Best of 2015: Analysis on Ebola, conflict and refugees

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Copyright: Sanjit Das / Panos

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Human Rights Day seems an apt time to reflect on a year of SciDev.Net analysis articles. Four of the five topics we cover — disability, gender, migration and (chronic) poverty — put the spotlight on those whose rights are too easily sidelined or abused. The fifth, the private sector, can tread an uneasy relationship with human rights: journalists have an important role in calling businesses to account and scrutinising their activities.

From Ebola to the violence in the Middle East, 2015 has been tough for millions of people. As these issues hit the headlines, our analysis blogs examined how science, technology and new ways of thinking can help improve lives and policies for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

It’s been fascinating to write and edit them; and to test out new ways of presenting information for our readers, through audio or data visualisations for example. Below are a selection I think did a particularly fine job of bringing new ways of thinking about science and development to bear on both some of the year’s defining stories, and on those issues and experiences too often neglected in media and policy circles. 

New angles on Ebola

At the beginning of 2015, the Ebola epidemic affecting Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone was on the turn. Stories of new infections and how to control the epidemic still dominated the headlines, but attention was also turning to health and social implications for survivors.

Our Focus on Disability blogger Hannah Kuper examined the disabling conditions, such as hearing loss and blindness, left behind by the disease, and the need for studies to fill knowledge gaps on Ebola’s long-term health impacts. The Ebola-linked meningitis suffered by British nurse Pauline Cafferkey in October, more than nine months after she was declared Ebola-free, shows how little we still know. It underlined how important Kuper’s call for more research remains, particularly given that few survivors in West Africa will receive the kind of medical and scientific attention given to Cafferkey.

In 2016, I’ll be following research in West Africa on Ebola’s long-term impacts closely — keep an eye out for coverage.

Ethics during epidemics

After spotting a Nature article on Ebola genome sequencing and open data, journalist Aamna Mohdin wrote a blog exploring the ethics of sharing patient data during emergencies. Open, shareable data on Ebola cases helped researchers understand how the virus was spreading. But it also brought into focus ethical debates on patient anonymity and informed consent —  particularly during emergencies, when people are at their most vulnerable. Mohdin interviewed health ethics specialist Jantina De Vries, who stressed the need for better guidelines on informed consent during emergencies, and the importance of ensuring these are locally appropriate.

The role of the private sector in responding to disease outbreaks was the subject of a blog by SciDev.Net’s then deputy opinions editor Josh Howgego. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim has proposed setting up national insurance schemes for disease outbreaks, and disaster insurance specialist Joanna Syroka pointed out that modelling risk is tricky in such a data-poor sector — while the different factors that might accelerate or stop epidemics mean they are notoriously hard to predict. But Ebola is likely to cost billions of dollars. So, alongside the crucial task of upgrading broken health systems and training more health workers, insurance schemes like these could be a sensible option for governments.

Investigating record displacement

In 2015, the devastation caused by war and political instability across the Middle East and North Africa was never far from the headlines. In June, UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) announced that 60 million people were now forcibly displaced — the highest number since records began. On the analysis desk, it is not just our migration-focused experts and journalists who felt compelled to discuss the crisis: writers who focus on disability, gender and the private sector also examined what conflict and displacement can mean for particularly vulnerable people.

Refugee trauma: healing body and mind

Islay Mactaggart, our Focus on Disability blogger for much of 2015, examined the refugee crisis from the perspective of mental health. Refugees are often badly traumatised, but in the rush to provide people with basic shelter and food, humanitarian organisations can overlook their psychological needs. Mactaggart called for aid organisations and governments to train non-specialist staff to spot and assess basic mental health conditions among refugees, and to start using the new mhGAP humanitarian intervention guide published by UNHCR and the WHO earlier this year.

Our Focus on Migration blogger Carlos Vargas Silva examined the effect of displacement on Burundian children. These effects are long-term: chronic malnutrition, even for short periods, can affect children’s physical and mental development and have repercussions for their future employment. Vargas Silva suggests food-for-education programmes are one route to making life less treacherous for children displaced by war.

How to educate displaced students?

