A latest interim report by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response highlighted effective multilateralism in the preparation and response to the COVID-19 crisis, saying that the consequences of this pandemic remind the world of how important effective multilateralism is.
"Geopolitical tensions have impacted on the response, and the resulting pandemic has given us many interlinked reasons to rethink and reset the way in which the international system and countries prepare and respond to global health threats," said the Panel's co-chair Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The Independent Panel's new report, available in six UN official languages, was issued late Monday night and will be discussed at the on-going World Health Organization (WHO) Executive Board meeting.
The Independent Panel was established by the WHO Director-General and its mandate is to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international response to COVID-19.
Its final report is scheduled for the World Health Assembly in May of this year.
According to the interim report released Monday, the Panel found that member states have high expectations of the WHO but have left it underpowered to do that job.
"The WHO is expected to validate reports of disease outbreaks for their pandemic potential and, deploy support and containment resources, but its powers and funding to carry out its functions are limited," said Sirleaf.
The Panel said even when WHO declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in January of 2020, the loudest alarm possible under the International Health Regulations, many countries took minimal action internally and internationally to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The Panel also found that the international system for alert and response is not fit for purpose -- it seems to come from an earlier analogue era and needs to be brought into the digital age.
The Panel also expressed deep concern over the continued significant rises in the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, saying that since Jan. 1 of 2021, the world is recording an average of almost 12,500 daily deaths.
The Independent Panel comprises 13 members, including co-chairs Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Sirleaf, former President of Liberia.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s arrest as he arrived in Moscow after recovering from his poisoning with a nerve agent drew criticism from Western nations and calls for his release, with Germany’s foreign minister on Monday calling it “incomprehensible.”
Navalny was detained at passport control at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport after flying in Sunday evening from Berlin, where he was treated following the poisoning in August that he blames on the Kremlin.
Navalny’s arrest adds another layer of tension to relations between Moscow and the West that have long been strained and were worsened by his poisoning.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted that Navalny had returned of his own volition and said “it is completely incomprehensible that he was detained by Russian authorities immediately after his arrival.”
“Russia is bound by its own constitution and by international commitments to the principle of the rule of law and the protection of civil rights,” Maas added. “These principles must of course also be applied to Alexei Navalny. He should be released immediately.”
The politician’s allies said Monday he was being held at a police precinct outside Moscow and has been refused access to his lawyer. According to Navalny’s lawyers, in an unexpected turn of events, a court hearing into whether Navalny should remain in custody started on Monday at the precinct itself, and they were notified minutes before.
“It is impossible what is happening over here,” Navalny said in video from the improvised court room, posted on his page in the messaging app Telegram. “It is lawlessness of the highest degree.”
Calls for Navalny’s immediate release have also come from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and top officials of other EU nations.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for national security adviser called on Russian authorities to free Navalny. “Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable,” Jake Sullivan tweeted.
The outgoing U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said the U.S. “strongly condemns” the decision to arrest Navalny, which he called “the latest in a series of attempts to silence Navalny and other opposition figures and independent voices who are critical of Russian authorities.”
Navalny’s detention was widely expected because Russia’s prisons service said he had violated parole terms from a suspended sentence on a 2014 embezzlement conviction.
The prisons service said it would seek to have Navalny serve his 3 1/2-year sentence behind bars.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday the stream of reactions to Navalny’s arrest by Western officials reflects an attempt “to divert attention from the crisis of the Western model of development.”
“Navalny’s case has received a foreign policy dimension artificially and without any foundation,” Lavrov said, arguing that his detention was a prerogative of Russian law enforcement agencies that explained their action. “It’s a matter of observing the law,” he added.
Navalny, 44, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent and determined foe, brushed off concerns about arrest as he boarded his flight in Berlin on Sunday.
“It’s impossible. I’m an innocent man,” he said.
Navalny fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on Aug. 20. He was transferred from a hospital in Siberia to a Berlin hospital two days later.
Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.
Russian authorities insisted that the doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia before he was airlifted to Germany found no traces of poison. Russia refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned, and officials have challenged Germany to provide proof of the poisoning.
Last month, Navalny released the recording of a phone call he said he made to a man he alleged was a member of a group of officers of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who purportedly poisoned him in August and then tried to cover it up. The FSB dismissed the recording as fake.
Navalny has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side for a decade, unusually durable in an opposition movement often demoralized by repression.
Vaccines from the West, Russia or China? Or none at all? That dilemma faces nations in southeastern Europe, where coronavirus vaccination campaigns are off to a slow start — overshadowed by heated political debates and conspiracy theories.
