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8 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.

Good afternoon and thank you for joining us for today’s briefing on this new platform.

As you know, once you have a question, just send a text or signal that you want to ask me a question.  Stephanie [Tremblay] will then know who it is.  I will call on you and will be able to hear you.

As a reminder, please mute your microphones now.

**Libya

Starting with Libya:  In a statement we issued yesterday, the Secretary-General strongly condemned the heavy shelling of Al Khadra General Hospital in Tripoli.  He also condemned the continued attacks on medical personnel, hospitals and medical facilities, particularly at a time when they are critical to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Secretary-General reminds all parties that medical personnel, hospitals and facilities are protected under international humanitarian law and that attacks on them may constitute a war crime.

The Secretary-General reiterates his call for a global ceasefire and a humanitarian pause in Libya in order to save lives and enable the Libyan authorities and their partners to devote all their energies to stopping the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

**COVID-19 — Africa

Staying in Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) says the confirmed numbers of COVID-19 on the continent has risen to more than 10,000, with more than 500 recorded deaths.

While the virus was slow to reach the continent compared to other parts of the world, infections have grown exponentially in recent weeks and are continuing to spread.

Reaching the continent through travellers returning from other hotspots, Africa’s first COVID-19 case was recorded in Egypt on 14 February.  Since then, a total of 52 countries have reported cases.

The World Health Organization is calling for a decentralized response, which is tailored to the local context.  Communities need to be empowered, and provincial and district levels of government need to ensure they have the resources and expertise to respond to the outbreaks locally.

WHO is working with governments across Africa to scale up their capacities in critical response areas such as coordination, surveillance, isolation, case management and contact tracing, as well as infection prevention and control, risk communication, as well as community engagement, including laboratory capacity.

**COVID-19 — Asia

Tuning to Asia:  Our colleagues there, at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), say that COVID-19 is having far-reaching economic and social consequences for the region, with strong cross-border spillover effects through trade, tourism and financial linkages.

A new report highlights the immediate risk to the region’s economic outlook posed by the pandemic, deepening the economic slowdown that was already under way.

**COVID-19 — UNICEF

In a statement issued today, the head of UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), Henrietta Fore, said that COVID-19 virus is generating an unprecedented global economic crisis, with the economic destruction cruelly and unequally distributed.

For the world’s poorest countries, the financial fallout caused by the pandemic, combined with debilitating debt-service obligations, are hampering their ability to prevent further transmission and protect citizens, said Ms. Fore.

She noted that, for the families within those countries, with widespread loss of income and limited access to food in environments where social distancing is impossible, soap and water for handwashing is a luxury, and quality health services non-existent, the situation is already dire, and it is only going to get worse.

While children are largely spared the immediate health consequences of the pandemic, they will suffer the economic destruction left in its wake, Ms. Fore cautioned.  More than 200 million children live in debt-distressed countries and those at high risk of debt distress.  Her full statement is online.

**COVID-19 — Venezuela

Turning to the situation in Venezuela, the UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for the country, Peter Grohmann, said that the first shipment of 90 tons of UN life-saving supplies is scheduled to arrive today in Venezuela to support the COVID-19 response.

This shipment includes 28,000 Personal Protective Equipment kits for health workers on the front-line, as well as oxygen concentrators, paediatric beds, water quality control products and hygiene kits.  These are among the items to be shipped in.

The supplies were financed by the international donor community, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and UN agencies.  Today’s flight was also arranged by UNICEF.

The supplies will be made available to health-care centres and the most vulnerable people through the partners of the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), UNICEF and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).

In support of national efforts to respond to the pandemic, the UN and our humanitarian partners are appealing for $61 million to scale up the response under the COVID-19 Prevention and Response Plan in Venezuela.

The Plan focuses on strengthening the capacity of the health system to quickly identify and treat COVID-19 patients; supply water, hygiene and sanitation in prioritized hospitals and communities; and provide timely and trustworthy information to the public to prevent the spread of the virus.

The Plan also seeks to ensure other critical humanitarian programmes can continue, including provisions of food, nutrition, protection, and education among others.

The UN is calling for solidarity, access and increased funding to help combat the pandemic and save lives, while urging donors to sustain the existing Humanitarian Response Plan.

As of yesterday (7 April), 166 COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Venezuela and seven deaths were reported.

**COVID-19 — Nigeria

Turning to Nigeria, the UN there is supporting the Government-led efforts in curbing the spread of the virus, where we today donated three ambulances to Lagos State, home to some 21 million people.

