UN Geneva Press Briefing 28 May 2024
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Press Conferences | IFRC , IOM , ITU , UNICEF , UNRWA

UN Geneva Press Briefing - 28 May 2024

 

PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE

28 May 2024

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, which was attended by spokespersons and representatives from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the International Organization for Migration, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies/World Weather Attribution, the United Nations Children's Fund, the World Health Organization and the International Telecommunication Union.

 

Update on Dire Health Needs in Occupied Palestinian Territories 

Dr. Akihiro Seita, Director of Health, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said UNRWA covered not only the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT) but also Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, where the Agency had hosted in total around six million Palestinian refugees since 1950, when it started operations.

UNRWA’s 2023 Annual Health Report showed that UNRWA was continuing to provide services in difficult conditions, not only in Gaza and the West Bank. Lebanon was in an economic crisis and insecurity prevailed in Syria, but the Agency had never stopped any of its services.

Last year, UNRWA provided around seven million consultations and two million Palestinian refugees used its services, including 300,000 people with diabetes and hypertension. It had also taken care of around 70,000 pregnant women, almost all of whom had delivered their babies in hospitals, thanks to coordination with the Governments of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. There were also an increasing number of mental health and psychosocial support services provided; the Agency treated over 33,000 persons for depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions in 2023. 

These robust primary healthcare services were supported by the Agency’s staff, almost all of whom were Palestinian. The Agency had high quality electronic medical records connected to 140 health centres. The UNRWA mobile application for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers was being used by over 270,000 women, and around 200,000 people were using applications for persons with diabetes hypertension and non-communicable diseases. UNRWA had a long history of providing quality services, as indicated by the data presented in the annual report.

The situation in the West Bank was very dire. There were over 40 UNRWA health centres in the West Bank. It was difficult to move staff between these centres. The Agency had relocated staff closer to the centres they worked in to prevent a disruption in the provision of services.

On Gaza, Dr. Seita said that he had visited the strip last month, and he could not reconcile what he saw in his mind. He had visited Gaza several times previously, but the Gaza he saw in April was unrecognisable.

Despite the situation, UNRWA had not stopped providing services in Gaza. As of yesterday, it provided primary health care in seven health centres and 105 medical points in shelters. Every day, it was treating between 15,000 and 25,000 people. Before the war, the average number of daily consultations was 15,000. The Agency provided services to both refugees and non-refugees. 

Health conditions were dire. Because of the lack of water and sanitation, there was a high rate of acute respiratory infections, diarrhoea, including bloody diarrhoea, and hepatitis A. Mental health problems were also on the rise.

UNRWA was working closely with international partners such as the World Health Organization (WHO) to increase access to health services. The Agency continued to provide vaccinations and had so far vaccinated over 100,000 children this year.  

Preliminary data showed that there was an increasing trend of malnutrition. Around 10 per cent of children in southern Gaza were acutely malnourished. UNRWA was working with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and others to provide treatment. 

The situation in Gaza was very dire. UNRWA was doing its best, but a ceasefire was needed now. Without peace on the ground, the civilians of Gaza would continue to suffer.

In response to questions, Dr. Seita said a major problem for UNRWA was ensuring how to continue services. In some cases, health centre staff could not travel to medical centres or were delayed for several hours at checkpoints. The Agency was reallocating staff to continue to provide services.

UNRWA’s main medicine warehouses were in Jerusalem. Moving medicine from Jerusalem to the West Bank was always challenging. The agency was working closely with the Ministry of Health and other partners to make sure that the medicine could reach Hebron and Ramallah. This was an extraordinary challenge.

Mental health problems and non-communicable diseases were on the rise. UNRWA’s aim was to ensure access for support services in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.

On the financial situation, at the beginning of the year, 16 countries stopped financing UNRWA. Currently, 14 countries had resumed financing. This was positive. However, UNRWA had yet to reach a sustainable financing level. It had sufficient cash flow for June, after then, financing would be challenging.

Many injured people visited UNRWA’s health centres and medical points, as hospitals could not keep patients for a long time. Around 20 to 30 per cent of patients sought wound care, which UNRWA was working with WHO to provide. 

