The 10 most under-reported crises of 2020

A mother and baby wait for a polio vaccine at a clinic in Papua New Guinea, where there are worries the fragile health system could collapse if Covid-19 takes hold. Credit: Keystone/ GAVI / Brendan Esposito.

A new report reveals that the combined news coverage of these 10 humanitarian crises last year was less than that of the Eurovision Song Contest, or Kanye West’s bid for the US presidency.

In 2020, when the devastating effects of the pandemic became apparent, countries turned their focus inwards. Governments concentrated resources and funds on their own populations to help them weather the storm, and media outlets were consumed with documenting the unfolding crisis within their own borders.

However, for people already living through crises, from extreme weather events to food insecurity or conflict, Covid-19 was yet another threat they had to face - many of which had gone unnoticed by the wider world.

A new annual report from CARE International has revealed the 10 most under-reported crises of 2020, analysing international media coverage online to identify countries where at least one million people are affected by humanitarian crises, but which go largely undocumented by the media.

Across the year, the combined news coverage of the 10 countries on CARE's list was less than that of Kanye West's bid for the US presidency and the Eurovision Song Contest, and received 26 times less attention than the launch of the PlayStation 5.

“More than ever, today, with this pandemic, it's critical to continue to cover and report on what's happening outside of our own borders and not to be led by economic and political interests only,” says Delphine Pinault, humanitarian policy advocacy coordinator and UN representative at CARE International, based in Geneva. “The virus doesn't know borders, so we can ignore covering humanitarian crises, but they will be at our doorstep tomorrow if we do.”

Many countries on the list such as Burundi, Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR) have reappeared in CARE's report year after year, with protracted crises consistently receiving very little media attention. But the new entries are equally worrying.

“What's the most concerning for us is that we now have countries on the list like Guatemala or Ukraine that are middle income countries, where typically before governments would have been able to respond to humanitarian situations,” says Pinault. “But because of the impacts of Covid ... you are seeing countries really incapable of risk, facing a humanitarian crisis and incapable of responding.”

At the end of 2020, the United Nations (UN) estimated that at least 235.4 million people would need humanitarian assistance in 2021. The impact of Covid-19, combined with the effects of climate change, has pushed that figure up by 40 per cent to a record level. With donor governments concentrating on the economic and social fallout in their own countries, development aid has also contracted. In December 2020, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) stated that the humanitarian response plans and appeals for the past year were just over 44 per cent funded, while upping their estimate of funding needed for 2021 to around $35bn .

Media attention can often translate into greater aid funding and political action, and can spark global calls for accountability, justice and reform. Yet the pandemic has meant more people than ever are left to suffer in silence. From natural disasters and rising suicides to food shortages and escalating conflict, here are the 10 most under-reported crises of 2020.

Displacement drives hunger in Burundi

A group of Burundian refugees from Mahama camp in Rwanda wash their hands as a precaution against Covid-19 as they arrive back in Burundi after five years of exile, August 2020. (Credit: AP Photo/ Berthier Mugiraneza)

Following a relatively peaceful transfer of power in 2020 after five years of political turmoil, UNHCR estimates that at least 50,000 Burundian refugees returned home last year from nearby Rwanda and Tanzania. However, as one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most densely populated countries and the fifth poorest nation in the world, Burundi is struggling to absorb returnees. The result is high competition and disputes over land in which the poorest and most vulnerable populations suffer. As of December 2020, over 2.3 million Burundians are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance.

Guatemala hit by back-to-back hurricanes and rising malnutrition

A woman holds a white flag as a sign that she needs food assistance in Villa Nueva, May 2020. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

Since April 2020, thousands of Guatemalans across the country have been flying white flags from their windows to signal their need for food. Before the pandemic, Guatemala had the sixth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world, with close to half of all Guatemalan children undernourished. But for the 10 million people living below the poverty line in the country, Covid-19 has made the already serious food crisis far worse. Protracted droughts and torrential rains have battered the country for years, resulting in crop failures and livestock deaths. Guatemala is also reeling from the impact of two back-to-back category four storms, Iota and Eta, that hit in October and November.

Endless conflict despite a peace deal in the Central African Republic

Hundreds walk in a neighbourhood near the capital Bengui during a brief respite from fighting which engulfed the areas on 13 January 2021, in the wake of the disputed December election. (Credit: Keystone / Surprising EPA/ Adrienne)
Before the pandemic, more than 71 per cent of the Central African Republic’s (CAR) population lived below the poverty line. Devastated by decades of armed conflict and unrelenting natural disasters, the impact of Covid-19 has pushed CAR deeper into disaster, with the UN warning that over half the population will need humanitarian assistance and protection in 2021. Despite a peace deal brokered in early 2019, the violence persists, with frequent attacks on civilians as well as peacekeepers. Violence sparked by the December elections has forced 120,000 people to flee their homes, the UN reported last week.

