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13 March 2020

Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

**COVID-19

Let’s get serious.  Just to update you on what we’re doing here, generally in the UN on COVID‑19, in terms of this building, there are still deliberations going on with the Secretary-General and senior staff, so I was hoping to get an update for you now, but discussions are still going on, but I’ll be able to take questions on that.

In other duty stations, UN staff are taking precautions and doing what they can to flatten the curve of the COVID‑19 infections.

At UN Headquarters in Kenya, managers are required to implement remote working to the full extent compatible with business continuity, in order to substantially reduce personnel exposures to transit and other crowded areas.  Full implementation of telecommuting up to three days a week will significantly reduce the staffing footprint of the Nairobi complex and, therefore, reduce risk to personnel.

Similarly, the United Nations in Ghana has decided, as a precautionary measure, that staff normally working in these premises should from now on work from home.  This measure is taken for a period of time.

After consultation with the heads of the UN agencies in Iran, the Resident Coordinator there has recommended on 1 March the full implementation of organizational business continuity plans, including work from home.  The decision followed steep increase in COVID-19 cases in Iran, including of one UN staff member.  The UN in Iran is still fully working from home, an arrangement that is reviewed weekly by managers.

In Geneva, guided tours have been suspended.  Cultural events organized by Member States and international organizations, together with the UN Office [in Geneva], have also been cancelled.

As of next Monday, and until further notice, the entrance to the Palais des Nations would be strictly reserved to UN and non-UN personnel whose workplace or office is located in the Palais de Nations complex; people coming into the Palais for essential official meetings; and journalists with permanent accreditation will be allowed in.

Just a note on here, to give you a sense on our efforts to reduce the footprint, according to our security colleagues the number of swipes at the different entrances to the compound on 4 March – the day before the first measures were put in place – was 11,033 and last Wednesday, 11 March, it had dropped already to 5,393.  The preliminary numbers we have for today showed an even steeper drop — so our effort to reduce the footprint is working and we will continue to work in that direction.

From Geneva, Dr. Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus] said that more than 132,000 cases of COVID-19 have now been reported to the World Health Organization (WHO), from 123 countries and territories.  He added that 5,000 people have now lost their lives, calling this a tragic milestone.

He added that Europe has now become the epicentre of the pandemic, with more reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined, apart from China.  More cases are now being reported every day than were reported in China at the height of [its] epidemic.

He reiterated his message to countries:  you must take a comprehensive approach.  Not testing alone, not contact tracing alone, not quarantine alone, not social distancing alone — do it all, he said.

He added that any country that looks at the experience of other countries with large epidemics and thinks “that won’t happen to us” is making a deadly mistake.  It can happen to anyone, he warned.

Also today, together with the UN Foundation and the Swiss Philanthropy Foundation, the World Health Organization launched the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund to allow individuals and organizations to contribute.

**Iraq

Turning to Iraq, the United Nations Assistance Mission (UNAMI) in that country calls for immediate de-escalation on all sides.

The Mission says that attacks and retaliatory attacks, including repeated strikes on the Global Coalition forces — present in Iraq at the invitation of its Government to fight Da’esh — do not serve the common interest of the country.

The UN Mission condemns the continued loss of life and calls upon all parties to act with maximum restraint in keeping with international law.  Partnership and dialogue are the only way to build up Iraq’s strength and to prevent a resurgence of Da’esh.  The country and its people cannot afford to be used as a theatre for different power competitions and proxy conflicts.  Iraqis desperately deserve stability and peace.

**Burkina Faso

Just a note on Burkina Faso:  The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said today that about 14,000 people have fled their homes in the past 17 days, bringing the total of internally displaced to 780,000.  Most of them are searching for safety in the country, but recent violence has also forced more than 2,000 people to flee to Mali.

The UN refugee agency said it is alarmed by the dramatic rise of forced displacement in the Sahel and reiterated its call for the protection of civilian populations and those fleeing violence.

They have scaled-up their response and are providing protection and emergency supplies to those forced to flee, as well as communities hosting them.

In Mali, UNHCR is also working to strengthen its presence.

**Briefing Guest

My guest today as I mentioned will be Jane Connors who will brief you on the Secretary-General’s latest report on “Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse,” which was released late yesterday, early today and as you know Ms. Connors is the Victims’ Rights Advocate.

**Financial Contributions

And I want to end on some good news.  We have reached the milestone of 70 of Member States who have paid their budget dues in full.  We thank our friends in Bucharest, Romania.