Other essential preventative, testing and treatment equipment has been procured by the UN and is expected to arrive in the country in the coming days.

**Zimbabwe

Staying in Africa, turning to Zimbabwe, where the severe climate- and recession-induced hunger crisis is deepening the COVID-19 crisis.  The World Food Programme (WFP) said today that they are urgently calling for $130 million through August to help millions of the most vulnerable people in the country.

A recent nationwide assessment found that the number of acutely food insecure Zimbabweans has risen to 4.3 million, from 3.8 million at the end of last year.

WFP’s Director in the country, Eddie Rowe, said that, with most Zimbabweans already struggling to put food on the table, the COVID pandemic risks even wider and deeper desperation.

The total number of food insecure people in Zimbabwe is now at 7.7 million, which is more than half of the country’s population.

**COVID-19 — Latin America

And an update on some of our operations in Latin America, where the UN Humanitarian Response Depot (UNHRD), which is located in Panama — the Depot, managed by the World Food Programme (WFP), is the primary regional logistics hub responding to COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean.

A COVID-19 special unit was created and has planned to double the number of staff, including a pharmacist, to manage the cold warehouse, where medications will be stored.

The Depot has already airlifted more than eight tons of supplies to 24 countries, on behalf of the Pan American Health Organization and the WHO, including COVID-19 kits.

With several commercial flights cancelled around the world, the Humanitarian Depot now plays an important role in the pandemic response.  The Depot manager in Panama said that they are trying to ensure that humanitarian cargo reaches its destination within 48 hours of order placement.

**COVID-19 — Europe

And a note from the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), which is reiterating its call to all countries to facilitate the cross-border flow of goods, in particular food, to the maximum extent possible during the ongoing pandemic and to make full use of existing trade facilitation standards.

The Commission is sharing online information on the pandemic’s impact on Europe’s food and agriculture sector and on global food supply chains.

**COVID-19 — Spain

And a note from Spain, where our colleagues at the local chapter of UNICEF said that they delivered a first batch of medical supplies to the Spanish health authorities to support the fight against the pandemic.  The shipment includes hand sanitizer and gloves and more supplies are expected in the coming days, including masks, gloves, detection kits, and personal protective equipment.

The donation is part of UNICEF’s global COVID-19 response, in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) and done through the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, currently being promoted by the United Nations Foundation.

**COVID-19 — Faith-in-Action Initiative

And the UNICEF and the Religions for Peace (RfP) coalition yesterday launched a global Multi-Religious Faith-in-Action COVID-19 Initiative.  The aim is to raise awareness of the impacts of the virus pandemic on the world’s youngest citizens.

The initiative reflects the unique and critical roles played by religious leaders and actors, in influencing values, attitudes and actions that affect the development and well-being for the world’s children.

The initiative is coordinated by the global partnership on Faith and Positive Change for Children, Families and Communities, which involves Religions for Peace’s Interreligious Councils, including senior leaders of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions.

**COVID-19 — Labour

And lastly, according to a new report issued by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to wipe out 6.7 per cent of working hours globally in the second quarter of 2020.  That is equivalent to 195 million full-time workers.

The report highlights some of the worst affected sectors and regions, and outlines policies to mitigate the crisis.

There is more information online.

I will now take your questions.  But as a reminder, once again, please mute your microphones, or this will not be possible.

So, let’s see how we do this.

And I will go to Stephanie, who is sending me questions.

**Questions and Answers

All right.  Edie, if you want to go ahead and ask the question, and I will hope to hear you.  Go ahead.

Question:  Thank you very much, Steph.  I have two questions.  What is the Secretary‑General’s reaction to the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) report blaming the Syrian air force for a series of chemical attacks in March 2017 on the central town of Ltamenah?

And my second question is a follow‑up to President [Donald] Trump’s threat to cut off funding to the World Health Organization.  Has the Secretary‑General spoken to Dr. Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus], the head of the World Health Organization, and/or has he spoken to anyone in the Trump Administration about the President’s threat to cut the agency’s funding?

Spokesman:  Sure.  Okay.  Let me start with the OPCW.  The Secretary‑General has taken note of the issuance of the first report by the OPCW, which was submitted to the Executive Council of the OPCW by its Investigation and Identification unit.  I think for the questions regarding the content and the conclusions of the first report, they should be directed to the OPCW.