Escalating violence and isolation in Ukraine

Years of conflict left more than 3.4 million Ukrainians in the country’s Donbas region needing humanitarian assistance in 2020, and the pandemic restrictions have further limited people’s access to basic services and humanitarian aid, with  elderly and disabled people among the worst affected. The 420 km long “contact line” between Ukrainian authorities and Russian-backed militias is one of the most mine-contaminated areas in the world, where shelling, violence and explosions are a constant threat.

Madagascar ravaged by climate change

A mother in the village of Ankilimarovahatsy, Madagascar, November 2020. (Credit: Keystone/ AP Photo / Laetitia Began)
Madagascar is severely affected by climate change, experiencing recurrent drought, cyclones and floods. With low vaccination rates, poor sanitation and hygiene, epidemics are common, and the country was hit by a malaria outbreak this year as well as Covid-19. Chronic malnutrition is also on the rise, with almost every other child under the age of five suffering from stunting, and maternal mortality stands at one of the highest around the world.

Suicides and child marriage on the rise in Malawi

School closures have pushed up child marriages and teenage pregnancy in Malawi. (Credit: Keystone/ AP Photo / Carolyn Kaster)
In the small, peaceful country in Southern Africa, increasingly frequent natural disasters, pest outbreaks, extreme poverty and now Covid-19 are pushing the population to the brink, and there has been a 57 per cent rise in suicide rates in 2020. The pandemic has also disrupted supply chains, pushing millions into food insecurity, and the closure of schools has led to a rise in child marriages and cases of teen pregnancy. The UN estimates 8.3 million Malawians require humanitarian assistance in the wake of the pandemic, with seven out of 10 people living in poverty.

Triple threat of conflict, poverty and natural disasters in Pakistan

People flee floods in Karachi, Pakistan, August 2020. (Credit: Keystone / EPA / Rehan Khan)
Displacement caused by conflict, climate change and pervasive poverty is driving up disasters in the world’s fifth most populous country. Pakistan is highly prone to natural hazards, including flooding, avalanches and earthquakes, with three million people affected every year. In 2020, the triple-threat of Covid-19, locust swarms and unprecedented levels of urban flooding left around 6.7 million Pakistanis in need of food and agricultural assistance, and food insecurity continues to spiral.

Surging violence against children in Mali

Supporters of the military coup gather in Bamako, Mali, August 2020. (Credit: Keystone/ EPA/ Life Tiemoko)
Conflict, natural disasters, poverty and rising food insecurity continue to buckle the Central Sahelian country, which is currently in the aftermath of a military coup that toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Kelta in August 2020. A record 13.4 million people in the Central Sahel are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance and, in Mali, 90 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. The situation for children in the country is also becoming more severe, with a record number of violations against children recorded in the first three months of 2020 alone, including sexual violence, murder and recruitment by armed groups.

Rising malnutrition and domestic violence in Papua New Guinea

A mother and baby wait for a polio vaccine at a clinic in Papua New Guinea. (Credit: Keystone/ GAVI / Brendan Esposito)

Last year Papua New Guinea faced flooding, landslides and tremors in addition to rising malnutrition. Only 46 per cent of the population has access to suitable drinking water and there are concerns that, if Covid-19 were to take hold, the weak health system will buckle, derailing current efforts to combat other endemic diseases such as Tuberculosis, HIV/aids, malaria and polio. The country has been hit hard by Covid-19 restrictions, pushing up inflation and prices for basic goods, meaning more than 52 per cent of families have pulled their children out of school because they could no longer afford it. The country also has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world, and the restrictions of the pandemic have put increased pressure on families, driving up violence.

Extreme weather causes food shortages in Zambia

Swarms of locusts have devastated crops in Zambia. (Credit: Keystone / AP / Ben Curtis)

Zambia is bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, with severe flooding and drought leaving over half of Zambians in need of humanitarian assistance due to acute hunger and malnutrition. The country is currently battling a locust infestation, where a single swarm of the insects can eat as much food as 2,500 people in a day, and the disruption to the world commodity markets caused by Covid-19 has pushed down the price of copper - of which Zambia is a major producer - leaving the World Bank projecting the economy will have contracted by around 4.5 per cent in 2020.