**Questions and Answers

Edie?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  We all saw your note last night about the Filipina diplomat who has been tested positive for the coronavirus.  Was the UN Medical Service given any indication of where she might have contracted the virus?

Spokesman:  No.  We have not, and I think it’s…  I mean, I don’t want to go into medical explanations, but I…  no, we have not been…  I’m not aware that we’ve been given that information.

Sherwin?

Question:  Steph, I know you don’t like to hypothesise or speculate, but in a worst‑case scenario, if the…  we move to phase 3 at the UN, the building shuts down, what does that actually mean for access to this building?  Could you just give us some specifics in the event that that happens?

Spokesman:  Look, I don’t want to start talking about phases.  What I do want to do is stress that the direction we’re going into is to reduce, as much as possible, the footprint of people going into this building, that anyone who can work from home will be told to work from home.

What is important and to remember is that the UN’s work will continue.  We will continue to support peacekeeping operations.  We will continue to support our humanitarian operations.  We’ll…  our colleagues will continue to work on the budget.  Things will be done from home.

If Member States decide — like the Security Council — decide to have…  that they need to hold meetings, we will support them in whatever way we can, obviously — and I think they understand — with reduced services.

But there will have to be critical meetings of the Security Council to renew mandates, critical meetings of the Budget Committee to approve budgets.  We will support those.  It may be not with the number of interpreters that we like to have, but the work of the UN will continue.

In terms of access — and I think we’ll meet with the leadership of UNCA (United Nations Correspondents Association) later this afternoon to work out the logistics for the media — we plan to continue to do the press briefings in person from here inasmuch as possible, unless circumstances change.

Maggie and then Michelle.

Question:  The New York mayor declared a state of emergency for the city yesterday, and he implemented a lot of measures, restrictions and such that are going to be in place for many months.  He’s talking about until September for some of them.  So, they’re looking at a long‑term situation.

Spokesman:  Right.

Question:  For your planning purposes, do you see teleworking on such a large scale as sustainable as, may…  perhaps until September?  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  I think…  you know, the UN is not…  we’re not an island off the East River.  We’re part of the New York City community.  We, myself, you, we’re all going to be impacted by this one way or another.  New ways of working are going to have to be found.  There may be a new normal for some foreseeable time, and we’re going to have to get used to it and adapt to it in the way we do our work.

But for us, our prime… you know, we have two concerns that run in parallel:  one, do whatever we can to keep the staff safe, the people who work in this building, the people, you know, whether they’re staff or journalists or NGOs (non-governmental organizations) or anybody else, to help the city in fighting the spread of the coronavirus.  And then the second priority in parallel is to make sure that the UN’s work continues.  We have 100,000 peacekeepers out in the field, tens of thousands of humanitarian workers that will need to be supported.  And I can assure you that, whether it’s Ms. [Rosemary] DiCarlo, Mr. [Jean-Pierre] Lacroix, Mr. [Mark] Lowcock and everybody…  all the other senior managers are fully focused on ensuring that the work will continue and that the support will continue.

Question:  And will the Secretary‑General be teleworking to set an example, perhaps?

Spokesman:  I think the Secretary‑General will adapt to the situation as it comes.

Question:  Just a follow‑on…

Spokesman:  If he teleworks, I have to as well, so…

Question:  Just a follow‑on from that, I…  how is this impacting the Secretary‑General and his schedule?  What precautions is he taking?

Spokesman:  It’s adapting.  I mean, I think in some of the meetings we have with him, there is…  we’re using larger space so…  to use some social distancing.  We’re trying to, as much as possible, follow the advice that we give others.

Question:  And what about…  given that we’ve seen a lot of meetings cancelled — G7 is going to be done remotely — what about the SG and his travel?  Does he have travel planned?   And…

Spokesman:  Nothing to share with you at this point.  Talal?

Question:  Thank you.  The fact that not everybody who has a virus or carrying the virus displays the disease symptoms — that’s the word I’m looking for — how can you ensure that the people here in this room or in this building are not carrying the virus?  Are there any plans of testing, maybe?

Spokesman:  We live and we work in New York City.  We are very much in close contact with the New York City Public Health Department, the Commissioner for International Affairs as well.  We’re following the guidelines and being guided by the city.

There is…  we do not have tests in this building.  Right?  We do not have a lab in which to test.  We are also following the WHO guidelines about when to get tested.

