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2 April 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/Climate Change

Good afternoon, everybody.

Tomorrow at 10 a.m., the Secretary-General will have another briefing to release a report on the impact of his call for a global ceasefire.  Later this afternoon, we’ll be sharing with you the relevant material under embargo.

As you saw, the Secretary-General issued a statement yesterday, in which he showed his supported for the delay announced of the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26 (twenty-sixth Conference of Parties), which was due to be held in November, in Glasgow, in the UK.  He said that as hundreds of thousands of people fall seriously ill and many die from COVID, the need to suppress the virus and safeguarding lives is our foremost priority.

The Secretary-General said this health crisis reinforces the importance of science and evidence informing government policies and decision-making and added that the science on climate has not changed:  emissions are now at a record high and impacts are multiplying and will compound the socioeconomic challenges that this crisis will intensify.

Solidarity and greater ambition are needed now more than ever to transition to a sustainable, resilient low-carbon economy that limits global warming to 1.5°C.

The Secretary-General will continue to work tirelessly with the COP hosts, Member States, civil society, youth, and businesses to ensure that we recover better and emerge from this global crisis stronger.

**Secretary-General’s Letter

And, in a letter that was sent to Member States yesterday, the Secretary-General said that, while we face the enormous challenges posed by COVID-19, UN operations are also under increased financial pressure due to continued financial constraints.  He said that we ended 2019 with arrears of $711 million, the highest level for a decade and a 34 per cent increase compared to 2018.

This high level of arrears, he writes, is now compounded by a sharp decline in the payment of assessments by Member States, which currently stands at 42 per cent compared to 50 per cent in earlier years.  As a result, we are at a risk of confronting a cash deficit even earlier than in previous years, unless we slow down our expenses.

The Secretary-General writes that he is directing managers to temporarily suspend all hiring for regular budget operations and to further scale down non-post expenses, in order to ensure timely payments to staff and vendors.

He is grateful to the Member States that have paid their regular budget dues in full for 2020 and renews his appeal that all should do so as early as possible.

**COVID-19/Central African Republic

Moving to country-specific COVID-related notes:  In an update from the Central African Republic, where the UN peacekeeping mission there (MINUSCA) is continuing to support the authorities to prevent and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The mission’s field offices throughout the CAR are participating in local crisis committees set up by local authorities.  They are also supporting information and awareness campaigns.  For example, some offices conducted awareness-raising sessions in prisons and helped authorities deliver thousands of prevention posters and leaflets throughout the country.

In addition to this, the mission is working in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO), which has been approached by local hospitals to provide materials and training assistance.

**COVID-19/Malawi

And from Malawi, where there are no confirmed COVID-19 cases, but the UN is already working hard to support the Government’s preparedness and response plan.

The UN is helping with lab testing capacity and recruiting public health specialists, as well as engaging with Malawian entrepreneurs to ensure there are enough supplies to respond to the pandemic.  We are also working to prepare distance learning options for schools and helping to repair and improve the water and sanitation infrastructure.

**COVID-19/Bolivia

And from Bolivia, the UN team there is supporting the Government to prevent the spread of the pandemic and apply WHO’s guidelines.

We are providing technical training for the public health sector, helping to purchase equipment and supplies, and communicating to the public on how to prevent the virus.

The UN team and the Government have set up a Strategic Coordination Situation Room, which works around the clock to collect and analyse data for an effective response.

The UN’s humanitarian country team is working on the needs to offer shelter, food security, education, protection, and communications, in support of the Government’s plan.

**COVID-19/India

And turning to India, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, today said she was distressed by the plight of millions of internal migrants affected by the sudden announcement of a lockdown in the country.

She welcomed subsequent measures, such as the instructions by the Supreme Court to ensure that migrants are provided enough food, water, beds and supplies, but noted that pervasive challenges remain.  More information on the UN human rights’ page.

**COVID-19/Myanmar

From Myanmar, the UN there is continuing to scale up its support to the Government to prevent, contain and respond to COVID-19.

More than 5,000 sets of basic necessities — such as blankets, kitchen utensils, mosquito nets, and hygiene items — will soon be sent to the Yangon Regional Health Department.  The UN will also support people in quarantine facilities in Yangon with food assistance.

