JOHANNESBURG — The detection of the Omicron variant in southern Africa signals the next stage of the battle against Covid-19: getting many more people inoculated in poorer nations where vaccines have been scarcest in order to deter new mutations from developing.
But while world leaders sometimes talk about this as if it were largely a matter of delivering doses overseas, the experience of South Africa, at least, hints at a far more complex set of challenges.
Like many poor countries, South Africa was made to wait months for vaccines as wealthier countries monopolized them. Many countries still do not have anywhere near enough vaccines to inoculate their populations.
The problems have not ended as shots began arriving in greater numbers.
Neglected and underfunded public health infrastructure has slowed their delivery, especially to rural areas, where storage and staffing problems are common.
turned away shipments of doses from Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson, worried that their stockpile of 16 million shots might spoil amid insufficient demand.
Dr. Saad Omer, a Yale University epidemiologist, and they have had a deeper effect.
have said. In several countries, fewer than half say they intend to get vaccinated.
sometimes-violent resistance in rural communities. Vaccine hesitancy rates there approach 50 percent among those who have not completed high school.In some parts of the country, more than a third of doses spoil amid the low demand.
Still, many are eager to be vaccinated. When doses first became widely available in South Africa earlier this year, a third of the country’s adults swiftly got inoculated, a pattern that is repeating elsewhere.
allegations of corruption amid last year’s lockdown, have heightened public unease.
“There’s a lack of confidence in the public health system’s ability to provide vaccines,” said Chris Vick, the founder of Covid Comms, a South African nonprofit group.
The group has been holding vaccine information sessions, but overcoming skepticism is not easy. After a session in the Pretoria township of Atteridgeville, one 20-year-old who attended said she had not been persuaded.
briefly pause delivery of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, leading South Africa to delay its rollout to health care workers. Both countries decided to resume the shots after concluding that they were safe.
The South African government held regular briefings, but these were on television and in English, when radio remains the most powerful medium and most South Africans do not speak English as their mother tongue.
a recent study found. That is in part because of mistrust of the Black-led government, but also because American Covid conspiracists have found wide reach among white South Africans on social media, according to Mr. Vick of Covid Comms.
Covid pill from Merck for high-risk adults, the first in a new class of antiviral drugs that could work against a wide range of variants, including Omicron. The pill could be authorized within days, and available by year’s end.
The first modern, worldwide campaign, begun in 1959 against smallpox, provoked deep skepticism in parts of Africa and Asia, where it was seen as a continuation of colonial-era medical abuses. Some W.H.O. officials used physical force to vaccinate people, deepening distrust. The campaign took 28 years.
The effort to eradicate polio, which finally ramped up in poor countries in the 1980s and is still ongoing, has run into similar resistance. A study in the science journal Nature found that vaccine avoidance was highest among poor or marginalized groups, who believed that the health authorities, and especially Western governments, would never voluntarily help them.
In Nigeria in the early 2000s, amid a spike in religious tensions, unfounded rumors circulated that foreign health workers were using polio vaccines as cover to sterilize the country’s Muslim population. Boycotts and local bans led to a polio resurgence, with cases spreading to 15 other countries, as far as Southeast Asia.
survey by the Africa Center for Disease Control found that 43 percent of those polled believe Africans are used as guinea pigs in vaccine trials — a legacy of Western drug companies’ doing exactly this in the 1990s.
Even within their own borders, Western governments are struggling to overcome vaccine resistance. So it is hard to imagine them doing better in faraway societies where they lack local understanding.
Any appearance of Western powers forcing unwanted vaccines into African or Asian arms risks deepening the backlash.
“If the objective is to keep the U.S. and the rest of the world safe, it should be pretty obvious that the success of the domestic program depends on what happens internationally,” Dr. Omer said.
The world reacted with alarm on Friday to the highly mutated new coronavirus variant discovered in southern Africa, as the United States, the European Union and nations across the globe imposed new travel restrictions, financial markets swooned and visions of finally emerging from the pandemic started to dim.
Just two days after the world learned of the variant, the World Health Organization officially labeled it a “variant of concern,” its most serious category — the first since the Delta variant, which emerged a year ago. The designation means that the variant has mutations that might make it more contagious or more virulent, or make vaccines and other preventive measures less effective — though none of those effects has yet been established.
suffered terribly when Covid first hit Europe early last year.
On Friday, Israel, Singapore, several European nations individually, and then the European Union as a whole, the United States and Canada followed the lead set by Britain on Thursday night, temporarily barring foreign travelers who have recently been in South Africa or any of several neighboring countries. As with past travel bans, countries are allowing their own citizens and permanent residents to return home if they test negative for the virus, with some requiring additional testing and quarantine after arrival.
fights over vaccines and social restrictions have grown increasingly harsh.
world’s highest case rates for their populations are all European — several of them about six times as high as the U.S. rate.
South Africa, whose last coronavirus wave peaked in July, has recently reported case rates far below the worldwide average. But last week the rate more than doubled from the week before.
Reporting was contributed by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Carl Zimmer, Lynsey Chutel and Nick Cumming-Bruce.
A scrappy force of local Tigrayan recruits scored a cascade of battlefield victories against the Ethiopian military, one of Africa’s strongest. Times journalists witnessed the decisive week in an eight-month civil war.
