16 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.


Just want to say that we will continue as much as possible to do in-person briefings here.  We’ve been in touch with Valeria [Robecco], your president, and we are going to put in a system of UNCA (United Nations Correspondents Association) members, resident correspondents being able to text in questions to the briefing if you don’t feel comfortable being here but we will continue to be here as much as possible, as long as the building is open for business.  So just be in touch with Valeria and she’ll tell you how the system is being set up.  The Secretary-General is here, in the building, and working.

Around the world, UN teams are also working with authorities to support national preparedness and response plans around the COVID-19, including immediate health priorities and broader social and economic impacts.

In several countries, UN teams are temporarily providing full-time staff members to support Governments, providing additional expertise in areas such as public health, humanitarian and emergency response, as well as community awareness and risk communications.  Different UN entities are fast-tracking procurement of essential items for the national response, while upholding international transparency standards.  Our teams are also supporting Governments to get emergency funding for their COVID-19 plans, including from the World Bank.

In Asia, some teams, with World Health Organization (WHO) and other entities, are working to support government efforts in areas such as finance and economy, education and water and sanitation, with immediate support to garment factory and migrant workers and a special focus on women. 

In Kenya, the UN has offered five communications experts to support the Government’s efforts and also met today with 25 business leaders to boost public-private partnerships to address COVID-19. 

UN communications experts in Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa are also supporting the Governments’ community awareness and risk communications efforts. 

And several countries in the region have UN teams participating with the Pan-American Health Organization and WHO [World Health Organization] in National Emergency Committees, with the UN’s communications experts in Costa Rica and Ecuador also supporting national communications strategies around COVID-19.  In Brazil, the UN country team and national partners, in coordination with Government authorities, have already activated the contingency plan in the shelters in the north and are disseminating prevention messages in Spanish tailored to communities of migrants and refugees who have arrived from Venezuela — in addition to the regular national campaign in Portuguese.

The World Food Programme (WFP), for its part, said today it is providing lifesaving medical equipment worth $500,000 to help China’s frontline hospitals in Hubei support the Government’s effort to combat COVID-19.  Supporting the Government in the treatment of severe cases of COVID-19, WFP is providing oxygenation equipment and ventilators for treating critically ill patients. 

For its part, UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] today said that an unprecedent number of children, youth and adults are not attending schools or university because of COVID-19, with 56 countries having closed schools nationwide, impacting more than 516 million children and youth.  A further 17 countries have implemented localized school closures and, should these closures become nationwide, hundreds of millions of additional learners will experience education disruption.

UNESCO is providing immediate support to countries as they work to minimize the educational disruption and facilitation of continuity of learning, especially for the most vulnerable.

Here at Headquarters, the Secretary-General wrote to staff before the weekend to stress that the Organization remains open for business, but our work will be done from different locations using different technologies.  He stressed that it is essential that we reduce social contact to a minimum and follow clear instructions of the WHO to minimize the risks of transmitting infections as well as continue to deliver on our mandates.

The Secretary-General said we need to reduce our physical presence at UN Headquarters, and this reduced staffing level will be assessed in three weeks.  He noted the Headquarters staff in New York will continue to provide critical support to the other main offices in Geneva, Nairobi, Vienna, as well as missions in the field and to an array of intergovernmental processes that must continue, such as the work of the Security Council.  And this morning, the Secretary-General has been on the phone with the heads of UN duty stations in different parts of the world as well as country offices to check in on them and offer not only solidarity but support.

**Central African Republic

On a sad note, the UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MIONUSCA) reports that a peacekeeper from the Burundian contingent was killed yesterday afternoon in Grimari, a town located in the centre of the Central African Republic.

The incident took place as peacekeepers were trying to stop an attack launched by armed members of an anti-Balaka group. 

The Head of the UN Mission in the country, Mankeur Ndiaye, offered his condolences to the family of the peacekeeper as well as the Government of Burundi.