The UN had earlier announced plans to send 50,000 test kits to the Ministry of Health and Sports.

**COVID-19/Portugal

And UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme against HIV/AIDS) today welcomed the Portuguese Government’s decision to grant temporary residency rights to all migrants and asylum seekers who applied for residency in the country before 18 March, when the state of emergency for COVID was announced.

These immigrants and asylum-seekers will therefore have access to social and health benefits, including national health services, bank accounts, work and rental contracts, at least until the beginning of July.

UNAIDS noted that migrants face the same health threats from COVID-19 as host populations and must be included to ensure an effective response that addresses both the health and socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic.

**COVID-19/Lebanon

And in Lebanon, in line with the UN peacekeeping mission’s efforts to assist the host population in the common fight against COVID-19 in the country’s south, UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) troop-contributing countries have been taking initiatives aimed at providing communities with medical equipment and other supplies that are available at their disposal.

In the last few days, the Italy-led UNIFIL Sector West Command carried out several projects within their area of responsibility in response to requests from local hospitals to be able to receive suspected COVID-19 cases.  The mission has donated pre-fabricated containers and medical equipment to a number of hospitals.

**Syria

Turning to Syria, Najat Rochdi, the Senior Humanitarian Adviser to Special Envoy Geir Pederson, convened the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) Humanitarian Task Force via videoconference today.  Mr. Pedersen joined and reiterated his appeal for a complete, immediate nationwide ceasefire throughout Syria to enable an all-out-effort to counter COVID-19 and spare all Syrians additional suffering.

The Special Envoy expressed his readiness to work with all the parties to the conflict to further his appeal.

Humanitarian Task Force members were informed that the virus could have a devastating impact given the protracted crisis and the extensive destruction and damage to the health system.  Syria’s public health system is fragile and will require considerable support to reinforce its capacity.  Additional medical equipment, devices and supplies are urgently needed to contain a potential outbreak.

Ms. Rochdi and the UN’s humanitarian leadership in the field further stressed the importance of maintaining border and in-country crossings for the shipment of relief items, including cross-border.  The movement of humanitarian workers and those requiring urgent medical care is essential.

WHO is leading UN efforts to support preparation and mitigation measures across Syria, including in the north-west and the north-east.  In Damascus, WHO has supported substantial rehabilitation of the central laboratory and procured additional essential equipment to support setting up further planned labs across the country.

**Yemen

And turning to Yemen, the Office of the UN Special Envoy for the country, Martin Griffiths, is engaging the parties on reaching agreements on a nationwide ceasefire, humanitarian and economic measures to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people, and the urgent resumption of the political process aimed at comprehensively ending the war.  This process further aims to foster joint efforts to counter the threat of COVID-19.

The Office of the Special Envoy is discussing concrete steps with the parties and remains in regular contact with them.  Martin Griffiths is conducting daily bilateral consultations with the aim of convening virtually the parties together as soon as possible.  “I hope that these consultations can soon be completed and deliver what Yemenis expect, demand and deserve,” he said.

In parallel, the Office of the Special Envoy continues its efforts to reach out to the broader Yemeni groups and communities to consult them about ways to resume an inclusive political process.  The Office seeks their inputs on what could be done to support the capacity of Yemen to avert and mitigate a COVID-19 outbreak.

**Libya

And turning to Libya, we are deeply concerned about the ongoing hostilities in and around Tripoli despite an agreed truce to allow national authorities and humanitarian organizations to focus on the unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19.

Armed clashes and shelling have been reported in and around Tripoli and Abu Qurayn, reportedly damaging homes and causing civilian casualties. 

The fighting rages as the UN is working to support the Libyan authorities with its COVID-19 preparedness and response efforts.  Ten people have been confirmed with the virus so far in Misrata and Tripoli.

**Central Sahel

And in the Central Sahel region, the number of hungry people is rising steadily as conflict and the associated humanitarian crisis deepen.  More than 5 million people are now facing severe food insecurity, and that is according to a new joint food security assessment done by the World Food Programme (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as well as other partners. 

In Burkina Faso, the number of food insecure people is expected to at least triple to 2.1 million.  A year ago, 680,000 were food insecure. 