Text by Declan Walsh
Photographs by Finbarr O’Reilly
SAMRE, Ethiopia — The Tigrayan fighters whooped, whistled and pointed excitedly to a puff of smoke in the sky, where an Ethiopian military cargo plane trundling over the village minutes earlier had been struck by a missile.
Smoke turned to flames as the stricken aircraft broke in two and hurtled toward the ground. Later, in a stony field strewn with smoking wreckage, villagers picked through twisted metal and body parts. For the Tigrayan fighters, it was a sign.
“Soon we’re going to win,” said Azeb Desalgne, a 20-year-old with an AK-47 over her shoulder.
The downing of the plane on June 22 offered bracing evidence that the conflict in the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia was about to take a seismic turn. A Tigrayan guerrilla army had been fighting to drive out the Ethiopian military for eight months in a civil war marked by atrocities and starvation. Now the fight seemed to be turning in their favor.
The war erupted in November, when a simmering feud between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigrayan leaders, members of a small ethnic minority who had dominated Ethiopia for much of the three previous decades, exploded into violence.
airstrike had struck a crowded village market that day, killing dozens. We watched as the first casualties arrived at Mekelle’s largest hospital.
Days later, three aid workers from Doctors Without Borders were brutally murdered by unknown assailants.
In the countryside, the war was moving at a furious pace. Ethiopian military positions fell like dominoes. Hours after the Tigrayans shot down the military cargo plane, we reached a camp holding several thousand newly captured Ethiopian soldiers, about 30 miles south of Mekelle.
Clustered behind a barbed wire fence, the prisoners erupted into applause when we stepped from our vehicle — hoping, they later explained, that we were Red Cross workers.
Some were wounded, others barefoot — Tigrayans confiscated their boots as well as their guns, they said — and many pleaded for help. “We have badly wounded soldiers here,” said Meseret Asratu, 29, a platoon commander.
Further along the road was the battlefield where others had died. The bodies of Ethiopian soldiers were scattered across a rocky field, untouched since a fight four days earlier, now swelling in the afternoon sun.
Personal items cast aside nearby, amid empty ammunition boxes and abandoned uniforms, hinted at young lives interrupted: dog-eared photos of loved ones, but also university certificates, chemistry textbooks and sanitary pads — a reminder that women fight on both sides of the conflict.
Stragglers were still being rounded up. The next day, Tigrayan fighters marched five just-captured prisoners up a hill, where they slumped to the ground, exhausted.
Dawit Toba, a glum 20-year-old from the Oromia region of Ethiopia, said he had surrendered without firing a shot. War in Tigray was not like he had imagined it. “We were told there would be fighting,” he said. “But when we got here it was looting, robbery, attacks on women.”
“This war was not necessary,” he added. “Mistakes have been made.”
Driving off, we came across a figure sprawled on the roadside — an Ethiopian, stripped of his uniform, with several bullet wounds to his leg. He groaned softly.
The wounded soldier appeared to have been dumped there, although it wasn’t clear by whom. We drove him back to the prisoner camp, where Ethiopian medics did some basic treatment on the ground outside a school. Nobody was sure if he would survive.
Artillery boomed in the distance. The Tigrayan offensive was continuing to the north, using captured heavy guns against the Ethiopian troops who had brought them in. A platoon of fighters walked through, bearing a wounded man on a stretcher. Teklay Tsegay, 20, watched them pass.
Before the war, Mr. Teklay was a mechanic in Adigrat, 70 miles north. Then, last February, Eritrean soldiers fired into his aunt’s house, killing her 5-year-old daughter, he said. The following day, Mr. Teklay slipped out of Adigrat to join the resistance.
“I never thought I would be a soldier,” he said. “But here I am.”
As Tigrayans quietly mustered a guerrilla army this year, they drew on their experience of fighting a brutal Marxist dictatorship in Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s, under the flag of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
Then, Tigrayan intellectuals used Marxist ideology to bind peasant fighters to their cause, much like the Viet Cong or rebels in Angola and Mozambique.
But this time, the Tigrayan fighters are largely educated and hail from the towns and cities. And it is anger at atrocities, not Marxism, that drew them to the cause.
At the recruitment camp, instructors standing under trees gave speeches about Tigrayan culture and identity, and taught new recruits to fire an AK-47.
The wave of recruits has included doctors, university professors, white-collar professionals and diaspora Tigrayans from the United States and Europe, colleagues and friends said. Even in government-held Mekelle, recruitment grew increasingly brazen.
Two weeks ago, a T.D.F. poster appeared on a wall beside St. Gabriel’s, the city’s largest church. “Those who fail to join are as good as the walking dead,” it read. Hours later, Ethiopian soldiers arrived and tore it down.
Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe, 61, a senior fellow at the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, in Massachusetts, was visiting Mekelle when war erupted in November. I found him near the town of Samre, a leather-holstered pistol on his hip.
“I joined the resistance,” said the academic, who once helped broker a peace deal for the United Nations in Darfur. “I felt I had no other option.”
Even some Ethiopian commanders felt alienated by Mr. Abiy’s approach to the conflict.
Until late June, Col. Hussein Mohamed, a tall man with a gold-tooth smile, commanded the 11th Infantry Division in Tigray. Now he was a prisoner, held with other Ethiopian officers in a closely guarded farmhouse.