So, your an…  you know, I’m…  neither…  I mean, at least I’ll speak for myself.  I’m not a doctor, so I can’t answer your question.  As I say, we’re taking the measures, following the best possible advice.

Madame Kent?

Question:  Did you say that the resident correspondents in Geneva will still be going in on Monday?

Spokesman:  Yes.  That’s what I think I said.

Question:  Does that…  are you thinking that that…  the UN here are going to follow…  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Yes.  Listen, if I’m doing the briefings here, I’d rather not do it to an empty room.  I mean, I’ve done it to an empty room.  It’s not much fun.  [laughter]

Question:  Can I just follow…  I just want to make sure.  The reason I’m asking…

Spokesman:  Right?  Exactly.  But you’re more than a studio audience.  You’re an integral part of this show.

Question:  Laugh track.

Spokesman:  Yes.

Question:  The reason I’m asking is, of course, many of us have quite a bit of expensive equipment in our offices, and if, between now and tomorrow, you…  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  We’re trying to meet with, I think…  we’re in touch with Valeria [Robecco] and Tal [Mekel], as well, and I think we’re trying to set up a meeting for later this afternoon to go over all these things.

Question:  But I’m just…  sorry.  I just want to make sure, for planning purposes, guidance, we’re not all…  between now and tomorrow, you’re not going to say we’re not allowed in the building.  I mean, do you see what I mean?  I know you’re trying to reduce the footprint…

Spokesman:  No, no, no, I know, but we have no…  I have no indication and we have raised this issue to make sure that resident correspondents are considered critical personnel.

Question:  We are?

Spokesman:  On bad days…  [laughter]  On my bad days.  [laughter]  Philippe?

Question:  Another subject.  Is it true that the summary of the report on Syria and hospitals was due today would be now published in April?

Spokesman:  I’ve…  what…  the information that I have is that it has not gone to the Security Council.  I don’t know about April.  We do plan to share a summary publicly with you.

Sato‑san?

Question:  Thank you.  Stéphane, do you have any update on…  of the impact on the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) Review Conference next month?

Spokesman:  No.  That’s a decision for the members of the Conference to take.  I have no update on that.

Question:  Stéphane, the UN assists refugees, other people, who were already in big trouble before this outbreak.  How is this coronavirus outbreak affecting the UN’s efforts to help these kind of people?

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, our…  you know, whether it’s UNHCR in Geneva or IOM (International Organization for Migration), they’re all taking the same precautions that we are in terms of trying to limit their footprint while, at the same time, ensuring that the critical work of supporting refugees in the field will go on.

Our humanitarian colleagues are also putting in place, as much as they can, in different places, mitigating measures on ensuring that the virus does not spread to the most…  some of the most vulnerable population.  The same thing goes with our peacekeeping operations.  Right?  And that’s why we’re changing the rotations of troops, trying to limit the rotations, delaying some rotations.  We want to ensure that those who are most vulnerable are protected for the longest possible time.

Sherwin?

Question:  As much as we are discussing sort of the short‑term reactions to this, cleaning out the building, reducing the footprint, is the UN grappling with the long‑term economic impact that this virus is going to have on the Development Agenda, the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), climate change, the Green Fund?  When world leaders are distracted and diverting resources towards something, they tend not to focus on what the UN’s priorities are.

Spokesman:  You know, we’re focusing on many things at once, obviously, critically to ensure that the work goes on.  But the Secretary‑General, in the meetings he’s had with senior staff, has brought up, over and over again, the negative impact that this may have on the global economy and the knock‑on effects on the investments that we need for the decade of actions on the Sustainable Development Goals, on investment in climate, on all the other long‑term things that we’re looking for.

The… one of the important… you know, one of the things that’s clearly coming out on… as countries fight this virus is the issue of inequality.  Who has access to health care?  Who will get treated first?  You know, the amount of investments countries are able to put in and who has helped.  This is only making those fault lines of inequality come out much, much clearer.

Talal, and then… sorry.

Question:  How big is overhead financial hit is the banning of visitors on the budget here?

Spokesman:  There is… I have… it’s in the hundreds of thousands in terms of revenue from visitors.  On the other hand, while it is a budget, it is also a budget… it’s a separate budget.  We will be spending less money, right, if people travel less.  We may — I dare not say — turn off the escalators.  [laughter]  When people…  No, I don’t mean to joke.  Sorry.  I couldn’t resist.  And I… [laughter] Yeah, I don’t want to go there.  But I’m saying, a lot… obviously, if people are telecommuting, there are a lot of expenses that will be reduced.  So, I don’t know what will come out in the wash.  I do know that we have… as I mentioned today, I think we’re at a good number for contributions, in volume, as well as numbers.  I spoke to the comptroller this morning.  He was not in a panic, which is always a good sign.  [laughter]

Maggie, and then we’ll go to the back.