The question of how to provide education for the thousands of children and teenagers displaced by war in the Middle East was another important subject this year. I spoke to Emma Bonar, of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Jordan, who told me that mismatches between qualification systems, the high price of fees and the need to earn cash mean almost a million young refugees are missing out on higher education or post-school training. If regional and global universities were to divert money for foreign scholarships into blended learning that combines classroom teaching and distance learning, “they’d reach ten times more students”, she says.

Journalist Shyamantha Asokan also examined the education crisis among Syrian refugees, but from the perspective of academics. James King of the Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF) explained how Syrian academics need urgent support to continue their studies, and called on the world’s universities to help them, particularly when it comes to resource-heavy science subjects. With no end in sight for the war, academics will play a vital role as community leaders in Syria’s diaspora. And two-thirds of SRF-supported academics specialise in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects: this cadre of medics, engineers and architects will be central to getting the country back on track.

Crowdsourced bomb maps and printed homes

Post-war reconstruction was at the heart of an interview I did with Thomas Nash, director of weapons monitoring NGO Article 36. Nash spoke of the bombing campaigns devastating large parts of Syria and Yemen, and how, despite international treaties to ban or limit the use of cluster bombs, the assaults have used these weapons. Cluster bombs can lie unexploded and dormant for years, and are a particular threat to children. Nash told me that mapping where bombs land is a vital first step to cleaning up affected areas and communities. One way to do this is to monitor the media and crowdsource information on where bombs fall.

Rebuilding after conflict would also benefit from a technology examined by Sally Murray, our Focus on Poverty blogger, in October. The use of 3D printing in the health sector is growing — but it also has the potential to provide homes for the chronically poor, Murray says. Of course, before this happens, governments will need to examine issues such as land rights and macroeconomics concerns relating to the building industry and jobs. And 3D-printed housing has yet to be tested at scale outside the laboratory.

Ending gender-based violence and rape

The sexual violence that blights the lives of millions of people around the world, particularly girls and women, was a frequent topic in 2014, particularly in the debates surrounding the global summit to end sexual violence in conflict in June. But what developments did 2015 bring?

Things seem to be getting no better. Hundreds of Yazidi women and girls remain in Islamic State captivity. Our Focus on Gender blogger Henrietta Miers drew attention to the surge in gender-based violence in Ebola-affected countries during the 2013-15 epidemic: the number of rapes in Guinea doubled when the outbreak began. While we know that sexual violence rises during humanitarian crises, Miers wrote, dismissing this as an inevitable part of war is unacceptable. She called on gender campaigners to divert resources currently being poured into “bland” gender equality declarations into strategies to reduce violence.

One such strategy is to be found in the state of Odisha in India. The government there has been trialling an ATM-style technology called ICLIK that is designed to make it easier for women to report sexual violence — a problem that seems to be worsening in India. Nandita Bhatla of the International Center for Research on Women told me she thought this was a positive step but that it needs to go hand-in-hand with robust reporting mechanisms at police and judiciary level, and training for police. Without these, things won’t improve.

Health as a human right

Aamna Mohdin also examined disabilities linked to mental health this year, and whether the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are doing enough on mental health. Mohdin interviewed Jagannath Lamichhane, who has long campaigned for mental health to be included in global goals and treaties. Disabilities stemming from mental health affect 600 million people, the vast majority in low- and middle-income countries. But the SDGs mention mental health just once.

Maha Rafi Atal, our Focus on Private Sector blogger, wrote a fascinating piece on the latest developments in India’s generic drug wars. It’s not just Indian customers who will be affected if big pharma wins the battle over generic drugs: Indian pharmaceutical companies supply drugs, including antiretrovirals for HIV, to countries across the global South, at a fraction of their usual cost. Big pharma should shift its perspective on Indian companies, Rafi Atal says: rather than seeing them as a threat to business, they could be pragmatic partners in years to come.

In 2016, international governments and organisations meet for the first-ever World humanitarian summit — an opportunity to reshape the sector to face the complex challenges of the twenty-first century. The new SDGs kick in too in a few weeks. At a time when the global community has never felt so in need of robust frameworks to guide it — within and far beyond the UN — I look forward to exploring how science, technology and new approaches to thinking about the world can strengthen structures to protect the world’s most vulnerable people.