Of the 3,700 troops under his command, at least half were probably dead, said Colonel Hussein, confirming that he was speaking voluntarily. “The course of this war is political madness, to my mind,” he said.
He always had serious reservations about Mr. Abiy’s military alliance with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s old foe, he said: “They ransack properties, they rape women, they commit atrocities. The whole army is unhappy about this marriage.”
Still, Ethiopian soldiers have been accused of much the same crimes. I met Colonel Hussein in a stone-walled room, with a tin roof, as rain splattered outside. When the room’s owner, Tsehaye Berhe, arrived with a tray of coffee cups, her face clouded over.
“Take it!” she snapped at the Ethiopian officer. “I’m not serving you.”
Moments later Ms. Tsehaye returned to apologize. “I’m sorry for being emotional,” she said. “But your soldiers burned my house and stole my crops.”
Colonel Hussein nodded quietly.
Even before Ethiopian forces abandoned Mekelle on June 28, there were hints that something was afoot. The internet went down, and at the regional headquarters where Mr. Abiy had installed an interim government, I found deserted corridors and locked offices. Outside, federal police officers were slinging backpacks into a bus.
Smoke rose from the Ethiopian National Defense Forces’ headquarters in Mekelle — a pyre of burning documents, it turned out, piled high by detainees accused of supporting the T.D.F.
Weeks earlier, Ethiopian intelligence officers had tortured one of them, Yohannes Haftom, with a cattle prod. “We will burn you,” Mr. Yohannes recalled them saying. “We will bury you alive.”
But after he followed their orders to cart their confidential documents to the burn pit on June 28, the Ethiopians set Mr. Yohannes free. Hours later, the first T.D.F. fighters entered Mekelle, setting off days of raucous celebration.
Residents filled streets where young fighters paraded on vehicles like beauty queens, or leaned from speeding tuktuks spraying gunfire into the air. Nightclubs and cafes filled up, and an older woman prostrated herself at the feet of a just-arrived fighter, shouting thanks to God.
On the fourth day, fighters paraded thousands of Ethiopian prisoners through the city center, in a show of triumphalism that was a pointed rebuke to the leader of Ethiopia. “Abiy is a thief!” people chanted as dejected soldiers marched past.
The celebrations eventually reached the house where Mr. Getachew, the Tigrayan leader and T.D.F. spokesman, now descended from his mountain base, was staying.
As the whiskey flowed, Mr. Getachew juggled calls on his satellite phone while a generator rattled in the background. Mr. Abiy had once been his political ally, even his friend, he said. Now the Ethiopian leader had cut the power and phone lines to Mekelle and issued a warrant for his arrest.
Buoyed by victory, the guests excitedly discussed the next phase of their war in Tigray. One produced a cake with the Tigrayan flag that Mr. Getachew, sharing a knife with a senior commander, cut to loud cheers.
For much of his career, he had been a staunch defender of the Ethiopian state. But the war made that position untenable, he said. Now he was planning a referendum on Tigrayan independence.
“Nothing can save the Ethiopian state as we know it, except a miracle,” he said. “And I don’t usually believe in them.”
It’s late March in a coastal town in Mozambique, and a group of militants is on the attack. Thousands of civilians flee as their town is left burning behind them. This isn’t the first time scenes like this have played out here, but it’s the first time we’ve seen them captured in such detail. A crisis has been unfolding as local insurgents who’ve pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, execute the largest land grab by an ISIS-linked group in years. And this has created one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. And now, over the course of about a week, the insurgents are attacking Palma, a strategic port town with massive global investment. In one scene, hundreds shelter in a hotel while a battle rages outside. The question they’re asking … … is the Mozambique government going to save them? It isn’t. The government exaggerated its response in the days after the attack. But we found that government forces weren’t able to defend Palma, leaving its citizens to mostly fend for themselves against the insurgents. Evacuations that did happen had to be hastily organized by private companies. For years, the government has heavily censored media coverage of the conflict, obscuring much of what’s happening. But we can still discover clues about the situation by examining what is aired by local media … … like state-run broadcaster, TVM, and by Sky News, which went to Palma after the attack. Combining this footage with visual evidence from survivors, satellite analysis and ship-tracking data allows us to build a fuller picture of an attack which many felt was not a question of if it would happen, but when. The insurgency is known locally as Al-Shabaab, and it first emerged in the province of Cabo Delgado in 2017. Al-Shabaab’s recruitment is mostly local, and draws on grievances over extreme poverty and corruption. The group has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State … … but how close these ties really are is hotly debated. The government, however, tries to maintain the illusion of safety and calm for international investors. But insurgent activity and control have escalated over time, overwhelming Mozambique’s severely under-resourced government forces. Now in March 2021, those forces are tested again. The insurgents’ target, the town of Palma, lies here. Just South of Palma is the site of Africa’s largest foreign direct investment, a liquefied natural gas project where the primary investor is French oil and gas company Total. The project is hailed as a massive new revenue source that could transform the country, but it’s also controversial, in part, because its construction displaced many local villages. In the months before the attack, insurgents were getting closer to Palma, prompting Total to strike a deal with the Mozambican government for better security at the multibillion dollar gas site. We analyzed satellite imagery which shows at least nine recently constructed military outposts at key positions around the site. It’s clear that the natural gas project, and not the town, is the most secure place when insurgents move in. Now we come to March 24, the day Al-Shabaab advances on Palma. They quickly take control of parts of the coast and all key roads leading into the town — to the southwest, cutting off a