Also answering questions, Dr. Seita said that Karam Shalom border crossing opened yesterday, so he hoped that this would lead to an inflow of medicine. UNRWA was exploring two routes with UN partners on the Egyptian side and the Jordan side. At the beginning of the war, UNRWA lost all its stock in its central warehouse in Gaza City. It had since bought medicine stock for six months, with the support to the international communities and also the Government of Egypt. Consumption of some medicines, including for wound care, antibiotics and anti-diarrhoea medicines, had increased dramatically since the start of the war. In shelters, there was one toilet for 800 people and one shower for 4,000 people. This led to an increase in diarrhoea and hepatitis. UNRWA hoped that additional routes for supplying medicines would open soon.

All wounds were treated by hospitals. Patients came to UNRWA medical points for services such as wound care and dressing after operations as hospitals were overwhelmed. Midwives in shelters were there to support pregnant mothers and babies, but there was a very limited number of deliveries there.

UNRWA was critical and essential for people in the West Bank and Gaza. It covered 60 per cent of patients for primary health care. Continuation of UNRWA was extremely important.

When settler violence happened, it affected access to health centres. This was a very serious situation.

There were 1,000 health staff working in Gaza. Some had been killed; many had been displaced. Dr. Seita expressed sincere admiration and respect for them. One of the staff had asked him, “When will the world consider us as human beings?” It was Dr. Seita’s mission to make the world understand their situation.

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, said that last night, a statement had been issued by the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Tor Wennesland, on airstrikes in Rafah.

Ms. Vellucci said the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres had last night posted on X about the latest Israeli airstrike, saying he condemned Israel’s actions which killed scores of innocent civilians who were only seeking shelter from this deadly conflict. “There is no safe place in Gaza. This horror must stop,” he said.

Ms. Vellucci also said UNRWA was the backbone of the humanitarian operation in Gaza. No other entity had the capacity to deliver assistance to the people of Gaza and the Palestinian territories.

Margaret Harris for the World Health Organization (WHO) said medical supplies and fuel supplies were running very, very low. WHO had managed to get three trucks in through the Karam Shalom border crossing since the Rafah incursion began, and there were 60 WHO supply trucks waiting at El-Arish unable to cross into Rafah due to the closure of the border.

Fuel was critical; the estimated requirement was 200,000 litres per day, but WHO had been able to deliver approximately 70,000 litres per day, and some days had delivered none. All hospitals were really struggling. Fourteen hospitals were functioning but not accepting in-patients. In Rafah, only the Emirati Hospital remained barely functional. There were five field hospitals, but all were overwhelmed and undersupplied. This meant the key health services were not available in Rafah, including dialysis, medical imaging, surgery, paediatrics, internal medicine and maternity care.

Fuel was needed for generators, hospitals, bakeries and desalination plants. Everyone was making very difficult decisions about what could be done. There was one bright spot: dialysis services had returned to Nasser General Hospital and were beginning to return to Al-Shifa. Despite the difficult circumstances, people kept coming back to restore services. There were no CT scans working south of Wadi Gaza, so doctors could not see bone fractures. Doctors were doing their best, but were not able to provide the level of service that they could before 7 October.

There had been an abrupt halt to all medical evacuations since 7 May. There were normally around 10,000 patients needing to be evacuated. Due to the increase in the violence in the area in Rafah and the limitation on services, there were now an extra 1,000 critically ill and injured patients who had been unable to leave Gaza to receive much needed medical treatment elsewhere.

What happened on the weekend was not a mishap but a horrific incident, a deplorable attack on displaced people who were sheltering in tents in Rafah, Ms. Harris said. The Ministry of Health reported that 35 people had been killed, including women and children. The injured were treated by a trauma stabilization point, as well as in the five field hospitals, but the attack had overwhelmed them. Many people would have suffered from terrible burns. Treatment required high level medical services.

WHO was increasingly struggling to provide high level medical doctors and nurses, who had been displaced by the incursion in Rafah. Doctors and nurses were watching people die in front of them as they lacked the tools, skills or supplies to do what needed to be done. Decisions were having to be made by doctors to remove a limb to save a life; this was a horrible decision to have to make.

