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

18 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.

Great.  Good afternoon and welcome to a bit of a brand-new world here.  We’re testing out this system so we can do the press briefing remotely.  I’m doing this from my home.

And I think as you are aware, you will be able to send your questions by text.  There should be a text box in the app.  Send in the questions and they will be relayed to me.

So obviously, starting off with COVID-19.

**COVID-19 — United Nations

The Secretary-General is in the office today with very much of a reduced staff.  He is spending most of the day making calls to leaders of UN entities and staff and missions around the world to check in on them and to see how they are doing.

In terms of updating you on what the UN system is doing as a whole around the world:

In Peru, in addition to the immediate [health needs], UN entities are working with the Government to minimize the social and economic impacts of the outbreak.

The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have been working permanently with the Ministry of Health on public health system preparedness and community awareness.

Meanwhile, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has also been working with other ministries to protect their rights.

UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are working with government counterparts to support migrants and refugees, who are coming from Venezuela to access social programmes that may be limited.  And UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) is also working on reproductive health services in that regard.

Meanwhile, in Uzbekistan, preparedness is in full speed with the UN team’s collaboration with government counterparts.  UN staff have been trained for emergency communications with the Ministry of Health and various other government agencies.  The training included monitoring of public opinion, countering false information and working with communities.  This complements a UN-backed campaign with the Government on COVID-19 in Uzbek and Russian.

**COVID-19 — Refugees

The UN Refugee Agency and the UN Migration Agency — IOM — today announced that they are temporarily suspending resettlement departures for refugees.

This decision is the result of the measures countries are taking to reduce entry into their territories due to COVID-19.  This means that travel arrangements for resettling refugees are currently subject to severe disruptions.  Some countries have also placed a hold on resettlement activities given their public health situation, which impacts their capacity to receive newly resettled refugees.

The two agencies said that they are also concerned that international travel could increase the exposure of refugees to the virus.

The two agencies are appealing to States, and working in close coordination with them, to ensure that movements can continue for the most critical emergency cases wherever possible.

The suspensions will begin to take effect within the next few days.  Both agencies look forward to resuming full resettlement travel as soon as prudence and logistics permit.

**COVID-19 — Mali

Turning to Mali, where, you know, obviously, the spread of COVID-19 is a growing concern there and in other developing countries.

In Mali, in support of prevention measures announced by the Government, the UN [Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization] Mission (MINUSMA) has activated its business continuity plan and put in place the following measures:

All Mission staff — civilians, police and military personnel — coming back to Mali from a country impacted by COVID-19 will be systematically placed in self-isolation for 14 days.  The Mission has made the necessary arrangements and set up a transit centre for this purpose.

Public meetings, workshops or seminars will be approved on a case-by-case basis, and telecommuting arrangements are being made to limit the staff’s physical presence at the Mission headquarters in Bamako.

The Peacekeeping Mission will continue to coordinate with the Government to ensure the implementation of the most appropriate measures.

And around the world, other peacekeeping missions are preparing to implement measures to protect local populations, as well as UN personnel.

** COVID-19 — Sudan

In Sudan, the humanitarian Country Team has finalized a COVID-19 Response Plan in support of the Sudanese Government’s national plan.

UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) has mobilized $370,000 for infection prevention and control supplies for use in points of entries in Sudan, as well as in ambulances.

UNFPA, for its part, is working with the temporary quarantine teams to ensure that women and girls of reproductive age that are admitted receive so-called dignity kits, which include items to ensure basic hygiene and comfort.

**COVID-19 — Labour

The International Labour Organization states that the economic and labour crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic could increase global unemployment by almost 25 million people.

However, they say, internationally coordinated response, similar to the approach adopted in the response to the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, would significantly lower the impact on global unemployment.

ILO’s preliminary assessment note calls for urgent, large-scale and coordinated measures across three pillars:  protecting workers in the workplace, stimulating the economy and employment, and supporting jobs and incomes.

These measures include extending social protection, supporting employment retention, and financial and tax relief, including for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises.  In addition, the note proposes fiscal and monetary policy measures, and lending and financial support for specific sectors.

**COVID-19 — Education

Our colleagues at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) tell us that, as of late yesterday (Tuesday), more than 850 million children and youth — roughly half of the world’s student population — are staying away from schools and universities due to the epidemic.  Just last week, I think the number was about half a billion.