The situation is also extremely worrying in Mali and Niger, with 1.3 and 2 million people severely food insecure [respectively]. 

This dramatic spike in the number of hungry people comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading into the region, adding to the challenges faced by already fragile [health] systems. 

**Food Prices

And the FAO said today that international prices for major food commodities declined sharply in March, driven by weakening demand and the fall of oil prices due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The FAO Food Price Index in March declined 4.3 per cent in relation to February.  The Sugar Price Index had the biggest drop, down 19.1 per cent from the previous month, and the Vegetable Oil Price Index declined by 12 per cent.  International rice prices, by contrast, rose for the third consecutive month, with Indica quotations sustained by stockpiling due to the pandemic.

The FAO Director-General warned national leaders at last week's G20 summit to make sure that agricultural trade continues to play an important role in contributing to global food security and to avoid policies that interrupt trade flows that underpin the food-supply systems.

**Women

The UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) released a report which found that, based on data obtained in 57 countries, a quarter of women are not able to make their own decisions about accessing health care and are not empowered to say no to sex with their husbands or partners.  And nearly one in ten women is not able to make her own choices about using contraception.  The report found that in more than 40 per cent of these countries, women’s decision-making power is not improving — or is even regressing.

UNFPA’s new report also launches a system to measure whether governments are enacting laws to protect women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services and information.  The report is online.

**COVID-19/Read the World

And UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Publishers Association (IPA), today launched the initiative Read the World, which is being supported by several children’s authors.  Through the campaign, authors will read extracts of their books to millions of children and young people currently living in isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  More information on UNICEF’s website.

**Autism Awareness Day

And lastly, today is Autism Awareness Day, and in his message for the Day, the Secretary-General notes that this year’s observance takes place in the midst of a public health crisis that places people with autism at disproportionate risk. 

In these unpredictable times, he stated, we must commit to consulting persons with disabilities and their representative organizations, and ensuring that our non-traditional ways of working, learning, and engaging with each other, as well as our global response to the coronavirus, are inclusive of and accessible to all people, including people with autism.

All right.  That is it for me.  I will go to your questions.

**Questions and Answers

Dulcie asks for the number of people with confirmed cases of COVID, any deaths, any plans to furloughs?

Let me give you the updated numbers for the UN.  There are 111 confirmed cases among the UN worldwide.  I only know of one fatality, which was announced by the FAO.

There are no plans that I'm aware of of any furloughs or any impact on UN staff as of now.  I have not been made aware of any plans.  Obviously, we are continuing to be in close contact with New York State, New York City and the federal authorities to see how we can best assist our host city. 

I noticed, I think, today that the Permanent Mission of Qatar had donated masks and medical equipment to the city.  I think it's fantastic that the… not only the UN Secretariat but the diplomatic community who are in a position to help also help our host city.

Philippe asks about the cancellation of COP26.  Any plans to cancel the high‑level session in September?

No, I'm not aware… no plans that I'm aware of.  Obviously, the COP26 and the General Assembly high‑level debate are two different things in the sense that the General Assembly takes place in a UN Headquarter station.  Obviously, the level of representation and so forth will be decided by Member States.  But at this point, I'm… there are no plans to change that calendar.

Abdelhamid asks about Martin Griffiths' plans for inter‑Yemeni dialogues. 

I think I addressed that, and we have the press release from WH… from Mr.  Griffiths' office. 

Does the SG plan to open an inquiry of what is going on with the crisis?

I think, at this point, our focus is on how to suppress the virus, how to break the curve, and that will continue until this crisis is over.

Edie asks if there's any comment on… from us on the Pakistani courts overturning the murder conviction of British…

You know, I have no specific comment except to say that, obviously, we stand against the use of the death penalty.  We do, however, strongly believe that there needs to be accountability for people who take the lives of others, especially, in this case, the life of a journalist.

On the… our reaction to the Taliban saying they're ready to declare a ceasefire in areas that it controls in Afghanistan, I haven't… if they are hit by COVID‑19, another question from Edie. 

I'm not aware… I haven't seen that report, but obviously, what we want is for all parties, whether they are States, non‑State parties or parties that have an influence over anyone who's fighting, is to abide by the Secretary‑General's call for a global ceasefire. 