Before October 7, between 50 and 100 people were referred out of the Gaza Strip each day for medical procedures. At any one time, over 10,000 people in Gaza needed to be referred outside Gaza for treatment. Burns needed complex treatments such as skin transplantation. People with severe limb injuries needed definitive treatment that was not available elsewhere. There were currently over 6,000 trauma related patients who needed to be evacuated. Since the escalation in hostilities on 7 May, 1,000 additional people needed medical evacuations.

James Elder for United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said the so defined “limited” invasion of Rafah had displaced around one million people. Both desalination plants in central and southern Gaza had shut, one for 18 hours and one for eight hours. Throughout this past week, 10 per cent of the required fuel had made it through to those desalination plants. On average in Rafah, people were getting around one litre of water per day, catastrophically below any emergency level. They would now be able to access only a fraction of that, based on the closure of Rafah and ongoing military offensive there.

The number reported in November that 1,000 children had received amputations had not been updated. Children who had received amputations were now sitting in tents rather than in hospitals. 

The recent attack had been called a “tragic mishap” and a “mistake”. What, then, should we call the ferocious attacks that had killed thousands and thousands of children? How could we describe the actions that have pushed the entire population to starvation? What should we say of those countless children who had had arms and legs amputated, all the thousands who had been orphaned? What language could describe the unprecedented devastation to homes and schools? How many more “mistakes” was the world going to tolerate?

UNICEF did not have updated figures on nutrition since reporting last month that famine was imminent. Every day in Gaza, the situation got worse. The only hospital providing paediatric care for malnutrition had been attacked. The United Nations had advocated for Erez crossing to open because Erez was ten minutes away from mothers hunched over skeletal children. The closure meant that the nutritional situation, which was already hanging by a thread, had only deteriorated. There was no need for children to be in this precarious position. The humanitarian response was nowhere near what it needed to be for the civilians of Gaza.

IOM Responds to Urgent Needs in the Wake of the Papua New Guinea Landslide

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, read a statement by the spokesperson of the Secretary-General, who said that the Secretary-General was deeply saddened by the reported loss of hundreds of lives in a massive landslide in Papua New Guinea and extended the heartfelt condolences of the Secretary-General to the families of the victims. He expressed solidarity with the people and government of Papua New Guinea and expressed the availability of the United Nations to support the Government's response efforts.

Itayi Viriri, Regional Spokesperson for Asia and the Pacific, International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that up to 2,000 people were estimated to be still buried under the rubble after the landslide occurred around 3 a.m. on Friday. The total number of people affected was around 7,849 from 1,427 households. This included around 1,750 previously displaced people and people buried under the rubble. Six bodies had been recovered so far.

The population of Papua New Guinea was 42 per cent under the age of 16, so it was estimated that many children had been affected. Many people who had been affected by the landslide had moved to the region after escaping tribal conflict in other regions. 

The response was underway, with United Nations agencies, including IOM, UNICEF, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and UN Women providing support to the Government, along with other international agencies. What was needed now was access to clean water. Much of the water was under rubble. IOM was providing clothing, food items and shelter to those affected to try to alleviate the hardship people were facing. 

The area was still unstable and there was a risk of further landslides. Access to the area was quite difficult; a bridge on the main thoroughfare leading to the area had collapsed and needed to be fixed to support access. The National Disaster Center had asked for international support in mobilising resources to ensure people received the help they needed as soon as possible. 

Water coming from the mountain where the landslide occurred was contaminated; this needed be considered. This was a horrible situation, but there was some good news yesterday, with a couple being rescued from under the rubble after three days of being trapped.

In response to questions, Mr. Viriri said the 7,849 people affected included the around 2,000 people suspected of being buried under the rubble and displaced people.

Authorities were attempting to bring in heavy equipment to clear rubble to reach the bodies underneath. Access to the site was very difficult. The bridge collapse had cut off the main highway to the site, making the journey to the site two to three hours longer. Authorities were working frantically to fix the bridge. They needed engineering support to clear the rubble and fix the bridge. IOM would have an update tomorrow on progress in fixing the bridge and on providing air support to the site, which was also difficult given the terrain. 

Donors such as the European Union and the United States had reached out to provide support. Australia was sending in heavy lifting equipment. IOM was working on a fund appeal that would be ready soon. It was difficult to clarify what was needed. In some parts, land was still moving in areas where rescue operations were taking place. 