Nationwide closures are in force in 102 countries and local shutdowns in 11 others, and further increases are expected.

The scale and speed of the closures is an unprecedented challenge for the education sector.  Countries around the world are racing to fill the void with distance learning solutions, but the uncertain duration of the closures adds further complications to their efforts.

UNESCO has set up a COVID-19 task force to provide advice and technical assistance to Governments working to provide education to students out of school.  UNESCO is also holding regular virtual meetings with education ministers from all over the world to share experiences and assess priority needs.

And the organization is also launching a Global COVID-19 Education Coalition that brings together multilateral partners and the private sector, including Microsoft and the Global System for Mobile Communications, the GSMA alliance, to help countries deploy remote learning systems so as to minimize educational disruptions and maintain social contact with learners.

**COVID-19 — UNICEF

Meanwhile, UNICEF’s Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, issued a message today to reaffirm the agency’s commitment to children around the world.

Ms. Fore said that UNICEF is working to help prevent the spread of the virus among communities in affected countries by providing hygiene and medical kits to schools and health clinics; also by mitigating the impact of the outbreak on children’s access to health, education and social services.

At the same time, she added that UNICEF’s life-saving work to provide children with health, education, nutrition and protection has never been more critical.  With millions of children uprooted, impacted by wars, dying from preventable causes, out of school, or missing out on essential vaccines, the need for support has never been greater.

**Yemen

And turning to Yemen, the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator, Lise Grande, has condemned the continued attacks against health facilities in Taizz, which are threatening services for hundreds of thousands of people.

Preliminary reports indicate that on 13 March, two buildings at the Al-Thawra General Hospital were hit by missiles.

According to WHO and health partners, since the beginning of the war in 2015, hospitals and other medical facilities across Yemen have been the target of 142 attacks.  Less than 50 per cent of health facilities across Yemen are currently functioning at capacity and those that are operational lack specialists, equipment and medicine.

**Libya

The UN Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) expressed deep concerns over the recent increase in abductions and enforced disappearances in towns and cities across Libya, which it says have been conducted by armed groups with total impunity.  The Mission renews its call for the full respect of international human rights law and international humanitarian law by parties to the conflict.

The UN Mission also calls for the establishment of an investigative mechanism by the UN Human Rights Council, as the simplest and strongest basis for promoting accountability in Libya.

**Mozambique

And a year after Cyclone Idai made landfall in Mozambique, UNICEF says 2.5 million people, almost half of them children, continue to require humanitarian assistance.

UNICEF and other humanitarian partners are also preparing for the possibility of more frequent extreme weather events.

However, to continue the recovery work that’s been done in a variety of sectors, the agency is calling for additional funding that will also be used to increase the country’s capacity to protect children from natural disasters in the future.

**Peatlands

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today launched a publication to help countries preserve critical carbon stores found in peatlands.

Peatlands cover only 3 per cent of the world’s surface yet contain as much carbon as all of its vegetation.  To avoid the degradation of peatlands and plan for their restoration, FAO has released a tool to map and monitor them.

**Senior Personnel Appointment

And finally, a senior personnel announcement.  Today, the Secretary-General, following consultations with the Advisory Commission of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), is appointing Philippe Lazzarini of Switzerland as the Agency’s new Commissioner-General.

The Secretary-General wishes to extend his appreciation and gratitude to Christian Saunders, who will continue to serve as Acting Commissioner-General until Mr. Lazzarini assumes his post.

Mr. Lazzarini brings to the position more than 30 years of experience in humanitarian assistance and international coordination in conflict and post-conflict areas with the UN, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and the private sector.  And, most recently he served in Lebanon as Deputy Special Coordinator, as well as Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator.

All right.  I’ve been getting in your questions via text, and I’ll try to answer them.

**Questions and Answers

I think Maria asked about, on Iran, how the UN is helping Iranian authorities to fight against the spread of COVID.

We are getting regular updates, obviously, from our country office, which is doing whatever it can to support the Government.  As you may recall, last week, the Secretary‑General also expressed his concern at the dire situation in Iran and called on the international community to do whatever it can to help support the Government of Iran, include…  and as well as in acquiring medical and public health equipment.

The question from Pam, who asked, what are the implications for IOM, UNHCR to announce temporary suspensions of resettlement?