He also condemned this attack on peacekeepers and the city of Grimari, describing it as unacceptable.  Any attack on the life of a blue helmet can be considered a war crime, he added. 

Peacekeepers have increased patrols in the area to secure the population and prevent other incidents, and we do expect a statement from the Secretary-General very shortly.


Turning to Syria, as you know, the Syrian conflict entered its tenth year, and the Special Envoy, Geir Pedersen, said that the suffering of the Syrian people during this tragic and terrible decade still defies comprehension and belief.  Hundreds of thousands of Syrians, men and women, have lost their lives and hundreds of thousands have been detained, abducted or missing. 

The Special Envoy said that the international community must demonstrate a renewed sense of urgency in supporting the Syrians in finding a UN-facilitated political solution as set out in Security Council resolution 2254 (2015) — the only framework that enjoys legitimacy and support of the entire international community.

Also over the weekend, Imran Riza, the Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, and Kevin Kennedy, the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syrian Crisis, strongly condemned the interference of non-State armed group individuals in the work of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in Idlib Governorate.  Such interference also jeopardizes the provision of humanitarian relief to many innocent civilians in the north-west of the country.

And UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) also marked this grim anniversary with a statement highlighting the devastating impact on children.

According to the data verified by the UN and compiled over the past five years, over 5,400 children have been killed, and more than 3,600 injured.  Close to 5,000 children — some as young as seven — were recruited into fighting.


Turning to Libya, our update tells us that fighting in Tripoli and surrounding areas continues to heavily impact civilians.

On 13 and 14 March, heavy artillery shelling on the Al Nawasi base in Soug Al Jumaa impacted a nearby residential area, reportedly injuring two civilians and causing heavy damage to civilian infrastructure.

Around 749,000 people remain in areas impacted by fighting in and around Tripoli, according to estimates, including almost 345,000 people in frontline areas. 

Humanitarian organizations continue to call on all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure and to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, given their likely indiscriminate effects.

Humanitarian partners are helping people affected by the fighting in Tripoli and surrounding areas, as well as other parts of the country, where access and capacities allow. 

Humanitarian operations reached more than 400,000 people with assistance in 2019, including 95,000 people affected by fighting in and around Tripoli.


You will have seen over the weekend we issued statements on Iraq and South Sudan.  On Iraq, the Secretary-General expressed his serious concern about the repeated attacks in Iraq and the region.  The Secretary-General calls on all sides to take immediate steps towards de-escalating the situation to prevent further loss of life.

**South Sudan

And also, in a statement, he welcomed the announcement of the cabinet of South Sudan’s Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity. 


The Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, called for the inclusion of measures to protect children at the earliest stages possible of intra-Afghan talks.  This, she said, has the potential to improve the lives of millions of children in Afghanistan.

Last month, she introduced the “Practical guidance for mediators to protect children in situations of armed conflict”, which presents examples and concrete tools to mediators to integrate the protection of children.

**Honour Roll

We are very happy that Rwanda has paid its budget dues in full, bringing us up to?

Correspondent:  Sixty-two?

Spokesman:  Seventy-one.  Let's not undersell ourselves.

**Questions and Answers

Edie, you played.  You're the only one who tried, so you win. 

Question:  Two questions.  First, Steph, on the coronavirus, the building does seem quite empty…

Spokesman:  Yeah.

Question:  Will it be possible to get some indication of numbers of how…

Spokesman:  Yeah, I mean, as of about ten minutes ago, our security chief told me that he had about…  let me just give you…  because he literally just texted me.  So, we've had — I can't do…  not very good at math but — about 1,200 swipes, which is a big, big decrease from the previous days, and we expect that number to keep getting lower and lower.

Question:  And on Idlib, you talked about outside interference by other groups.  Are you naming who is responsible for this?

Spokesman:  The message from our humanitarians was non‑State armed groups. 


QuestionStéphane, il y a eu un cas positif signalé jeudi, depuis aucun à l'ONU?