All response efforts needed to be carried out in a careful manner. Efforts were being led by the UN disaster coordination team. With the continued heavy rains, the soil was unsteady, and water was coming out through the rubble. Another landslide could occur. Authorities were treading carefully to prevent another disaster.

In case there was any further threat of a landslide, people would need to be moved again. Authorities were preparing to move much of the affected population to neighbouring provinces. Anything could happen; this was difficult terrain, and another landslide could happen again. Caution was key, as was urgency.

IFRC Reports on the Escalation of Global Extreme Heat and Heat Action Day

Dr. Friederike Otto, Co-Lead of World Weather Attribution, and Senior Lecturer in Climate Science, Imperial College London, co-author of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)’s report, said heat was a very silent but increasingly common killer. It was particularly disastrous last year; this year was likely to be worse. This May was hotter than any May before, as had all months for the past 12 months. Temperatures right now were around 50 degrees in India and Pakistan. 

Every heatwave that was happening today was hotter and lasting longer than it would have without human-induced climate change; that is, without the burning of coal, oil and gas. There were also many more heatwaves than there would be otherwise. Dr. Otto said she had co-authored a report that spelled out what that meant, and why it mattered. 

The average inhabitant of the planet experienced 26 more days over the last 12 months that were extremely hot than they would have if it wasn’t for climate change. In Ecuador, it was not 26 more days but 170 more days. In other words, in the last 12 months, the people of Ecuador experienced 180 days of extreme heat; without climate change that would have just been 10.

Extreme heat was dangerous, leading to excess mortality in the thousands at least. Heat harmed especially vulnerable people: the elderly, the very young, those with pre-existing health conditions, and also healthy people who were exposed to extreme temperatures, like outdoor workers in construction or agriculture and people living in refugee camps.

It was thus paramount to stop burning fossil fuel to prevent this situation from getting even worse. But the world also needed to adapt. 26 more days of extreme heat on average was almost a month.

Heat was killing us, but it did not have to. There were many solutions, some of which were available at low or no cost, ranging from individual actions to population-scale interventions that reduced the urban heat island effect. At the individual level, people could cool their bodies by self-dousing with water, using cooling devices or modifying their built environment to increase shade around their homes.

But individual action alone was not sufficient, especially for those who lacked access to water, electricity and shade. Action at the community, city, regional and country levels was imperative. Cities could develop and implement heat action plans that outlined how they would prepare for the heat season, respond to imminent heatwaves and plan for the future. On a larger scale, policies could be introduced to incorporate cooling needs into social protection programmes that supplemented energy costs for the most vulnerable, and building codes could be updated to encourage better housing. 

The significant impact of heatwaves and the potential to prevent them was why the IFRC and its partners were mobilising on 2 June for Heat Action Day. IFRC was raising awareness and engaging communities on how dangerous extreme heat could be, and how to take the right action.

More information about the report and Heat Action Day here.

In response to questions, Dr. Otto said high temperatures might not be problematic for people who lived in cities that were well-built for heat, but heat could be devastating for people living in refugee camps.

Humanity’s biological limit was based on both temperature and humidity. There were not many days yet above the biological limit, but heat was deadly, even below the biological limit, as figures on heat wave deaths showed.

Maya Vahlberg for Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre said colder countries were less prepared to deal with extreme heat and were more susceptible to extreme heat. A 31-degree Celsius heat wave in Sweden in 2018 was estimated to have killed around 600 people, most of whom were older adults who were physiologically more vulnerable to heat. There was a need to consider the vulnerability of communities, which was a focus of Heat Action Day.

World Health Assembly Update

In response to questions, Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO) said that in Committee A of the World Health Assembly today, there were four important issues to be discussed: the WHO budget, the global program of work, the amendment to the International Health Regulation and the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB). These were processes led by Member States.

The INB had not reached a consensus on the draft pandemic treaty, and did not have a final report to submit to the General Assembly. A report had been released by the WHO Director-General on the progress made in discussions on the INB. It was up to Member States to decide how to take this discussion forward. Usually, what was decided in Committees A and B needed to go to plenaries.

Committee B usually discussed the occupied Palestinian territories. There was a report by the Director-General on the situation in the territories since 7 October, in addition to the Director-General’s regular report on the situation in the territories from January 2023 to before 7 October.

