsic to all of us than perfection is. Disability reminds us that there is no such thing as normal, so perhaps maybe disability is the most normal.”

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