Spokesman:  Okay.  You were asking about any cases that…  of COVID at the UN.  I think we are part of this… of New York City.  New York City is now in a phase of community transmission, and I think UN staff, as we said, are New Yorkers, so it's no sur…  it's to be expected that, eventually, one of our staff would be impacted.  A staff member who has tested positive is well and has not had any contact with any other UN personnel since before the onset of symptoms.

We do not expect this or any other infections amongst UN personnel in New York to have a critical impact on our business because of the very strong risk mitigation measures we've been taking for more than a week now, including reducing greatly our footprint.

Yes, Silvi?  Excusez‑moi.

Question:  Who?

Spokesman:  Go ahead.  Go ahead. 

Question:  Stéphane, will there be any Security Council meeting this week or next week?  Because we heard that Sudan was postponing till next week.

Spokesman:  I think that's a question to be asked of the presidency of the Council.  So, they are the masters of their work.  When they decide to meet, we will support them in every way possible. 

Just a correction on the numbers of swipes.  It's a total of 918 for today, which includes about 300 delegates.  So, the total, as of about 40 minutes ago, was 918.  So, I don't expect the number to go up to more than — you know, we'll see — about maybe 1,500 by the end of the day, because these are in‑and‑outs. 

Go ahead, Jim, and then Carla.

Question:  Yeah, thank you.  It's a question on Afghanistan and the two Presidents.  I might have missed a statement about it in the last few days, but if I haven't missed a statement, which of Afghanistan's two Presidents is the UN dealing with and recognizing?

Spokesman:  I think I would refer you to the statement that we issued a few days ago, which I will send to you. 

Yeah, and then we'll go to Carla. 

Question:  Thank you very much.  A couple of questions.  So, the one staffer who is affected, is that still the Filipino diplomat?

Spokesman:  No.  The Filipino diplomat was…  is a diplomat, is a delegate…

Correspondent:  Right.

Spokesman:  I'm talking about someone who works…

Question:  A staffer.

Spokesman:  A staffer.

Question:  Is there any more information about that staffer that…

Spokesman:  No, I mean, I think there are, obviously, issues of privacy when it comes to medical issues, but the medical director has been in touch, briefed the Secretary‑General this morning on the situation and, as I said, has not…  the staffer's not been in contact with any UN colleagues.

Question:  Can I ask, did the UN human rights agency in Geneva cancel all meetings until June?  Is that your understanding?

Spokesman:  I think the Council did…  the Human Rights Council did postpone a number of meetings.  You'd have to check with them exactly when and where.

Question:  And then, finally, what is the Secretary‑General's message to the more than 500 million children worldwide who can't go to school because of the virus at the moment?

Spokesman:  Look, this is a…  this is, obviously, of grave concern to the Secretary‑General and, I think, to all of us.  Right?  I think it is important that communities come together, that communities show solidarity.  And I think that Governments and school districts help as much as possible to ensure some sort of distance learning. 

But as…  you know, I think as we talked about a bit on Friday, this is, again, a fault line where we fear that this pandemic will increase the inequality.  Not every student, not every school district has access to the tools…  the necessary tools for distance learning.  This will have a knock‑on effect on parents who may not be able to not go to work.  So, these are very important public health measures, but they need to be couched by communities coming together and showing solidarity.

Yes, Carla?

Question:  I understand that our colleagues at La Prensa Latina have not received visas to come to the UN, and this would seem to be an abuse of the Host Country Agreement to…

Spokesman:  I'm not aware of the case.  I can look into it, but I'm not aware.

Question:  Please.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Yeah.  James, yeah.

Question:  Yeah, one more thing on your staff member who's fallen sick, obviously, best wishes for their recovery, but, also, did they work in the Secretariat, in this building?

Spokesman:  It was the Secretariat…  it was somebody who worked…  I mean who works in the Secretariat but had not had any contact with any other UN personnel since the onset of the symptoms. 

Okay.  Thank you, all.  Farhan [Haq] will be here tomorrow.

For information media. Not an official record.