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Aid groups confront rising toll of pandemic

U.N. officials released a 2021 humanitarian plan that projects 235 million people worldwide will need aid, a 40% increase from this year.

U.N. officials released a 2021 humanitarian plan on Tuesday that projects 235 million people worldwide will need aid, an astonishing 40% increase from this year due to the pandemic, conflicts and climate change.

The projected increase above the 167.7 million people included in the 2020 plan reflects the massive challenges the world faces in battling a COVID-19 pandemic that has infected 64 million people and killed 1.4 million. It has raised food prices, deprived people of jobs and income, and closed schools and businesses, but the hardest-hit are those among the poorest nations.

As a result, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is appealing for US$35 billion in global aid that will be used to fight famine and poverty, and to keep children vaccinated and in school next year. Officials said they do not expect to raise the full amount, however, since that would come to more than double the US$17 billion that international donors shelled out for the 2020 plan.

“The rich world can now see the light at the end of the tunnel. The same is not true in the poorest countries," OCHA chief Mark Lowcock said in a statement, referring to wealth nations' contracts with drugmakers to supply millions of vaccine shots as soon as they are safe and ready.

"The COVID-19 crisis has plunged millions of people into poverty and sent humanitarian needs skyrocketing," he said. "We can let 2021 be the year of the grand reversal — the unravelling of 40 years of progress – or we can work together to make sure we all find a way out of this pandemic.”

The World Food Program, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in October, has estimated almost 690 million people suffer from hunger and extreme poverty. The World Bank said the pandemic forced another 88 million to 114 million people into extreme poverty — those living on less than US$1.90 a day.

The pandemic is also weakening international contributions to humanitarian aid budgets, said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, which is causing extreme poverty to rise for the first time in more than a generation. He praised humanitarian aid networks nonetheless for delivering much-needed food, medicines, shelter, education and other essentials to tens of millions of people this year.

“But the crisis is far from over," Guterres said. "Humanitarian aid budgets face dire shortfalls as the impact of the global pandemic continues to worsen. Together, we must mobilize resources and stand in solidarity with people in their darkest hour of need.”

Millions in harm's way

On Monday, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Global Protection Cluster, a global network of organizations led by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, reported that three-quarters of the 54 million people internally displaced or affected by conflict this year — at least 40 million people — will lack the humanitarian aid they need because international donors have not provided enough money.

The real numbers will almost certainly be much higher, the international organizations emphasized, because these figures do not include nations that lack an official plan for helping refugees and others fleeing conflicts and wars.

“The human toll of the pandemic on the world’s vulnerable should not only be measured by the number of lives it has taken, but by the eclipsing number it has shattered," NRC Secretary General Jan Egeland, a veteran Norwegian diplomat and humanitarian who has held multiple high-level U.N. posts, said in a statement.

"COVID-19 has hardest hit millions of people with absolutely no access to protection services," he said. "Children recruited by armies cannot reclaim lost childhoods. Women raped and beaten wear their scars for life."

The organizations said an additional 5 million women and girls each month are exposed to gender-based violence around the world due to government lockdown measures; in Central African Republic, for example, such violence — including rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage — more than doubled.

U.N. estimates show the pandemic could lead to 13 million more underage marriages over the next decade, according to the report. Two-thirds of the nations surveyed said refugees and other uprooted populations are at increased risk of human trafficking due to the pandemic, the report said, and violence involving armed groups has surged by 70% since the pandemic began, mainly in East and West Africa.

“COVID-19 is inflicting an unprecedented human rights crisis for the world’s most vulnerable," said UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, Gillian Triggs, an Australian lawyer with extensive human rights and international law experience.

"Millions of internally displaced and conflict-affected people are in harm’s way or are falling through the gaps," she said. "The world cannot afford to be complacent and indifferent to their plight. Millions of lives are at stake. Humanitarians can only do so much."