key crossroads for military reinforcements. West on this road, and to the north on this road alongside the town’s airstrip. Video obtained and verified by The Times shows a plane trying to land there coming under fire. In it we get a rare glimpse of the insurgents. Multiple eyewitnesses told us that the government forces inside Palma retreated quickly after some pockets tried and failed to fight off the insurgents. We were also told that around 750 soldiers stationed at the gas site stay inside the facility instead of rushing to the city as backup. There’s little footage of the insurgents from during the attack. But Islamic State media did release this footage claiming to show the fighters preparing, along with claims that they targeted a good deal of the town’s infrastructure. The Times confirmed damage to two banks, government offices, the town’s business park, and military and police buildings. The roads are cut off, and the only ways help can now arrive are by sea and air. Three government helicopters are moved from at least 85 miles away to the airstrip of the natural gas site. But multiple eyewitnesses told us that the helicopters only attempt to fly into Palma once and quickly retreat under fire. Other helicopters do come to the rescue, but they’re not government helicopters. They belong to the Dyck Advisory Group, or DAG, a South African military contractor hired by Mozambique to help fight the insurgency. Their presence is controversial. Recently, Amnesty International accused them of war crimes, claims which they deny. DAG is one of the only actors capable of conducting rescues. Its executives told The Times that they intervened on their own without any clear instruction from the government. DAG heads here to the Amarula Hotel. Its guests are mostly foreign. Now they’re joined by over 100 others from around Palma trying to flee. “We’re going to Amarula, bro.” But who should be rescued first and why? With no government oversight, there’s no plan. It falls to people like the hotel’s manager to come up with one. He’s speaking publicly here for the first time. DAG ultimately makes four rescue flights, but their helicopters can’t hold much. And just a little over 20 people make it out. Those left wonder if the military will send in the larger helicopters we showed you before, one of which can carry upwards of 30 people. With no help coming, they developed their own evacuation plan using vehicles from the hotel’s parking lot to drive outside the town. Some take this route to a quarry, where they believe they’ll be rescued. As people are loading into the cars, the hotel’s owner arranges a last-ditch helicopter rescue. It carries members of her staff and her two dogs. She denies the dogs took up space that could have been used by people. The flight is made by a private company that the hotel often chartered for tourist excursions. As for the DAG helicopters, because they have weapons, they provide air cover for this final helicopter rescue. As the ground convoy prepares to make the risky escape over land, there’s still confusion over whether they will receive air support too. But the aerial resources are stretched too thin, and the cars won’t all make it. Photographs showed that several of the vehicles were ambushed and forced off the road. Only a few safely reached this quarry and spend the night hiding. DAG rescues them the next day and dozens more civilians from elsewhere. The government help never comes. With limited air evacuations, thousands of people throughout the area are forced to flee on their own. The man who shot this video told us what happened. Tens of thousands go on foot or by bus across the province toward other cities and towns. Many more people line up at the natural gas site run by Total, where at least some government security is present. Sources tell us that civilians were often denied entrance. As the crowd at the site grows, Total decides to organize a rescue, mostly for its own staff. It charters this ferry, seen here docked at the natural gas site. The Total employees appear to be protected by this ship, known as an Ocean Eagle 43, a patrol and surveillance vessel run by the Mozambican government. It’s one of the few signs of government intervention during the attack on Palma. Ship-tracking data shows they flee south alongside this convoy of mostly private boats. The ferry arrives in the provincial capital of Pemba with over 1,300 passengers, most of them employees. And it makes a second rescue out of Palma a few days later, this time with more locals on board. After the weeklong attack, repercussions were immediately felt — because of the violence, Total has suspended its natural gas operations indefinitely, raising serious concerns about Mozambique’s economic future and the people it left behind. Dozens of Total’s contractors and subcontractors still remain in Palma. Some told The Times that the company hasn’t checked on their safety. Total didn’t respond to our request for comment. Based on our tally of evacuations, only a small number of Palma’s population were rescued during the attack. Roughly 95 percent of the population was left behind. Mozambique’s defense ministry didn’t respond to our questions about their operations in Palma. But after the attack, the country’s president downplayed the severity of violence in the city. His forces have since re-entered the town, assuring people that it’s safe to return. It’s not. A month after the attack, this thermal image reveals large fires burning in Palma, and satellite imagery confirms at least 50 buildings, some of which are seen here, have burn damage. There are near-daily reports of gunfire here. Civilians hoping to escape this threat are forced to rely on a volunteer group working with private companies to organize flights and barges. The cycle of violence plaguing Mozambique for three years continues. Even now, residents must flee on their own, unable to trust in their government to save them.
People in Africa who become critically ill from Covid-19 are more likely to die than patients in other parts of the world, according to a report published on Thursday in the medical journal The Lancet.
The report, based on data from 64 hospitals in 10 countries, is the first broad look at what happens to critically ill Covid patients in Africa, the authors say.
The increased risk of death applies only to those who become severely ill, not to everyone who catches the disease. Over all, the rates of illness and death from Covid in Africa appear lower than in the rest of the world. But if the virus begins to spread more rapidly in Africa, as it has in other regions, these findings suggest that the death toll could worsen.