As a matter of principle, it goes without saying, but I will restate it, that the Secretary‑General reiterates his position that the use of chemical weapons by anyone anywhere is intolerable, and impunity for their use is equally unacceptable.  It is imperative to identify and hold accountable all those who have used chemical weapons.

On the issue of WHO and funding — and we’ve seen reporting and comments made in different parts of the world — I will tell you that the Secretary‑General has been, of course, in touch with the World Health Organization, as well as with the US authorities.

And let me just… if you’ll allow me just a few minutes, I will share with you the Secretary‑General’s thoughts on the very important work of WHO and that the COVID‑19 pandemic is one of the most dangerous challenges this world has faced in our lifetime.  It’s, above all, a human crisis with severe health and socioeconomic consequences.

The World Health Organization, with thousands of its staff, is on the front lines, supporting Member States and their societies, especially the most vulnerable among them, with guidance, training, equipment and concrete life‑saving services as they fight the virus.

The Secretary‑General had a chance to witness first‑hand the courage and determination of WHO staff when he visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo last year, where WHO staff is working in very precarious conditions and very dangerous and remote locations as they fight the deadly Ebola virus.  And it’s been a remarkable success for WHO that no new cases of Ebola have been registered in months.

It’s the Secretary‑General’s belief that the World Health Organization must be supported, as it is absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against COVID‑19.

This virus is unprecedented in our lifetime and requires an unprecedented response.  Obviously, in such conditions, it’s possible that the same facts have had different readings by different entities.  Once we finally turn the page on this epidemic, there must be a time to look back fully to understand how such a disease emerged and spread its devastation so quickly across the globe and how all those involved reacted to the crisis.  The lessons learned will be essential to effectively address similar challenges as they may arise in the future.

But now is not that time.  Now is the time for unity, for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences.

I will go to Iftikhar now.  Iftikhar, if you want to turn on your microphone, Iftikhar Ali.

All right.  Let’s try James Bays.

Question:  Hello, Steph.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  I can hear you.  So nice to hear your voice, James.  It’s been too long.

Question:  Okay.  I’d like to ask a question and, if I can, as in the briefing room, be afforded a follow‑up question, too.  My question is about the OPCW report.  Given the long and horrible saga of chemical weapons in Syria, this is a very important moment.  The UN’s chemical weapons body has come up with a conclusion on three cases — they say the [Bashar al] Assad Government was responsible.  Will the Secretary‑General condemn the Assad Government for those chemical attacks?

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General… I mean, first of all, I will say that the report is being done by the OPCW.  They are responsible for any questions regarding the report, is very… should be directed to them.

Anyone… it is… and I think the OPCW has done very important work by identifying and by… with this report.  The Secretary‑General… his position is unchanged, that any… it is intolerable that anyone anywhere use chemical weapons, and impunity for use of these is equally unacceptable.  And it’s imperative to identify and hold those accountable who have used chemical weapons.  So, I think that is my answer.

Question:  Follow‑up, please.

Spokesman:  Go ahead.  Yep, go ahead.

Question:  Yeah.  You say it’s intolerable for anyone to do this, but the OPCW says that the Assad Government did it.  Will you not condemn the Assad Government?  And why are you playing this lame game of not taking sides, trying to be equal to both sides?  Aren’t you leaving one very important side out of this?  And that’s the Syrian people, who have been gassed and, over the last 50 years by the Assad regime, have been executed and tortured.

Spokesman:  I think we are on the front lines with the Syrian people.  We have been… our humanitarian colleagues have been there throughout this conflict trying to support the Syrian people in their daily lives.  We have been there since… for years, and we will continue to be there.  We have been there through conflict in very dangerous conditions.

Obviously, the ones who are suffering the most are the people of Syria.  And, as I said, anyone who uses chemical weapons is to be condemned.

Iftikhar, have you been able to join?

Okay.  Trying to see if there are any more… Dulcie, go ahead, Dulcie Leimbach, PassBlue?  Go ahead, Dulcie.

Correspondent:  Steph, it’s Edie.  I think some people are having trouble getting on, but they’ve put questions in chat.

Spokesman:  Okay.  So, let’s… I think Iftikhar… I see a question from Iftikhar Ali.  Does the Secretary‑General’s 23 March global call for a ceasefire also apply to the Line of Control in the disputed Kashmir region?

