UN Geneva round-up: Polluted air, Afghanistan aid, WHO prevention hub

The Caldor Fire burns in Eldorado National Forest, California, 29 August 2021. Climate change is worsening air pollution even as human emissions fell during the pandemic and half of the World Meteorological Organization’s members need to develop multi-hazard warning systems. (Keystone/AP Photo/Noah Berger)

A summary of the most critical issues being discussed at the United Nations in Geneva this week.

Dirty air.  Climate change is causing more particle storms and wildfires than ever before, affecting the air quality for millions of people, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said on Friday.

Releasing its first Air Quality and Climate Bulletin, the WMO said Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions led to a “dramatic drop” in key air pollutants last year, particularly in urban areas. However the decline was too short-lived to have an effect on health, the agency said.

Meanwhile, meteorological extremes fuelled by climate and environmental change are triggering unprecedented sand and dust storms and wildfires in regions across the world including North America, Europe, and Siberia.

“Covid-19 proved to be an unplanned air-quality experiment, and it did lead to temporary localized improvements. But a pandemic is not a substitute for sustained and systematic action to tackle major drivers of both pollution and climate change and so safeguard the health of both people and planet,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

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The bulletin comes after the UN environment programme (UNEP) issued a report on Tuesday calling for a global treaty on air quality to clamp down on pollution.

There are no legally-binding air quality standards in a third of the world’s countries. Among them are 31 per cent of those who have the “power” to set them, said UNEP.

Air pollution is considered the world’s largest environmental threat to health, accounting for 7 million deaths around the world every year.

No welfare for 4.1 billion people. Over half of the world’s population has no access to welfare, despite increased social protection spending during the pandemic, the International Labor Organization (ILO) reported on Wednesday.

The divide between the rich and poor is expanding. The report states that the pandemic “has made the case for universal social protection irrefutable.” Sharp fiscal austerity in response to the pandemic is not the answer, according to the report.

More to be done about dementia. Fifty-five million people live with dementia, and that number is expected to rise to 139 million by 2050, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on Thursday.

The WHO calls on governments to have strong policies that support those living with dementia and their caretakers, who frequently face discrimination. WHO will publish a Dementia Research Blueprint to reinvigorate and refocus international dementia research.  Read more on Geneva Solutions.

New outbreak prevention hub.  Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel joined World Health Organization officials on Wednesday for the launch of a new global hub in Berlin, which will gather data on pandemics and epidemics to fight future health emergencies.

The WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence, which is receiving an initial investment of $100m from the German government, will help to address the gaps in “the world’s ability to forecast, detect, assess and respond to outbreaks that threaten people worldwide,” said Dr Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO’s health emergency programme.

Worse weather, fewer deaths. The economic costs of extreme weather have multiplied by seven over the past 50 years, the WMO and UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) reported on Wednesday. The number of deaths have dropped threefold, with the help of multi-hazard warning systems. Half of WMO’s members still need such systems, however, and extreme weather is on the rise. Read more on Geneva Solutions.

First international day for people of African descent. The observance, first held on Tuesday, is a “celebration of the enormous contributions of people of African descent to every field of human endeavour,” said UN secretary general Antonio Guterres. “It is a long overdue recognition of the profound injustices and systemic discrimination that people of African descent have endured for centuries, and continue to confront today. And it is an urgent call to action for everyone, everywhere, to commit to rooting out the evil of racism.”

Security council tells Taliban to keep its word. The UN security council passed a resolution on Monday urging the Taliban to deliver on its promises to let Afghans and foreigners to leave the country freely.

Sponsored by Britain, the US and France, the resolution highlighted for the record the Taliban’s promises to let people leave the country, respect human rights, remain open to humanitarian aid and not harbour terrorists.  The council condemned last Thursday’s attack outside Kabul airport for which the Khorosan branch of ISIS claimed credit.

But China and Russia refused to back the resolution, accusing the US and its allies of shifting the blame and responsibility to neighbouring countries and to the Council.

Ambassador Geng Shuang of China said any Council action should help ease tensions, and not intensify them.

“The recent chaos in Afghanistan is directly related to the hasty and disorderly withdrawal of foreign troops,” he said, cited in UN news.  “We hope that relevant countries will realise the fact that withdrawal is not the end of responsibility, but the beginning of reflection and correction.”

The UN continues to underline its commitment to stay in Afghanistan. The organisation still has around 3,000 national staff and around 200 international staff on the ground as of Tuesday.

Spokesperson Jens Laerke from the UN humanitarian affairs office (OCHA) said on Tuesday that operations were continuing, and that the UN had already helped eight million people this year alone.

Meanwhile the World Health Organisation said it managed to get an airlift in on Monday through Mazar-i-Sharif airport in the north after it warned on Friday that it was running out of supplies. Spokesperson Margaret Harris said already before the takeover some 12.2 million people were estimated to be suffering food insecurity.

This first airlift will allow WHO to serve the basic needs of 200,000 people, conduct 3,500 surgeries, and treat 6,500 trauma victims over 40 health facilities in 29 provinces.

The World Food Programme (WFP) is working to set up an air bridge for which it needs $18m for flying passengers, and $12m for cargo. WFP fears its stocks will be depleted by September if it is not able to establish an air bridge by then.