Among 3,077 critically ill patients admitted to the African hospitals, 48.2 percent died within 30 days, compared with a global average of 31.5 percent, the Lancet study found.
The study was observational, meaning that the researchers followed the patients’ progress, but did not experiment with treatments. The work was done by a large team called The African Covid-19 Critical Care Outcomes Study Investigators.
For Africa as a whole, the death rate among severely ill Covid patients may be even higher than it was in the study, the researchers said, because much of their information came from relatively well-equipped hospitals, and 36 percent of those facilities were in South Africa and Egypt, which have better resources than many other African countries. In addition, the patients in the study, with an average age of 56, were younger than many other critically ill Covid patients, indicating that death rates outside the study could be higher.
The other eight countries in the study were Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Libya, Malawi, Mozambique, Niger and Nigeria. Leaders of 16 other African nations had also agreed to participate, but ultimately did not.
Reasons for the higher death rates include a lack of resources such as surge capacity in intensive care units, equipment to measure patients’ oxygen levels, dialysis machines and so-called ECMO devices to pump oxygen into the bloodstream of patients whose lungs become so impaired that even a ventilator is not enough to keep them alive.
But there was also an apparent failure to use resources that were available, the authors of the study suggested. Proning — turning patients onto their stomachs to help them breathe — was underused, performed for only about a sixth of the patients who needed it.
Almost 16 percent of the hospitals had ECMO, but it was offered to less than 1 percent of patients. Similarly, although 68 percent of the sites had access to dialysis to treat kidney failure, which is common in severe Covid cases, only 10 percent of the critically ill patients received it. Half the patients who died were never given oxygen, but the authors of the study said they had little data to explain why.
A Lancet editorial by experts not involved in the study said, “It is common in Africa to have expensive equipment that is non-functional due to poor maintenance or lack of skilled human resources.” Some 40 percent of the medical equipment in Africa was out of service, according to a 2017 report by the Tropical Health and Education Trust, the editorial said.
Another factor is that few doctors in Africa have the training in pulmonary and critical care that is considered essential in treating Covid patients.
As in other studies, chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and diseases affecting the heart, kidney or liver increased the risk of death from Covid. This study was the first to include a large proportion of patients with H.I.V., which nearly doubled the risk of death. The report states, “Our data suggests that H.I.V./AIDS is an important risk factor for Covid-19 mortality.” But the authors also said they did not have data on how the severity of the H.I.V. infection might affect the risk.
An unexpected finding of the study was that, unlike Covid patients in the rest of the world, men in Africa were no more likely than women to die. That result suggests that African women are at higher risk than women in other regions.
The authors suggested that women in Africa might face “barriers to accessing care and limitations or biases in care when critically ill.”
The editorial asked whether new variants could be causing the high death rate found in the study, but also said, “This is a question which, in a continent with severe shortage of sequencing, could take a long time to answer.”
When you stand in the Chimanimani Mountains, it’s difficult to reconcile their present serenity with their beleaguered past. From the valleys below, enormous walls of gray stone rise above dense deciduous forests. Hidden among various crevices are ancient rock paintings, made in the late Stone Age by the San people, also known as Bushmen; they depict dancing men and women, and hunting parties chasing after elephants. There’s even a painting of a crocodile so enormous that it may forever deter you from the riverbank.
As you climb higher, toward Mount Binga, Mozambique’s highest peak, the forests flatten into expanses of montane grasslands. Wild, isolated, lost in time, it’s a place where rich local traditions live on, where people still talk about ancestral spirits and sacred rituals. A local guide there once told me about a sacred mountain, Nhamabombe, where rainmakers still go to make rain.
Gorongosa, Mozambique’s most famous national park, Chimanimani National Park marks the latest triumph in an environmental renaissance for a country where, just 30 years ago, armies were still funding wars with the blood of poached wildlife.
BIOFUND, a nonprofit dedicated to conservation, and Fauna & Flora International, an international wildlife conservation organization. The expeditions involved scientists from seven countries, including several from Mozambique.
As a doctoral student completing my field research in Gorongosa, I participated as the mammal expert on the annual biodiversity surveys. After finishing my Ph.D. in 2018, I shifted to a career in photojournalism. I went on my last two biodiversity surveys in 2018 and 2019 — first in Chimanimani’s buffer zone, then in the heart of Chimanimani — as the photographer.
These surveys are like biological treasure hunts. Scientists, each with a different specialty, are let loose in the landscape to unearth as many species as they can.
The mammalogists set camera traps for large mammals like antelope, live traps for small mammals like rodents, and mist nets for bats. The ornithologists arm themselves primarily with binoculars, their ears and an astonishing memory for bird songs. By day, the entomologists sweep their butterfly nets in the grassland and, by night, often stand at a light surrounded by clouds of insects, picking them out of their hair and waiting for something interesting to land.
The herpetologists, or reptile and amphibian specialists, shoot rubber bands to temporarily stun lizards, dive into knee-high water after agile frogs, and generally avoid being bitten by venomous snakes while far away from medical care.
By contrast, the botanists have a tranquil task: there’s something relaxing and almost elegant about strolling across the mountainside, inspecting beautiful flowers and pressing some in paper for posterity.
Biodiversity surveys are not for the faint of heart, and they cast more than a little doubt on the idea that scientists are all boring nerds in lab coats.