There is no region in the world in which the Secretary‑General’s call for a global ceasefire does not apply.  That is clear.  It is global.  Global means global.

Dulcie asks, how much does US owe in peacekeeping?

I don’t have the figures off the top of my head.  I understand they’re in the process of paying or have paid quite a big chunk of that, but we can get you those numbers.  I don’t have them… the numbers with me.

Question:  Steph, I have a… it’s Pam Falk.  Can we just ask?

Spokesman:  Go ahead, Pam.

Question:  Thank you.  I… just, on the coronavirus Security Council closed meeting tomorrow, do you… do you have any teaser or sense of what the Secretary‑General’s message will be or have any… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General has been asked by the Security Council to brief.  He will basically give a broad update on the impact of the virus on the UN’s operations, political operations, peacekeeping, humanitarian, and so forth.

Dulcie was asking about the number of cases in peacekeeping.

I don’t have that breakdown.  I can tell you that, as of yesterday evening, there were 175 confirmed cases among UN staff worldwide, 32 in the US, and that’s 19 here in the Secretariat.

Betul is asking if we’re going to release the Secretary‑General’s statement.

The statement will be made in closed consultations.  So, those are traditionally not released, but let’s wait till the end of the meeting, and we’ll see what we can do.

Evelyn asks, how many African countries have been impacted by the coronavirus?

From what I’ve just read, that number, according to the World Health Organization, is 52.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Any other questions?  Oh.  Ahmed Fathi, go ahead.  I think, Ahmed, you had a question about WHO, so I’ve answered that in the statement.  Yeah, all the questions on WHO, I’ve already answered.

Question:  Steph, I have a question about the peacekeeping announcement yesterday.

Spokesman:  Go ahead.  Go ahead.

Question:  The peacekeeping announcement had a reaction… there was an immediate reaction from the EU 27 ambassadors.  They seemed concerned.  They said, of course, they understand the need for suspension of redeployments and of… but, that said, that peacekeeping work has to continue.  What… what is your sense of the level of concern of contributing countries, and should they be concerned?  Thanks.

Spokesman:  I think, you know, everyone is concerned by this crisis.  Our colleagues in the Department of Peace Operations and Department of [Operational] Support are doing their utmost to mitigate the spread of COVID‑19 to our peacekeeping missions with also mitigating the impact on our ability to do work, and that really… that’s a principle that applies across the board in the UN.

We are all living in a strange new world, and we have to take the best possible precautions so that the UN does not become a vector for the spread of the virus.

Question:  Steph, it’s Edie.  A follow‑up on that.  Has the Secretary‑General… has the UN received requests from any troop- or police-contributing countries to bring their troops or police home because of COVID‑19?

Spokesman:  I will have to check.  I know the policy put forward had room for exceptions, very strict exceptions, but I will check with our colleagues in peace operations and get back to you.

Okay.  Any more questions?

Question:  A very quick follow‑up on the WHO funding cutbacks.  You said the Sec… you made the Sec… or you stated the Secretary‑General’s comment.  Is there any effort to speak with President Trump?

Spokesman:  As I said, we are in touch with the US Administration at various levels, and we will issue what I’ve just read as a statement from the Secretary-General very shortly, so you will have the exact words that I’ve read out.

All right.  Well… [cross talk]

Question:  One more question?

Spokesman:  Yeah.  Yes, go ahead.

Question:  Stéphane, there are millions of workers in the Gulf region, foreign workers, in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates.  Those workers don’t have health insurance.  They cannot go back to their homes.  And if the situation continues to deteriorate, do you have any idea what could happen to those millions of workers?  Does the SG think… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  In every country, there are vulnerable populations.  Migrant workers, refugees, undocumented migrant workers are all very vulnerable.  What is important is that countries give the same health… access to health‑care protection and medical facilities to their citizens, as well as those vulnerable populations.  Everyone who lives on these territories should be given the same access to COVID‑19 medical facilities, because in order to beat this virus, we’re going to have to address individuals regardless of their status.  And, obviously, those migrant workers are also not only more vulnerable from a health standpoint, they’re also much more vulnerable from an economic standpoint.

Dulcie was asking for the number of fatalities in the UN system, and there are two, one in the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and one in WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization.

All right.  Any more questions?

Well, I’m sad not to see you, but I’m happy to finally hear you.  And a big thanks to our technicians who have made this possible.

All right.

Correspondent:  Thank you, Steph.

Spokesman:  Hasta mañana.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.