It is clear, as he has put it, that we cannot afford to fight wars on two fronts.  It must be all hands on deck in our efforts to break the spread of the COVID‑19 and to address the massive socioeconomic disruptions that will come as a result of this health crisis.

From Majeed, can you tell me the numbers, how many countries expressed commitment to the SG's COVID‑19 plan?  Is there really any political will to help countries… to help others while countries are hit home hard?

There is, I think… there's already been an answer to the Humanitarian Response Plan.  As of today, $374 million in generous donors funding has been made available to the Humanitarian Plan with the top five donors to this appeal are Japan with $106 million, the CERF itself with 73.5 million, Kuwait with 40 million, the European Commission with 34 million, and Germany with $28.3 million.  We appeal to all countries who are able to to support this plan.  We will send those numbers by email in case you had a hard time writing them down.

The other socioeconomic Multi‑Donor Trust Fund the Secretary‑General launched, that… we will send you the link to the live Trust Fund page so you can see the numbers when they come in.

We have seen developed countries push forward stimulus packages.  There needs to be global generosity from the global north to the global south.  It is clear that we will not be able to win the fight against this virus until all of us are able to fight it.

As, I think, both the Secretary‑General and WHO said, we are as safe as our weak… as the weakest public health system.  So, everybody needs to pitch in.  We have seen some movements… reported movements from the G20 towards an Africa plan.  We very much hope that will come to fruition.

Majeed also asked about the humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq. 

Yes, those are very much of concern to us.  I think Mr. Lowcock addressed that when he spoke to the Security Council.  We're also very much focused on Iraq and all these countries that continue to suffer from armed conflict, and that is why we all need to focus on fighting the virus more than fighting each other.

I think I've addressed the reaction to the trillions. 

Yes.  Abdelhamid asks, are you aware that there are thousands of people signing a document supporting a global ceasefire?

Yes, we are very much aware.  There is an Avaaz petition going around, and we're very thankful for people the world over for… ordinary people who are signing on to this.  We hope they will put pressure not only Governments but on armed parties to follow through on the Secretary‑General's call.

From Edie, is the COVID‑19 pandemic playing a role in the UN…

In a sense, it is, because it is delaying some of the administrative procedures that countries have to put in place in order to transfer the money, whether it's meeting of parliaments and so forth.  So, it is definitely having an impact.

Edie… Evelyn asks about the US numbers.

We'll try to get those to you.

Iftikhar, do we have any comment on new law instruct… introduced by India that could alter the demography of Indian‑occupied Kashmir?

I will take a look into it.  I have not seen that.

We are concerned by the increased violence in and around Tripoli, which does seem to come from the LNA side, but it's important that all parties respect the ceasefire.

Toby, what does it mean that food prices are going down?  Is it going to be expected during a supply chain?

Toby, you probably studied macroeconomics more than I did in university.  I would ask you to go to the FAO, which puts together this price index.  They are much smarter than me on these issues. 

On Afghanistan, Pam, I think I addressed that in answering Edie's question.

Just trying to see if there are any more questions.

Would the Secretary‑General like to have a Security Council support… resolution to support the ceasefire?

Yes, we welcome in all and every act of support from the international community, whether it is individually or as a group in support of the Secretary‑General's call for a global ceasefire.

Okay.  And I'm told that 23 UN staff in the United States tested positive.  So, that includes staff from New York and Washington, where the World Bank and IMF are housed.

Last call.  Going once, going twice.  Okay, I see some…

What about the rats questions? I did not see the rats questions but I will…

Florencia, if you could send me what the rat question is. 

Oh.  Is it true that rats have taken over UN Headquarters?

I will refrain from making any bad jokes, but I'm not aware of an increase in rodent population at the UN Headquarters while staff is telecommuting, but I will do my utmost to look into this very important question. 

So, on that note, I bid you farewell, and we will see you with the Secretary‑General tomorrow…

Iftikhar, I'm feeling very well.  Thank you. 

And I think, as we've told some of you bilaterally, we are working on looking at different options to make this more interactive so I can actually hear your questions instead of responding to them like some isolated talk radio host. 

Take care, and thank you, all.

For information media. Not an official record.