UNICEF works in 22 countries and territories in Europe and Central Asia Region (ECAR) and is present in Italy, supporting refugee and migrant populations.
Since the beginning of April 2021, 3.8 million confirmed cases and 100,733 deaths from COVID-19 were reported in the Europe and Central Asia (ECA) countries. Montenegro had the highest rate of confirmed cases, with 8,220 cases per 100,000 people, followed by Serbia, with 4,329 cases per 100,000 people. While the epidemiological situation is stabilizing, certain countries, such as Kyrgyzstan (+125%) and Uzbekistan (+12%), are facing a sharp increase in cases.
UNICEF Europe and Central Asia Regional Office (ECARO) continues to focus on enhancing emergency preparedness and response capacity, as well as strengthening risk-informed programmes that build resilience. Furthermore, ECARO’s response to COVID-19 continues to focus on preventing transmission of COVID-19 and mitigating the impact on vulnerable children and families. This entails strengthening systems and services in social protection, education, health, WASH, risk communication, nutrition, and provision of critical supplies.
During the reporting period, more than 166,000 children accessed formal or nonformal education services, including early learning support. Approximately 240,000 children and caregivers were granted mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS), while around 505,000 households benefitted from new or additional social transfers from governments, with technical assistance from UNICEF.
As of June 2021, UNICEF ECARO had received US$15.7 million of the US$ 72 million requested. With an additional US$ 8.6 million carried forward from the previous year, a funding gap of 66% remains. UNICEF ECARO acknowledges and appreciates the generous contributions from all public and private sector donors.
Regional situation overview and humanitarian needs
During the second quarter of 2021, 3.8 million confirmed cases and 100,733 deaths from COVID-19 were reported in the ECA region. Montenegro had the highest rate of confirmed cases, with 8,220 cases per 100,000 people, followed by Serbia, with 4,329 cases per 100,000 people. By the end of June, the epidemiological situation was stabilizing, and the number of new COVID-19 cases was generally facing a downward trend. Nonetheless, several countries, such as Kyrgyzstan (+125%) and Uzbekistan (+12%), reported a sharp increase in cases. Furthermore, the Delta variant of COVID-19 has now become the predominant strain in the region. This development, in combination with low vaccination rates across countries and higher mobility in summer, creates further concerns for the upcoming months. The implementation of contact tracing and public compliance with preventive measures, such as physical distancing, remained matters of concern.
Following a general decrease in the number of cases across the region, COVID-19 related restrictions were lifted, and most social services resumed across several ECA countries. Nonetheless, the resurgence of new infections in Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan prompted governments to renew closures and restrictions until July.
As COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out, UNICEF, WHO, and other partners are supporting governments to combat vaccine hesitancy, which remains significant in the region, as shown by low immunization rates across certain areas, and requires effective and inclusive risk communication and community engagement (RCCE) efforts. In response to this trend, UNICEF launched campaigns and/or supported governments and partners in risk communication to curb the spread of COVID-19 and counter misinformation, with a particular emphasis on promoting COVID-19 vaccine uptake and addressing vaccine hesitancy through tailored messages.
By the end of reporting period, all countries in the region started vaccination campaigns, although not all vaccines were delivered through the COVAX facility. The following countries have so far received doses from COVAX: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo*, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. By the end of June, 19,7% of population in the region had received the first COVID-19 vaccine dose and 11,2% were fully vaccinated. In addition to COVAX allocations of COVID-19 vaccines, donations from countries are being received to boost up immunization in the region.
The COVID-19 pandemic has overstretched health system capacities in the region, making it difficult to provide basic health services. In Uzbekistan, for example, hospitals specialised in infectious diseases in Tashkent have exceeded their capacity and suspended admissions. In Albania, referral of cases of mental health issues remained a challenge due to the lack of local public services and specialized institutions.
Since March 2021, following the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, school openings have allowed face-to-face learning in most ECA countries. This development intensified the need for WASH supplies and services to strengthen hygiene promotion and disease prevention in schools and ensure a safe reopening.
Despite recent developments, the impact of school closures remains significant and long-lasting. Notably, in Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, North Macedonia, and Turkey, school closures lasted more than 41 weeks, a number significantly higher than the region’s average of 25 weeks. North Macedonia recorded the longest school closure, with students enrolled in online learning for a total of 54 weeks. As of mid-June, the closure or partial closure of schools in the region was still affecting more than 2.4 million children. The most affected are often children who live in poorer households and who do not have access to remote learning tools. Many children have further been impacted by considerable learning losses and experienced negative effects on their physical and mental development. In Romania, for example, an increased need for mental health and psycho-social support was reported, especially for children in public care and their caregivers.
Although routine immunization services have been fully restored in the region, in some countries the pandemic continued to impact vaccination services. A significant (≥ 5%) general drop in routine immunization coverage was reported by Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova.4 During the reporting period, UNICEF continued to support countries to catch up children with their routine immunization schedules by supporting the procurement of routine vaccines, strengthening the capacity of health professionals as well as by addressing vaccine hesitancy.
The economic impacts of COVID-19 continue to be felt in the region. As of June 2021, the World Bank, was forecasting a continuing recovery, with growth projected at 5.6%. However, this growth will likely continue to be uneven, with low- income and middle-income countries expected to show a much weaker performance.5 Together with economic inequalities, child nutrition constitutes a significant issue, both in itself and because it remains low on most national agendas as well as under-resourced.6 In line with geographic disparities, some of the most vulnerable countries struggle with acute malnutrition and stunting. UNICEF is working with governments and local partners to improve infant and young child feeding (IYCF) and nutrition services.
The region remained prone to natural hazards, such as earthquakes, floods, and landslides, and continues to face the negative consequences of climate change and environmental hazards, with increasing drought leading to water scarcity, increasing rainfall pattern, air pollution, etc. This requires the scale up of emergency preparedness and response capacities across all UNICEF country offices, with a special focus on Central Asian countries. Torrential rains during the second week of May in Tajikistan triggered floods, landslides, and mudflows in many districts of the country, causing at least seven deaths, and affecting around 18,000 people, as well as 2,500 households.
In April, the conflict at the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan resulted in internal displacements of people on both sides. In Kyrgyzstan, 61,087 people were affected, while in Tajikistan the total number affected during the acute phase of the crisis stood at around 6,500 people.
In Afghanistan, the situation remains volatile due to the ongoing, rapid withdrawal of international troops, with the potential influx of refugees and population movement into the neighboring Central Asian countries of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as into eastern Turkey through Iran. This development requires an immediate scale up of the humanitarian preparedness in the region to address urgent needs of the refugee children and their families in WASH, education, child protection, gender-based violence, health and nutrition, and social protection. UNICEF aims at providing a multisectoral response to ensure protection of and equitable/inclusive access to services for refugee children and women arriving from Afghanistan, in line with the Core Commitments for Children in Humanitarian Action (CCCs) and in coordination with UNHCR and other relevant partners.