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Press Release

Geneva Palais Briefing Note On COVID-19 In South Asia

  This is a summary of what was said by UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia, George Laryea-Adjei – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva

NEW YORK (May 25, 2021) – “The scenes we are witnessing in South Asia are unlike anything our region has seen before. Family members of patients are carrying oxygen cylinders inside hospitals, risking their own lives in hopes of saving a loved one. Exhausted health workers are working sixteen-hour days, unable to pay individual attention to every patient under their care. We are faced with a real possibility of fragile health systems collapsing.

"South Asia is home to almost 2 billion people, and more than a quarter of the world’s children. The region now accounts for half of known new infections globally. Over three new COVID-19 infections are being recorded every second. Mortality in the region has risen sharply, with one person dying every 17 seconds from COVID-19.

"The sheer scale and speed of this new surge of COVID-19 is outstripping countries’ abilities to provide life-saving treatment.

"Just last week, India recorded the highest number of daily deaths ever in the history of the COVID-19 pandemic: 4,529.

"Neighboring Nepal has experienced case positivity rates as high as 47 percent. In Banke district, there are reports of nurses taking care of 20 critically ill patients on their own.

"Sri Lanka is recording new highs in COVID-19 cases and deaths on a daily basis. 88 percent of hospital beds are currently in use.

"Maldives is witnessing an unprecedented peak in cases, particularly in its capital, Malé. Its health system is under severe strain and the government has had to increase bed capacity in medical facilities.

"Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bhutan could all face similar devastating surges.

"We need to act fast to save lives now. But we also need to do everything within our power to keep the critical health care services that children and mothers so heavily rely on running.

"During the first wave of the pandemic, an estimated 228,000 children and 11,000 mothers across South Asia died due to severe disruptions to essential health services, such as routine immunization, care during pregnancy and childbirth, and treatment for pneumonia and malnutrition. With a surge that is four times the size of the first, we are facing a real possibility of a severe spike in child and maternal deaths in South Asia.

"We simply cannot let this happen.

"And let us not forget that the disproportionate impact this deadly surge has on children extends far beyond their physical health.

"The scenes we all have seen on TV are scenes that children in South Asia have seen with their own eyes. Children have become eyewitnesses to the suffering of their loved ones and are becoming orphans as they lose parents and caregivers.

"As Shitanshu, a 20-year-old woman from Nepal, told me, “Everybody is traumatized and in between the fear, anxiety and concern, nobody is mentally sound. Nobody can be.

"UNICEF has been on the ground working around the clock since the start of the pandemic.

"But much more support is needed. UNICEF needs $164 million for the urgent delivery of oxygen and testing supplies, medical equipment, personal protective equipment and infection prevention and control material.

"These supplies will not just save lives today, they will help build stronger health systems that are better prepared to face future waves of the pandemic.

"Let me end by speaking about vaccine equity. We cannot ignore the role vaccine inequity has played in fueling the virus’ rampage across the region.

"211 million doses have been administered in the region, with only 2.6 percent of the total population fully vaccinated. The majority of the high-risk population remains unvaccinated.

"Every decision the international community makes now – from voluntary and proactive licensing by IPR holders; to ending vaccine nationalism; to governments loaning, or donating excess contracted doses to COVAX - has the potential to alter the course of this surge – and to either safeguard or endanger millions of lives. We may be exhausted, but the virus is not yet exhausted. The time to ensure vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics are available to all is now.

"The longer this virus is allowed to spread unchecked, the higher the risk of more deadly or contagious variants emerging. The deadly surge we are witnessing in South Asia shows us precisely what may happen – and may happen repeatedly in the coming months and even years - if we do not act now.

"UNICEF teams are working tirelessly to scale up our responses to the deadly new surge sweeping South Asia, working in close conjunction with governments and partners. UNICEF has been sending critical lifesaving supplies to South Asia, including:

  • 3,000 oxygen concentrators, testing kits and other critical equipment to India;
  • 150 oxygen concentrators, 100 pulse oximeters, 1000 oxygen monitors, 20 sets BiPap machines, 792 health kits and other supplies to Nepal;
  • 291 oxygen cylinders, 342 oxygen regulators, and 2,490 masks for adults and children to Sri Lanka.

"In addition, UNICEF is supporting border authorities at points of entry on the India-Nepal border to ensure rapid testing, isolation or quarantine and transportation of confirmed COVID-19 returnees to isolation centers and hospitals.

"Our COVID-19 response in South Asia spans all areas of our work: from reaching families with trusted information on staying safe, increasing access to safe water and sanitation or providing cash assistance, to helping to keep children learning and providing expert psychosocial and protection support for children affected by the pandemic."

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The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) works in more than 190 countries and territories to pursue a more equitable world for every child. UNICEF has helped save more children’s lives than any other humanitarian organization, by providing health care and immunizations, safe water and sanitation, nutrition, education, emergency relief and more.

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