Through the years, I myself have been bitten by a tarantula, several bats, a mouse, countless insects and even a (nonvenomous) snake. Once, back in New Jersey after a survey, a doctor flushed my ears when I complained of muffled hearing. Out poured dozens of tiny, wax-entombed insects in various shapes and sizes. (The experts often wear plugs in their ears while standing at the insect light for this exact reason.)
There’s something about this change of pace that I’ve always found immensely appealing. In the cool Chimanimani mornings, the scientists who didn’t have to be up before dawn chasing their species would lounge, sipping instant coffee from plastic mugs and watching the clouds cast shadows onto the giant rock dome.
Featuring a diverse set of rare and endemic avian species, Chimanimani is a bird-watcher’s paradise. At Rio Nyahedzi, a camp some 4,000 feet above sea level, the survey’s ornithologists found the bokmakierie, a bird that was last seen in Mozambique in the 1970s. (Nyahedzi is close to Mount Binga, which lies directly on the border between Mozambique and Zimbabwe.)
As the park gets more attention, it will also attract hikers and rock climbers. Some of the park’s most beautiful waterfalls are 15 miles from the nearest road, and you can hike for days without seeing another human being. The park vibrates with solitude, adventure and discovery.
At the end of the two surveys, scientists in Chimanimani had found more than 1,400 species: 475 plants, 43 mammals, 260 birds, 67 amphibians and reptiles, and at least 582 species of insects. Some are new to science.
“It was amazingly productive as a rapid survey,” said Rob Harris, of Fauna & Flora International’s Mozambique program, emphasizing that the discoveries took place in a relatively short period of time.
The incredible diversity uncovered by the surveys is only a part of what’s known. As a whole, the Chimanimani Mountains are known to contain almost 1,000 plant species alone. Seventy-six plant and animal species are endemic to the Chimanimani Mountains, meaning they exist nowhere else on Earth.
Like all wild places, Chimanimani’s future is anything but certain. Endemic species are particularly threatened by climate change; because of their restricted range, they don’t have anywhere else to go as conditions become unsuitable. And human population growth will continue to jeopardize the fringes of the park. “The deforestation outside the park and in the buffer zone was alarming,” said Zak Pohlen, an ornithologist.
But as I reflect on these surveys and my time in Mozambique, I can’t help but feel full of hope. I am inspired every day by the passion of young Mozambican conservationists to safeguard their country’s disappearing wilderness. And most of all, I’m inspired by their optimism.
One of the goals of these surveys is to train young Mozambicans to take over leadership roles in conservation. Ana Gledis da Conceição, a Mozambican mammalogist, for example, spent several years assisting me in surveying mammals; by 2019, she was co-leading the mammal team with Mnqobi Mamba, a master’s student at the University of Eswatini.
Ms. da Conceição says she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be — a young scientist who fights for the conservation of biodiversity. “I want to invite young people like me to embrace this cause for the good of all of us,” she said.
“In spite of everything,” she added, “Mozambique has much to contribute to the future of conservation.”
In some places like northeast Nigeria, the Islamic State effectively controls its local affiliate, the Islamic State in West Africa, and has provided it with trainers, expertise and financing, according to research by the International Crisis Group. But researchers say the Islamic State maintains much looser ties to other militant groups like the insurgency in Mozambique, which remains a largely homegrown movement born of local grievances.
For decades there, impoverished locals had watched as elites in the capital plundered the resource-rich region of Cabo Delgado, along the Indian Ocean, which has served as a hub for illegal timber as well as drug and ivory smuggling.
Then in 2009, one of the world’s largest known ruby deposits was discovered in the province, and two years later, oil companies uncovered a natural gas deposit worth tens of billions of dollars. In a sudden — and often violent — stroke, speculators flocked to the area, locals were forced off their land and some small-scale miners were beaten and killed.
By the time the nascent insurgency launched its first attacks in 2017, targeting police stations and local government leaders, it had widespread appeal among petty traders at the ports and disenchanted youths, local researchers say.
The violent crackdown from the Mozambican military, which was implicated in serious abuses against civilians, may have also helped the insurgency — known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a — gain more traction with locals.
But over the past year, the nature of the war has changed. The militant group has destroyed entire towns, displacing 670,000 people, killing at least 2,000 civilians and kidnapping scores of others, according to human rights and humanitarian organizations, and the U.S. State Department.
How does a country deal with climate disasters when it’s drowning in debt? Not very well, it turns out. Especially not when a global pandemic clobbers its economy.
Take Belize, Fiji and Mozambique. Vastly different countries, they are among dozens of nations at the crossroads of two mounting global crises that are drawing the attention of international financial institutions: climate change and debt.
They owe staggering amounts of money to various foreign lenders. They face staggering climate risks, too. And now, with the coronavirus pandemic pummeling their economies, there is a growing recognition that their debt obligations stand in the way of meeting the immediate needs of their people — not to mention the investments required to protect them from climate disasters.
The combination of debt, climate change and environmental degradation “represents a systemic risk to the global economy that may trigger a cycle that depresses revenues, increases spending and exacerbates climate and nature vulnerabilities,” according to a new assessment by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and others, which was seen by The Times. It comes after months of pressure from academics and advocates for lenders to address this problem.
downgraded its creditworthiness, making it tougher to get loans on the private market. The International Monetary Fund calls its debt levels “unsustainable.”
nearly $600 billion in debt service payments over the next five years. Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are important lenders, but so are rich countries, as well as private banks and bondholders. The global financial system would face a huge problem if countries faced with shrinking economies defaulted on their debts.s
“We cannot walk head on, eyes wide open, into a debt crisis that is foreseeable and preventable,” the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, said last week as he called for debt relief for a broad range of countries. “Many developing countries face financing constraints that mean they cannot invest in recovery and resilience.”