Correspondent:  [inaudible]

Spokesman:  Thanks for ruining my day.

Question:  I asked you this earlier in the week, and your answer was the SG, but I want to know, who’s in charge of this whole continuity plan stuff?  I mean, the SG’s obviously got a full plate, so there must be some other person…  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  The SG is ultimately responsible for what happens in this building.

Question:  Right, but who is…  who’s his Mike Pence?  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Every department has a business continuity plan, which has been tested, which, as I think was mentioned, evolved out of what lessons learned, especially from Hurricane Sandy.  We’ve all done tests.

The Chef de Cabinet chairs the meetings of the… the emergency meetings.  She makes sure that the trains and the business continuity plans run on time.  But, you know, everything will have to be tested.  Obviously, it will put…  working remotely for an organization as large as this one will create challenges, but I’m fully confident that the system and the staff will rise to the challenge.

Question:  A second teacher tested positive at UNIS (United Nations International School).  Is that correct?

Spokesman:  Yes.  I think an email went out, and I would refer you to UNIS for that.

Michelle, and then we’ll go all the way to the back.  Sorry.

Question:  I know you keep saying that you’re taking this one day at a time, one hour at a time, but, obviously, as Maggie said, we heard from the mayor of New York yesterday, saying this is probably going to be six months or longer.  What are the contingency plans for UNGA (UN General Assembly)?

Spokesman:  Look, we have taken the decision to cancel all the events for the next two months.  Right?  So March… as we announced.  It is very likely that this will have an impact of some sort on the General Assembly, but I think it’s too early to tell and to give any more details at this point.

Yes, sir, all the way in the back.

Question:  Yes.  I got two questions.  Number one is from yesterday, regard to news about the Philippine missions, one of the staff has got the coronavirus, from different sources.  But up to now, I didn’t found that there’s any confirmation from headquarter, UN Headquarter.

And number two is, if there’s more cases, something like that, where we can find the confirmation, information, timely?

Spokesman:  We emailed out a…  and we’ll have to check if you’re not on our resident correspondents’ email, but yesterday, we made it clear that the Permanent Mission of the Philippines had informed UN Medical Services that one of its delegates had tested positive for COVID‑19.  So, as soon as we get an announcement and information that we’re able to share that the medical authorities have cleared us to share, we will do so.

Carla, and then Sato‑san.

Question:  Thank you.  This may be a difficult question to answer or maybe it’s an absurd question, but medically, how does this coronavirus, which according to The Times, by the way, China is getting under control, how would this compare with, for example, an epidemic of smallpox or, say, bubonic plague?  I have never in my lifetime seen this much…

Spokesman:  I have not seen the bubonic plague in my lifetime.  I can’t… [laughter] Carla, I’m happy to entertain this as a thesis question, but it’s really… ask a doctor, but I cannot answer that.

Question:  Because my doctor said that relative…

Spokesman:  I…  ask your doctor.  Do not ask me.  I’m not a doctor, and I do not play one on TV.

Sato‑san?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Today, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) released a statement introducing the three of five people in the world has… don’t have access to the washing facilities.  That includes 47 per cent of the school in the world have lack of the washing facility.  This is not a new thing, but in this time, what is the SG’s message to the world?

Spokesman:  I think it just… it underscores the issue of inequality that we were talking about.  Right?  Hand‑washing is such a basic and fundamental way of stopping the spread of a virus, and when, for a multitude of reasons, including underinvestment or bad governance, children do not have access to hand‑washing, it’s not a luxury; it’s a necessity.

Question:  Steph…

Spokesman:  Yes, and then we’ll go to our guest.

Question:  Thank you.  Can you confirm that the school authorities of the U… International School of the UN has… after the second case has been proven have asked the parents who have children in the school to stay away from the headquarter?

Spokesman:  No, the school has not.  The UN took the decision to ask the parents of children… to ask staff members who are parents of children who attend the UN school as… out of an abundance of caution, to stay away and to telecommute for two weeks.

Question:  What are the numbers of this… staff who have…

Spokesman:  I honestly… I don’t know.  I can try to find out, but I really don’t know.

We welcome Jane Connors.

For information media. Not an official record.