In countries like the Czech Republic, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania and Bulgaria, vaccine skeptics have included former presidents and even some doctors. Serbian tennis champion Novak Djokovic was among those who said he did not want to be forced to get inoculated.
False beliefs that the coronavirus is a hoax or that vaccines would inject microchips into people have spread in the countries that were formerly under harsh Communist rule. Those who once routinely underwent mass inoculations are deeply split over whether to get the vaccines at all.
“There is a direct link between support for conspiracy theories and skepticism toward vaccination,” a recent Balkan study warned. “A majority across the region does not plan to take the vaccine, a ratio considerably lower than elsewhere in Europe, where a majority favors taking the vaccine.”
Only about 200,000 people applied for the vaccine in Serbia, a country of 7 million, in the days after authorities opened the procedure. By contrast, 1 million Serbians signed up for 100 euros ($120) on the first day the government offered the pandemic aid.
In this photo taken Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, a protesters holds a cloth badge in the shape of the Jewish Star of David reading: "unvaccinated" during a protest against the government's restrictive measures imposed to contain the coronavirus pandemic in Prague, Czech Republic. Across the Balkans and the rest of the nations in the southeastern corner of Europe, a vaccination campaign against the coronavirus is overshadowed by heated political debates or conspiracy theories that threaten to thwart the process. In countries like the Czech Republic, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania and Bulgaria, skeptics have ranged from former presidents to top athletes and doctors. Nations that once routinely went through mass inoculations under Communist leaders are deeply split over whether to take the vaccines at all. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
Hoping to encourage vaccinations, Serbian officials have gotten their shots on TV. Yet they themselves have been split over whether to get the Western-made Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or Russia’s Sputnik V, more divisions in a country that is formally seeking European Union membership but where many favor closer ties with Moscow.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Saturday greeted a shipment of 1 million doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, saying he will receive a shot to show that it is safe.
“Serbs prefer the Russian vaccine,” read a recent headline of the Informer, a pro-government tabloid, as officials announced that 38% of those who have applied to take the shots favor the Russian vaccine, while 31% want the Pfizer-BioNTech version — a rough division among pro-Russians and pro-Westerners in Serbia.
In neighboring Bosnia, a war-torn country that remains ethnically divided among Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats, politics also are a factor, as the Serb-run half appeared set to opt for the Russian vaccine, while the Bosniak-Croat part likely will turn to the Western ones.
Sasa Milovanovic, a 57-year-old real estate agent from Belgrade, sees all vaccines as part of the “global manipulation” of the pandemic.
“People are locked up, they have no lives any longer and live in a state of hysteria and fear,” he said.
Djokovic has said he was against being forced to take a coronavirus vaccine in order to travel and compete but was keeping his mind open. The top-ranked tennis player and his wife tested positive in June after a series of exhibition matches with zero social distancing that he organized in the Balkans. They and their foundation have donated 1 million euros ($1.1 million) to buy ventilators and other medical equipment for hospitals in Serbia.
In this photo taken on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020 a man wears a muzzle during a protest against the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in Bucharest, Romania. Across the Balkans and the rest of the nations in the southeastern corner of Europe, a vaccination campaign against the coronavirus is overshadowed by heated political debates or conspiracy theories that threaten to thwart the process. In countries like the Czech Republic, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania and Bulgaria, skeptics have ranged from former presidents to top athletes and doctors. Nations that once routinely went through mass inoculations under Communist leaders are deeply split over whether to take the vaccines at all. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru)
Serbian Health Ministry official Mirsad Djerlek has described the vaccine response as “satisfactory,” but cautioned on the state-run RTS broadcaster that “people in rural areas usually believe in conspiracy theories, and that is why we should talk to them and explain that the vaccine is the only way out in this situation.”
A study by the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group, published before the regional vaccination campaign started in December, concluded that virus conspiracy theories are believed by nearly 80% of citizens of the Western Balkan countries striving to join the EU. About half of them will refuse to get vaccinated, it said.
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Baseless theories allege the virus isn’t real or that it’s a bioweapon created by the U.S. or its adversaries. Another popular falsehood holds that Microsoft founder Bill Gates is using COVID-19 vaccines to implant microchips in the planet’s 7 billion people.
A low level of information about the virus and vaccines, distrust in governments and repeated assertions by authorities that their countries are besieged by foreigners help explain the high prevalence of such beliefs, according to the Balkans think tank.
Similar trends have been seen even in some eastern European Union countries.