The resolutions of World Health Assembly 77 were posted on the session’s website. Today, there would be two strategic roundtables held, one on the investment case, another on the expanded programme of immunization. WHO was celebrating the 50th anniversary of this wonderful initiative that saved millions of lives, especially those of children. These events could be followed online.

The world needed to take lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic and be prepared for the next pandemic. It was important to stress the need for sharing vaccinations and medicines. Member States all agreed that this was important. Multilateral negation could be long and difficult, as was the case for the amendment to the International Health Regulation, which had been discussed for two months. Member States were working on the next steps for reaching an accord.

Announcements

David Hirsch for International Telecommunication Union (ITU) said the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)+20 Forum High-Level Event opened yesterday and continued through the week at the International Conference Center Geneva (CICG) and ITU headquarters. AI Governance Day took place tomorrow at CICG. It would feature discussions on moving from principles of AI governance to implementation. 

The AI for Good Global Summit 2024 would run from Thursday through Friday at CICG and feature a press conference on brain-machine interfaces on Friday, 31 May at 1:00 p.m. Reporters were encouraged to RSVP for the press conference. Physical and remote participation were available for most events. Online registration for event media accreditation was required. Advance badge pickup at the Varembe Conference Centre (CCV) was encouraged to avoid lines.

In response to questions, Mr. Hirch said an announcement made by ITU yesterday reported that over 50.96 billion United States dollars had been pledged to Partner2Connect, a global platform for to expand digital connectivity. These were pledges by industry, governments, and civil society. The money did not come into ITU. The Partner2Connect system raised the visibility of investments. Over 900 pledges had been received from 400 entities and about 140 countries. There was an overall goal of having 100 billion dollars pledged to the platform by 2026.

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, said today was Menstrual Hygiene Day. Every month, more than two million people around the world menstruated. Although a natural process, menstruation interrupted lives and the rights and freedoms of millions of women and girls because they could not afford or access menstrual products, sanitation and hygiene facilities, or lacked education and awareness to manage their menstrual health and hygiene.

On this very important day, the movement against period poverty was celebrating 10 years of collective action by women and girls worldwide today. We needed to make talking about periods a normal part of life and take action to end period poverty. A description of the problems and of the action taken was available on the UN Women website.

29 May was the International Day of UN Peacekeepers. On this day, the international community paid tribute to all the men and women who have served in UN peacekeeping operations, whether as military, police or civilians. This was a day to recognise their high level of professionalism, dedication and courage, and to honour the memory of those who had lost their lives in the course of peace. 

UN Geneva would commemorate this day on Friday, 31 May in Ariana Park. A ceremony would be held, attended by the Permanent Representative of Nepal, the International Association of Peace Soldiers and, for the first time, representatives of the Swiss Armed Forces International Command (SWISSINT), the section of the Swiss Armed Forces responsible for the conduct of peace support operations abroad. 

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women would close its 88th session next Friday at 5pm and issue its concluding observations on the eight countries reviewed: Republic of Korea, Montenegro, Singapore, Estonia, Kuwait, Malaysia, Brazil and Rwanda.

The Conference on Disarmament was having this morning a public plenary meeting, the first under the presidency of H.E. Mr. Abdul-Karim Hashim Mostafa of Iraq.

 

***

 

The webcast for this briefing is available here: https://bit.ly/unog28052024

The audio for this briefing is available here: https://bit.ly/UNOG28052024

 

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

- ITU, David Hirsch

  • WSIS+20 Forum High-Level Event and AI for Good Global Summit

 

TOPICS:

- UNRWA, Amal Arefeh, Head Health Communication at HQ Amman with Dr. Akihiro Seita, UNRWA Director of Health

  • UNRWA Health Programme Annual Report 2023 release. Main indicators of the programme and UNRWA Health Response to Health needs in Gaza.

- IOM, Itayi Viriri, regional spokesperson for Asia and the Pacific (From Bangkok)

  • IOM on Papua New Guinea landslide: context, IOM response, urgent needs.

- IFRC, Friederike Otto, World Weather Attribution and Imperial College in London, one of the co-authors of the report (From London)

  • Launch of the report: “Climate change and the escalation of global extreme heat”
  • Heat Action Day (2 June) that this year will focus attention on an unprecedented twelve months.


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