World News in Brief: COVID risk still high, massive Congo flood displacement, concern over Sri Lanka drugs crackdown

How Honduras first performed genomic sequencing of COVID-19 virus to detect circulating variants (June 2023)
How Honduras first performed genomic sequencing of COVID-19 virus to detect circulating variants (June 2023)
  • UN News

The virus is still circulating globally but relatively few countries are following infections closely, meaning the actual threat due to the coronavirus and its variants could be anything from two to 19 times higher than what is being reported to WHO.

The agency’s COVID focal point, Dr Maria Van Kerhove, told journalists in Geneva that data from just 50 countries indicates there are still 10,000 deaths per month due to the virus.

“On the positive side, the numbers of deaths have reduced drastically since its peak a couple of years ago”, the senior official said.

Among the 10,000 deaths reported in December, more than half were reported from the United States with a further 1,000 from Italy.

She said it was clear that other deaths were simply not being recorded but that “doesn't mean that they're not happening.”

Dr Van Kerkhove also noted with concern a steep rise in hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions and warned that these numbers are likely to have increased over the holiday season.

The UN health agency official said that many countries continue to suffer unnecessarily from COVID which can be prevented with adequate testing and antivirals, along with appropriate clinical care, oxygen and vaccination.

More than 336,000 in need of urgent aid in the Republic of Congo

Widespread flooding due to unusually heavy rainfall in the Republic of Congo has left more than 336,000 people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, the World Health Organization said on Friday.

Floods have damaged health facilities and schools and submerged large areas of vital farmland.

Nine of the country’s 12 departments have been affected, with those in the north of the country as well as departments bordering the Congo River among the most severely impacted.

Experts estimate that the current rainfall is twice the average recorded in the 2022–2023 season.

The floods have destroyed or damaged 34 health facilities, 120 schools and more than 64 000 houses in the affected areas.

Humanitarian needs are projected to rise, further worsening the plight of the affected population.

WHO is committed to supporting the government to ramp up emergency response to save lives and ensure access to critical basic services,” says Dr. Lucien Manga, WHO Representative in the Republic of Congo. “We are working with partner organizations to bolster relief response, support livelihoods and limit the threat of diseases outbreaks.”

Working with partners, WHO is stepping up efforts to provide emergency health services to avert spread of diseases; essential medicines and life-saving medical supplies; and ensure critical quality health services through functional health facilities and mobile clinics.

People shop at a market outside Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo.
© Unsplash/Eddy Billard
People shop at a market outside Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo.

Sri Lanka: OHCHR concerned over crackdown on drug abusers

The UN human rights office (OHCHR) said on Friday it was very concerned over Sri Lanka’s adoption of a “heavily security-based response” as a means of tackling illegal drug abuse.

Spokesperson Liz Throssell said that “a staggering” 29,000 people have reportedly been arrested on drug-related charges since 17 December, and some are alleging that they have been ill-treated or tortured.

Security forces have reportedly conducted raids without search warrants, detaining suspected drug sellers and users, while thousands have been sent to military-run rehabilitation centres.

“During and after these operations, people are reported to have been subjected to a number of violations, including unauthorised searches, arbitrary arrests and detention, ill-treatment, torture, and strip searches in public”, said Ms. Throssell, while some lawyers acting for detainees allege that they have faced intimidation from police officers.

Although drugs were a pressing problem for any society, “a heavy-handed law enforcement approach is not the solution”, she added.

“Abuse of drugs and the factors that lead to it are first and foremost public health and social issues. People suspected of selling or trafficking drugs are entitled to humane treatment, with full respect for due process and transparent, fair trials.”

She said what was needed were appropriate support and programmes which tackle the root causes of addiction and allow social reintegration.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk is urging Sri Lanka to review its ongoing “Yukthiya” operation, and to implement human rights based approaches, said Ms. Throssell, adding that allegations of abuse of authority, torture and ill-treatment, or denial of due process, “must be thoroughly and impartially investigated”.

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