In this photo taken on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021 a Romanian gendarme gets a COVID-19 vaccine at a hospital in Bucharest, Romania. Across the Balkans and the rest of the nations in the southeastern corner of Europe, a vaccination campaign against the coronavirus is overshadowed by heated political debates or conspiracy theories that threaten to thwart the process. In countries like the Czech Republic, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania and Bulgaria, skeptics have ranged from former presidents to top athletes and doctors. Nations that once routinely went through mass inoculations under Communist leaders are deeply split over whether to take the vaccines at all. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
In Bulgaria, widespread conspiracy theories hampered past efforts to deal with a measles outbreak. Surveys there suggested distrust of vaccines remains high even as coronavirus cases keep rising. A recent Gallup International poll found that 30% of respondents want to get vaccinated, 46% will refuse and 24% are undecided.
Bulgarian doctors have tried to change attitudes. Dr. Stefan Konstantinov, a former health minister, joked that people should be told neighboring Greece would close resorts to tourists who don’t get vaccinated, because “this would guarantee that some 70% of the population would rush to get a jab.”
In the Czech Republic, where surveys show some 40% reject vaccination, protesters at a big rally against government virus restrictions in Prague demanded that vaccinations not be mandatory. Former President Vaclav Klaus, a fierce critic of the government’s pandemic response, told the crowd that vaccines are not a solution.
“They say that everything will be solved by a miracle vaccine,” said the 79-year-old Klaus, who insists that people should get exposed to the virus to gain immunity, which experts reject. “We have to say loud and clear that there’s no such a thing. … I am not going to get vaccinated.”
Populist authorities in Hungary have taken a hard line against virus misinformation, but rejection of vaccines is still projected at about 30%. Parliament passed emergency powers in March that allows authorities to prosecute anyone deemed to be “inhibiting the successful defense” against the virus, including “fearmongering” or spreading false news. At least two people who criticized the government’s response to the pandemic on social media were arrested, but neither was formally charged.
Romanian Health Minister Vlad Voiculescu said he is relying on family doctors to “inform, schedule and monitor people after the vaccine” and that his ministry will offer bonuses to medical workers based on the number of people they get onboard. Asked if such incentives would fuel anti-vaccination propaganda, Voiculescu said: “I am interested more by the doctors’ view on the matter than I am about the anti-vaxxers.”
Dr. Ivica Jeremic, who has worked with virus patients in Serbia since March and tested positive himself in November, hopes vaccination programs will gain speed once people overcome their fear of the unknown.
“People will realize the vaccine is the only way to return to normal life,” he said.
A new U.N. report estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic reduced the number of international migrants by 2 million by the middle of 2020 because of border closings and a halt to travel worldwide — an estimated 27% decrease in expected growth.
Clare Menozzi, principal author of the report by the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Population Division, told a news conference Friday that for the second half of 2020 “we have a sense that it will be probably comparable, if not more so.”
She said international migration had been projected to grow by 7 to 8 million between mid-2019 and mid-2020.
But the border closures and travel clampdown starting in March, as the pandemic circled the globe, meant zero growth for four months, and an estimated 2 million reduction in the expected number of international migrants, Menozzi said.
By August 2020, Population Division Director John Wilmoth noted, “there had been more than 80,000 travel restrictions imposed by 219 countries or territories across the world.”
Over the last two decades, growth in the number of international migrants has been robust.
Wilmoth said that according to the latest estimates, “the number of international migrants worldwide reached 281 million persons in 2020, up from 173 million in 2000,” They account for just 3.6% of the total global population, he said.
As Covid-19 cases spike in parts of Europe, Africa and the Americas, and new variants of the virus emerge in some countries, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has called for greater global collaboration in ending the pandemic.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reported on the outcome of the latest meeting of the Emergency Committee on Covid-19, held online on Friday, at his weekly press briefing.
The Committee issued a statement calling for upgrading national capacity for genome sequencing, and greater data sharing, in efforts to monitor and respond to changes in the virus.
Tedros told journalists he was pleased the expert panel also emphasised that vaccines must be rolled out equitably.
“Health workers are exhausted, health systems are stretched and we’re seeing supplies of oxygen run dangerously low in some countries," he told the media at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on Friday.
“Now is the time we must pull together as common humanity and roll out vaccines to health workers and those at highest risk.”
Professor Didier Houssin, the Committee chair, underlined that scientific collaboration is essential to understand any Covid-19 variants.
“I think we are in a race between the virus, which is going to continue trying to mutate in order to spread more easily, and humanity, which has to try to stop this spreading,” he said.
The Emergency Committee also issued recommendations on international travel.
The statement said countries should not require travellers to show proof of vaccination or immunity at the present time “as there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission and limited availability of vaccines”.
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Friday marked a solemn milestone in the global fight against Covid-19, as more than two million people have now died from the disease.
The UN Secretary-General has also issued a strongly worded video message, urging countries to work together to end the pandemic and save lives.