Despite last year’s UN call for global ceasefires to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, many conflicts never stopped, including in Syria, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo), and new ones erupted making it more difficult to control the spread of the virus and care for infected people in many countries, UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock said on Tuesday.
At a virtual UN Security Council meeting on civilians caught in conflict, Lowcock said that there is a link between conflict, COVID-19 and healthcare.
In March last year, as the pandemic was starting to circle the globe, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for global action “to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives” against “a common enemy — COVID-19.”
While there were some positive responses, Lowcock said that deadly conflicts continued, and emerged or got worse, including in Ethiopia, Mozambique, and between Armenia and Azerbaijan, contributing to a rise in the number of people forcibly displaced.
“At the same time, insecurity, sanctions, counterterrorism measures and administrative hurdles hindered humanitarian operations,” he said.
The pandemic made aid deliveries more difficult because of suspended flights, border closures, quarantine measures and lockdowns, he said.
Lowcock said that there are “multiple reports of atrocities” against civilians caught in conflicts during the pandemic.
He singled out the dozens of schoolgirls and civilians killed or injured in an attack on a high school in Afghanistan this month, reports of mass rapes and killings in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, and the just-ended conflict between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers that saw more than 200 deaths.
During the pandemic last year, the threat of famine re-emerged, including in northeast Nigeria, parts of Africa’s Sahel region, South Sudan and Yemen — all conflict areas, he said.
“By the end of 2020, nearly 100 million people faced crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity as a result of conflict,” he said. “That was up from 77 million the year before.”
Lowcock also cited the impact of conflicts on civilians in urban areas from explosive devices, on farmers from the destruction of agricultural land and on entire populations from attacks on medical care.
“Last year, attacks on healthcare across 22 conflict-affected countries killed 182 health workers,” with the highest numbers losing their lives in Burkina Faso, DR Congo, Somalia and Syria, he said.
In a two-month period this year, 109 violent incidents against healthcare workers were documented in Myanmar, where a military coup took place on Feb. 1, “accelerating the collapse in the public healthcare system when many people needed it most,” Lowcock said.
In Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado Province, which has faced attacks from Muslim rebels, more than one-third of health facilities were damaged or destroyed when hostilities worsened and health workers fled, leaving thousands of people without a nurse or a doctor, he said.
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