The Biden administration, in an executive order on climate change, said it would use its voice in international financial institutions, like the World Bank, to align debt relief with the goals of the Paris climate agreement, though it hasn’t yet detailed what that means.
flurry of proposals from economists, advocates and others to address the problem. The details vary. But they all call, in one way or another, for rich countries and private creditors to offer debt relief, so countries can use those funds to transition away from fossil fuels, adapt to the effects of climate change, or obtain financial reward for the natural assets they already protect, like forests and wetlands. One widely circulated proposal calls on the Group of 20 (the world’s 20 biggest economies) to require lenders to offer relief “in exchange for a commitment to use some of the newfound fiscal space for a green and inclusive recovery.”
debts soared, including to China, and the country, whose very existence is threatened by sea level rise, pared back planned climate projects, according to research by the World Resources Institute.
The authors proposed what they called a climate-health-debt swap, where bilateral creditors, namely China, would forgive some of the debt in exchange for climate and health care investments. (China has said nothing publicly about the idea of debt swaps.)
sinking under huge debts, including secret loans that the government had not disclosed, when, in 2019, came back-to-back cyclones. They killed 1,000 people and left physical damages costing more than $870 million. Mozambique took on more loans to cope. Then came the pandemic. The I.M.F. says the country is in debt distress.
Six countries on the continent are in debt distress, and many more have seen their credit ratings downgraded by private ratings agencies. In March, finance ministers from across Africa said that many of their countries had spent a sizable chunk of their budgets already to deal with extreme weather events like droughts and floods, and some countries were spending a tenth of their budgets on climate adaptation efforts. “Our fiscal buffers are now truly depleted,” they wrote.
In developing countries, the share of government revenues that go into paying foreign debts nearly tripled to 17.4 percent between 2011 and 2020, an analysis by Eurodad, a debt relief advocacy group found.
Research suggests that climate risks have already made it more expensive for developing countries to borrow money. The problem is projected to get worse. A recent paper found climate change will raise the cost of borrowing for many more countries as early as 2030 unless efforts are made to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
JOHANNESBURG — The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a days-long ambush of a port town in northern Mozambique last week that forced tens of thousands of people to flee the area and left dozens dead, including some foreigners.
The attack on the town, Palma, was an alarming escalation of the war in the gas-rich province of Cabo Delgado, where insurgents with loose ties to the Islamic State have killed at least 2,000 people in a campaign of violence over the past three years.
In recent months, the local insurgency has grown in strength and seized large swaths of territory, including the region’s other main port town. Last week’s attack demonstrated a new level of boldness from the insurgents and was the closest the group has come to a multibillion-dollar gas project that is operated by international energy companies.
Few analysts believe that the Islamic State in the Middle East maintains a close relationship with the insurgency, which was born out of frustration over local grievances and shares few of the Islamic State’s ideological aims. But claiming responsibility for the deadly attack underscores the organization’s ability to leverage loose ties with militant groups around the world to create the impression of a truly global struggle.
attempted to escape by road on Friday. Militants ambushed a 17-vehicle convoy shortly after it left the hotel, the Amarula Palma, and only seven of the vehicles made it to the beach, where a fleet of boats was rescuing hundreds of people trapped in the town.
At least one South African, Adrian Nel, 40, was killed in the escape attempt from the Amarula Palma Hotel. Several other South Africans are still missing and presumed dead, according to private security contractors, and at least one British citizen was missing as of Sunday night.
This month, the United States formally designated the insurgency, known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a, as a global terrorist entity and U.S. Special Forces soldiers began training Mozambican troops. The insurgents became identified with the Islamic State Central Africa Province in 2019.
Still, many analysts say the insurgency remains a homegrown crisis, born out of an array of grievances that have long plagued the impoverished region.
“This is a domestic insurgency based on domestic grievances,” said Joseph Hanlon, a visiting senior fellow at the department of international development at the London School of Economics, who is an expert on Mozambique. “There are loose ties but the insurgents have not seceded control to IS.”
He added: “This is not an Islamic jihad.”
Since militants overran the town on Saturday, the Mozambique military and contractors with a South African private military brought in by the government have tried to flush the insurgents from the town. But militants still control much of Palma, including the town’s banks, government offices, factories and army barracks, according to a statement that the Islamic State released on Monday.
In recent days, tens of thousands of people have fled Palma for nearby areas, worsening a humanitarian crisis that has escalated drastically over the past year.
At the start of 2020, the conflict had displaced 18,000 people in Mozambique, according to the World Food Program. By the beginning of this year, that number had grown to over 600,000.
“The crisis had been escalating for some time,” said Lola Castro, regional director for Southern Africa for the program. “But at this moment we are looking at a humanitarian disaster.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — As gunshots rang out across a port town in northeastern Mozambique on Friday afternoon, nearly 200 people sheltering inside the Amarula Palma hotel confronted a devastating reality: The armed insurgents outside the hotel’s doors had all but taken control of the town and there was no one coming to save them any time soon.
