An online panel discussion following the screening of the documentary "Unseen Enemy" attracted 160 people from around the world. Ciné ONU normally hosts film screenings and panel discussions with filmmakers and experts on topics related to the United Nations. Moving the event online allowed people from Mexico, Canada, China, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, India and the United States to join for the first time in 13 years. The online event was a collaboration between the United Nations Information Services in Geneva and Vienna, and the United Nations Regional Information Centre in Brussels, which all host screenings at their respective offices.

Ciné ONU followers first viewed the powerful 2017 documentary “Unseen Enemy” from the comfort of their home and then connected a few days later to hear from the film director, Janet Tobias, Dr. Sylvie Briand, from the World Health Organization, and Todd Howland, from the Office of the High Commissioner
for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Trailer for the "Unseen Enemy" documentary which was screened by Ciné ONU.

Taking a hard look at epidemics in the 21st century and what we can do about them, the film was a timely choice, covering many issues the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified worldwide – transmission, fear, disinformation, the plight of healthcare workers, government’s responsibility in terms of human rights, and the like.

Despite releasing the film in 2017, Tobias says she was surprised to see several of the film’s predictions coming true. “Even though we were very careful about what we said could happen, it is still quite stunning and shocking to see it unfold,” she said.

Panel observation: Health is a human right

For Todd Howland, who looks after development, economic and social issues at the OHCHR, the pandemic has shed a light on access to health as a human right, and how governments might respond to a pandemic like Covid-19. He stressed the importance for governments to ensure that mitigating measures don’t infringe on people’s rights, especially in lockdown situations, for example.

When governments decide that a lockdown situation is the only option to fight the spread of the virus or impose quarantine measures, Howland says they must not forget the populations at risk of being left behind. Such measures will inevitably reduce people’s access to healthcare or diagnosis of illnesses, which may lead to a human rights issue. He said OHCHR teams on the ground were monitoring the situation and speaking with United Nations partners, like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Resident Coordinators, to make sure the message about not leaving people behind got through to the governmental authorities.

“It will be very helpful if we can create a consciousness, globally, that the right to health is a right and that it is something that needs to be prioritized in the way governments respond. They need to make the necessary investments in public health and access to public health. This is really what governments need to take out of it,” he said.

Dr. Sylvie Briand, who leads the department on global infectious hazard preparedness at the WHO, agrees. The crisis left many unprepared, even countries whose health systems are robust. She stressed the importance of giving health the right priority in the national agenda. “Health should be an investment for prosperity. Countries that reduced their investments in health now see that not having a comprehensive health approach can affect your economy. The two are linked, not opposed,” she explained.

Panel observation: Getting the right information

The discussion also brought out another priority: making sure people are getting accurate and reliable information.

In times like these, it’s not only a battle against a virus, it’s also about fighting disinformation, said Dr. Briand, as “infodemics” are typical during epidemics or pandemics because of the fear and anxiety they fuel.

People need basic information that can help them make the right decisions and adopt the right behaviours to protect themselves, their families and communities, she said. Sometimes the most trusted sources of information are not always the ones you would normally rely on, but instead one relies on members of the local community.

“Trusted sources could be the community leader, the religious leader or people they [members of the community] trust, because they have shown they care for them and can help in a difficult situation. So, we [WHO] not only provide information, but we try to identify who are the best amplifiers for the information,” said Briand.

Many United Nations entities are already working hard to combat disinformation about COVID-19 among the populations they serve. To help, the United Nations will soon be launching a campaign to combat disinformation about COVID-19, as announced Secretary-General António Guterres during one of his briefings.