Well, the implications, obviously, are that these people who have been waiting a long time to be resettled will now, very sadly, have to wait longer.  And that’s, obviously, I think, quite bad news, obviously, for the people most impacted.  And I’ve no doubt my colleagues that are at IOM, UNHCR will resume the resettlement process as quickly as possible.

Jessica asked if we can still go to your offices.

Yes, you’ll be able to go to your offices.

I had received a question about updates on the number of cases in the Secretariat.

As far as we’ve been told, the case only remains as you…  two cases, one from staff and another one from non‑staff in the Secretariat.

Our footprint in the building continues to go down.  I think the swipes…  the incoming swipes, as of about 11:30 this morning, was about 610, which is, obviously, down from the usual about 11,000 that we have on regular days.  [The Spokesman was later informed that the number was actually 482 for the morning.]

We are…  Edie asked about what we are doing to inform UN staff and others about cases of coronavirus in the building.

Staff are being updated on a regular basis.  The building, as I’d mentioned to you, is being cleaned.  I think I mentioned to you earlier we had upgraded our cleaning procedures with a stronger disinfectant.  As you know, the vast majority of staff is no longer working in the building.

I think Toby’s asking:  Are there any additional cleaning plans for the press corps?

I think the press corps areas are being cleaned with the same upgraded solvents that we’re using in the rest of the building.  I think what is extremely important is that all of us who either work in the UN, work in the UN building, follow the guidelines being given out by the New York public health authorities.  I think that is the best source of information for those of us who live here in…  and work in New York.

What measures UNHCR and WHO are taking to protect refugees around the world?

Obviously, there are a lot of vulnerable populations around the world.  You know, for us, the issues of IDPs, of internally displaced people, of refugees is one of great concern.  We are doing whatever we can to follow the…  I mean, especially for refugees, to follow the measures put in place by the Governments in terms of people being self‑quarantined or isolated coming back from countries that are known to carry the virus.  Those organizations, all the ones in the field, are doing as much as possible in terms of protection.

Let me see if I have…  I may have something else on that.  Bear with me two seconds.

I mean, just to give you an example, I think, in Yemen, where there are no reported cases of COVID‑19, our humanitarian programmes are continuing.  The crisis management team has been established to address COVID‑19, and it’s continually assessing its best measures.

Humanitarian partners are introducing new activities based on the threat of COVID‑19.  WHO and UNICEF are engaging local communities to increase awareness of the virus and how to prevent it.  Mass communication campaigns are ongoing in various forms of media, and I think a lot of our humanitarian colleagues are following the same measure.

I do not have any specific information on testing being done in refugee camps.  That’s a question you need to check with UNHCR.

Asking about the migrant workers in Europe or in Italy who will not be able to return home, these are part of vulnerable populations all over the world that may be trapped, and we very much hope the national authorities are doing whatever they can to support not only their nationals but migrants and refugees who may be on their territories.

I have no update on the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) Review Conference to share at this point.

Benno is asking about the Board of Inquiry.  I need to get back to you.  I know it is supposed to go to the Security Council at some point, and as I said earlier, we would also share a public summary of the report.

I think I have answered or been able to answer most of the questions that I can…  that I’m able to answer.

Pam asked, is UNTV still working at UN Headquarters?

Well, they are, because our great colleagues at UNTV and BCSS (Broadcasting and Conference Services) and the webcast are doing whatever they can from home and from the building so… and we are also to stress that the building is technically… is open, and we are there.  If there are meetings of the Security Council to support, we will do so in whatever way we can.

So, unless I get another question in the next few seconds via Florencia [Soto Nino]…

Pam asked about the Panel of Experts for DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).  You need to ask the Sanctions Committee chair on that.

The Secretary‑General is working in the building right now.  If that changes, we will let you know.  A lot of senior officials are also telecommuting.  I know Rosemary DiCarlo, Mark Lowcock and others are telecommuting.

And, yeah, Toby, I do keep UN backdrop in my house in case of emergencies like this one.

Okay.  Thank you, all.  Thanks for your patience.  I hope this worked.  And I will try to see what we can do…  Lenka, I will try to get the footprint for the whole day yesterday.

Okay.  Thank you, all, and see you tomorrow.

For information media. Not an official record.