For two days, hundreds of insurgents in the gas-rich region had been laying siege to the coastal town of Palma, firing indiscriminately at civilians, hunting down government officials and setting buildings ablaze as security forces tried in vain to repel them.
The violence sent thousands of people fleeing, with some rushing to the beach, where a ragtag fleet of cargo ships, tugboats and fishing vessels was ferrying people to safety.
But at the hotel, with daylight hours dwindling, the local residents and foreign gas workers who remained faced an impossible choice: Either wait inside, defenseless, for a promised evacuation in the morning, or try to make it to the beach.
campaign of violence the militants have unleashed. Insurgents have beheaded civilians in summary executions and left homes, schools and health centers destroyed.
Many analysts say that the insurgency is a home grown-crisis and that the group only maintains loose ties to the Islamic State. Still, the jihadist rallying cry has provided a banner under which mostly impoverished people angry about an array of local grievances can coalesce. It has also inspired the use of the international terrorist network’s brutal tactics.
Few journalists and human rights investigators have been able to report firsthand on the conflict from Mozambique, where government forces and private security contractors have also been implicated in abuses against civilians. And as the attack on Palma unfolded last week, phone lines and other communications in the town were cut by insurgents.
Joseph Hanlon, a visiting senior fellow at the department of International Development at the London School of Economics who is an expert on Mozambique.
The Mozambique government guaranteed Total that it would secure the development, and Total said it would not hire private security companies like the Dyck Advisory Group, which was recently implicated in a report by Amnesty International of killing civilians.
“This attack is arguably the most significant yet, given that foreigners also came under the cross hairs of insurgents and because Palma is the gateway to the gas megaprojects,” said Dino Mahtani, deputy director of the Africa program at the International Crisis Group, who recently visited Mozambique. “It will lead to more pressure on Mozambique for hard military responses, perhaps at the expense of other policies that should still be on the table.”
Earlier this month, the United States formally designated the insurgency, known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a, as a global terrorist entity after the group became identified with the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province in 2019.
engulfed in sporadic fighting between the militants and national security forces as helicopters operated by the South African private contractors flew overhead.
By Friday morning the usually serene Amarula Palma Hotel, a sprawling compound with an outdoor bar and thatched-roof awnings that caters to foreign workers from countries like South Africa and the United Kingdom, had transformed into a chaotic epicenter of the crisis. By midday insurgents had surrounded the hotel and attacked, breaching its perimeter.
Helicopters operated by the private South African security company managed to evacuate 22 people. But with both fuel supplies and the light dwindling, contractors told the roughly 180 people who remained that they would not be able to fly them out until the following morning.
Dozens of people decided to chance an escape by road in the convoy that was ambushed.
On Saturday morning, the South African-operated helicopters evacuated around 20 more people who had remained in the hotel. Several others who had escaped the town and hid in the surrounding bush were also rescued by helicopters. Some had flagged the helicopters by writing out S.O.S. messages in stones, according to Mr. Dyck.
At the same time, a convoy of at least 10 vessels sailed into the bay of Palma in an informal effort to evacuate people, according to the ship-tracking website MarineTraffic.com.
Twelve hours later, they sailed south together. Several of the ships docked at Pemba, where humanitarian workers say thousands of people who were displaced by the ambush were receiving aid on Sunday.
A passenger ferry that usually operates along the coast of neighboring Tanzania also docked in Palma on Saturday and arrived in Pemba the following day, according to ship-tracking data, satellite imagery and photographs shared on social media. Local sailors on traditional wooden sailing boats, known as dhows, also carried some displaced people to Pemba, according to humanitarian workers.
While some of the fleet’s efforts were successful, other boats that attempted to come ashore to rescue people were forced to pull back when militants opened fire with small arms and mortars, according to American officials. At least one American citizen was at the gas project site near Palma during the attack, but was safely evacuated to Pemba, according to a U.S. official.
On Sunday morning, Mozambique Special Forces units launched an operation to reclaim the town. But by Sunday night, militants still held much of Palma, including the harbor, the officials said.
One British citizen who was part of the convoy who worked at RA International, a contracting company headquartered in Dubai, was missing as of Sunday night, according to an executive at the company.
At least one South African, Adrian Nel, 40, was killed in the ambush on the convoy.
Mr. Nel had been in Palma working at his family’s construction consulting company alongside his brother Wesley Nel, 37, and their stepfather, Gregory Knox, 55, who were also caught in the ambush. The two men managed to escape to the nearby forest and hid until private security contractors evacuated them by helicopter the following morning.
“They spent the night in the bush, with Adrian’s body,” Mr. Nel’s mother, Meryl Knox, 59, said in an interview. Ms. Knox spoke with her husband on Wednesday as the attack unfolded andthe private security contractors who rescued the men by helicopter on Saturday.
“The insurgents had surrounded the hotel and there was no help from the Mozambican army,” Ms. Knox said. “These guys were just left on their own.”
Christina Goldbaum reported from Johannesburg, South Africa. Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, D.C. Declan Walsh reported from Nairobi, Kenya.
Lynsey Chutel contributed reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa. John Ismay contributed reporting from Washington, D.C. Charles Mangwiro contributed reporting from Maputo, Mozambique. Haley Willis, Christiaan Triebert and Malachy Browne contributed reporting from New York.