World

Covid-19 outbreak in French Polynesia. France grants citizenship to migrant frontline workers. Surging consumer demand causes global shipping bottlenecks. By Jonathan Pearlman.

UN warns of mass starvation, Afghanistan to ‘enter the abyss’

Schoolgirls gather at a gender-segregated school in Kabul, Afghanistan, this week.
Credit: Bulent Kilic / AFP

Great power rivalry

Afghanistan: The United Nations has warned that millions of people in Afghanistan face mass starvation and that the country is set to “enter the abyss”.

At a summit in Geneva, the UN World Food Programme reported on Monday that 14 million people – more than a third of Afghanistan’s population – are on the brink of starvation, including four million in remote areas who need food urgently as winter approaches.

“What we’re seeing is back-to-back drought, years of conflict, Covid, economic deterioration, lack of cash, in fact 40 per cent of the wheat crop this year has been lost, and I could just keep going,” the agency’s executive director, David Beasley, told the summit. “… we could face mass migration, destabilisation in the region, and for certain starvation for millions of Afghan people.”

Countries pledged more than $US1 billion ($A1.365 billion) to support Afghanistan, as the UN urged the Taliban to grant access to aid workers.

No country has yet formally recognised the Taliban administration, which could complicate efforts to distribute aid. The UN and the European Union said this week that countries would have no choice but to engage with the Taliban, though they could potentially use aid to try to encourage the Taliban to respect human rights.

The Taliban has named an all-male interim cabinet to run the country, but fierce divisions have emerged among its leadership.

The Taliban this week denied that the acting deputy prime minister, Abdul Ghani Baradar, had died after he disappeared from public view. Baradar reportedly had a serious argument at the presidential palace with another cabinet member, Khalil Haqqani, who is a prominent figure in the Haqqani network, a violent Islamist group. According to the BBC, the dispute was about whether the Taliban’s takeover was due to its foreign diplomacy, which was led by Baradar and helped to secure the US withdrawal, or its insurgency, in which the Haqqani network played a key role.

The uncertainty about Baradar’s fate was exacerbated by the Taliban’s notorious lack of credibility. For more than two years after the death in 2013 of the Taliban’s former leader, Mohammad Omar, the group insisted he was alive and issued statements in his name.

The neighbourhood

French Polynesia: A Covid-19 outbreak in French Polynesia led to one of the world’s highest rate of infections as the territory experienced daily case numbers of about 3000, or about 1 per cent of the population.

In late August, authorities stopped reporting new case numbers after total infections passed the 40,000 mark. More than 580 people have died, though the outbreak is believed to have peaked.

The group of five archipelagos, which is part of France, has struggled to find hospital beds, oxygen supplies and morgue space as the virus quickly spread to remote islands and atolls.

The French government has come under pressure to assist. Tahiti’s main hospital appealed directly to French president Emmanuel Macron, posting an image of him at the hospital during his visit in July alongside a photograph taken a month later that showed the same hall, now overflowing with Covid-19 patients. The French government recently sent 200 medical and other staff to assist.

New Caledonia, about 4700 kilometres from French Polynesia, is also now facing a serious Covid-19 outbreak. The territory, which has about 290,000 residents, had been declared “Covid-free” until earlier this month, when several local transmissions were detected. This week, authorities declared a nightly curfew as case numbers during the outbreak reached 821. Vaccination rates are low, but New Caledonia is one of the few territories in the world to impose mandatory vaccinations. All eligible residents are due to be vaccinated by December 31.

Democracy in retreat

France: During the Covid-19 pandemic, many of the frontline medical workers and support staff who have risked their lives – and often died – in some of the hardest-hit countries have been migrant workers.

But these countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, are coming under pressure to ease visa and citizenship restrictions for these workers, especially after a recent decision by France to grant citizenship to 12,012 frontline staff.

Announcing the measure last week, the French government said the doctors, nurses, cleaners, cashiers and garbage collectors had “actively contributed” to the Covid-19 response. The government has sped up processing for the workers and reduced their residency requirement from five years to two.

Marlène Schiappa, the French citizenship minister, said: “It is normal for the nation to take a step toward them. The country pulled through, thanks to them.”

In Britain, the government has allowed migrant healthcare workers to apply for a free one-year visa extension, but some MPs want the workers to be allowed to stay indefinitely.

About 170,000 – or 14 per cent – of British public healthcare workers are foreign workers.

There have also been calls to grant long-term or permanent residency to healthcare workers in the United States, Canada and Europe.

Spotlight: Global shipping crisis

Off the coasts of Los Angeles, Shanghai, Hong Kong and other major port cities around the world, the waters are currently clogged by long lines of massive container ships, silently waiting to dock.

In southern California, authorities this week reported a record logjam of 60 ships at anchor or adrift in San Pedro Bay. In China, analysis by Lloyd’s List in late August found that almost 6 per cent of the world’s fleet of bulk carriers was waiting offshore at the country’s main ports to either load or discharge cargo.

A major cause of the bottlenecks is the surging consumer demand that has followed the end of pandemic lockdowns, which has occurred while most ports continue to exercise strict Covid-19 rules that limit their cargo-handling capacity. In addition, Covid-19 outbreaks at several ports have led to sudden closures, which in turn has caused delays at other ports. Cargo flows have also been disrupted by the shutdown of the Suez Canal earlier this year and by a series of extreme weather events, including typhoons in China.

Back onshore, the logjams are causing shortages of a range of products, particularly those that are in demand due to the pandemic, such as hair products, sneakers, board games and gaming consoles. In parts of the US, police have reported spikes in thefts of bicycles, which is believed to be due to a lack of new ones. And, as backlogs at ports grow, other forms of transport such as road and rail face congestion as they try to meet the growing demand.

The congestion has caused a surge in the price of shipping. On some routes, shipping charges have increased tenfold in the past year. The extra costs are expected to lead to consumer price rises.

Firms are starting to adjust. Some have begun ordering goods in bulk, which will require them to find new storage warehouses. Others, such as Ikea and Walmart, have started to charter their own ships to try to ferry goods themselves.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 18, 2021 as "UN warns of mass starvation, Afghanistan to ‘enter the abyss’ ".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.