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14 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 happy Tuesday

Just a reminder please mute your microphones, so I will be able to call on you in the question-and-answer period.

COVID-19 — Misinformation

The Secretary-General today said in a video message, just released, that as the world fights the deadly COVID-19 pandemic we are also seeing another pandemic -- the dangerous epidemic of misinformation.

Around the world, people are scared, he said, and they want to know what to do and where to turn to for advice.

The Secretary-General announced a new United Nations Communications Response initiative to flood the Internet with facts and science while countering the growing scourge of misinformation — a poison that is putting even more lives at risk.

He called on everyone to unite against this disease by trusting science and journalists who are fact-checking misleading stories.  The Secretary-General also called on trust in institutions — grounded in responsive, responsible, evidence-based governance and leadership.

And finally, he called on trust in each other, adding that upholding human rights must be our compass in navigating this crisis.

**Solidarity Flights

The first UN “Solidarity Flight” is scheduled to leave Addis Ababa shortly to bring medical supplies and protective equipment to boost COVID-19 response on the African continent.

The flight is part of a UN initiative to scale up the logistics to facilitate the procurement and distribution of pandemic response supplies.

Working with the Government of Ethiopia, the World Food Programme (WFP) has opened up a new hub inside Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport.  From there, supplies and equipment and humanitarian workers will be transported by air across Ethiopia and Africa.  Medical evacuations will also be facilitated.

A team of 25 World Food Programme aviation and logistics staff are now based at the airport to manage the operations 24 hours a day.

A first cargo flight — coming from another humanitarian logistics hub in the United Arab Emirates — landed in Addis Ababa yesterday.  The plane was loaded with supplies from the World Health Organization (WHO) that are now being prepared for distribution to 32 African countries.

These flights are a result of the Secretary-General’s work to mobilize the UN’s global supply chain in support of the global efforts to fight the pandemic.

The African Union, through the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) is providing technical support and coordination for the distribution of these supplies.

As part of OCHA’s (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) COVID-19 global humanitarian appeal, the World Food Programme is calling for $350 million to support common aviation, shipping, storage and transport, as well as engineering services in areas affected by the pandemic.

**Security Council — Colombia

Back in New York, this morning, the Security Council was briefed by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Colombia, Carlos Ruiz Massieu.

He told Council members that as in every other country, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound impact on Colombia, and the peace process will undoubtedly feel its effects.  However, he said, it is encouraging to see Colombians finding creative responses to the crisis.

Mr. Ruiz Massieu said the implementation of the peace agreement depends on constant engagement between the parties, as well as key State institutions, civil society organizations, partners from the international community and others, and he added that this continues to happen remotely, given the current circumstances.

The Special Representative added that the UN Mission there has also taken measures in line with our business continuity and contingency plans so that the country team is also supporting the Government in its response to the pandemic.

Mr. Ruis Massieu stressed that the first priority continues to be to adopt all necessary measures to protect social leaders, human rights defenders and former combatants, as violence against them continues unabated despite the national quarantine.

Mr. Ruiz Massieu also noted that despite the global ceasefire call, clashes continue between illegal armed groups, and he said he urged them to desist from perpetrating violence.

**COVID-19 — Syria

And turning to Syria:  In a statement today, the Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, Imran Riza, said that 25 COVID-19 cases, including the tragic deaths of two people, have been confirmed to date in the country.  Having seen the trajectory of other countries, he said that the UN, alongside our partners, are doing everything we can to support a comprehensive, multi-pronged effort to stem the impacts of the pandemic.

In line with the World Health Organization’s global recommendations, the UN is prioritizing support to rapidly enhance laboratory and case investigation capacity across Syria.  To this end, WHO has already supported extensive rehabilitation of the Central Public Health Lab in Damascus, trained dozens of laboratory technicians and rapid response team members in testing and sample collection, and procured critical diagnosis equipment, including five polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines and multiple shipments of testing kits.

With these efforts, testing capacity has already quadrupled.  In addition, WHO is supporting the training of more laboratory technicians to support three new laboratories in Aleppo, Homs and Lattakia governorates, with testing due to commence soon.  This is an important first step towards the Ministry of Health achieving their goal of a working lab in each of Syria’s 14 governorates.

At the same time, the UN is determined, alongside our partners, to keep delivering the humanitarian assistance to Syrians in need, who need it now more than ever.  We are working to ensure as little disruption to our range of existing aid programmes as possible.

Whether it’s WFP’s food assistance to 3.5 million Syrians each month, or UNRWA’s (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) support to 438,000 Palestine refugees, mobile health clinics, vaccinations for children, essential protection programmes, education in camps, or support to farmers, humanitarian assistance is being adapted wherever it is possible.

**COVID-19 — Afghanistan

And in Afghanistan, our colleagues at the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) urged today greater support for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran in the context of the current pandemic.

UNHCR warned that Afghanistan faces the prospect of overwhelmed medical and social services, with a dramatic increase in Afghans returning home, hundreds of thousands of people living in displacement sites and rising poverty levels.  Pakistan and Iran, which host some 90 per cent of the world’s 2.7 million Afghan refugees, are also experiencing immense strain on their health systems and economies.

UNHCR’s funding appeal of some $315 million required for the Afghan situation is merely 17 per cent funded.

**COVID-19 — Bangladesh

Turning to Bangladesh:  With COVID-19 posing risks to one of the largest refugee camps in the world in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, the Government and its UN partners are working to ensure that there are health systems, services in place for Rohingya refugees and the host community, and that they are ready.

The 35 health-care facilities supported by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) continue to provide essential primary health services, while its partners have trained community health workers and volunteers.  More than 110,000 people have been reached so far with messages on how to prevent the spread of the virus.

IOM is helping to procure personal protective equipment and has also sent medical professionals to help in hospitals.

**COVID-19 — Chile

And in South America, in Chile, where there have been some 7,200 confirmed COVID-19 cases, the UN team has been closely working with the Government since the beginning of the outbreak, addressing the immediate health issues and the socioeconomic impacts.

The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) has provided technical assistance and advice to the Ministry of Health and is part of the Administration’s committee to plan and respond to the emergency.

The UN Resident Coordinator in the country is working with the Government to protect vulnerable populations.

The UN team will redirect its $1.5 million Joint SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Fund to boost social protection and inclusion for the elderly.  The UN team in Chile is also helping homeless people and people with disabilities.

**COVID-19 — Mexico

And turning to Mexico:  The UN migration agency today launched a campaign in Mexico through social networks with the aim of sensitizing citizens about the importance of avoiding xenophobia and hate speech towards migrants during the COVID emergency.

The initiative, entitled “COVID-19 does not discriminate, why do you?”, highlights incidents of misinformation that spread fear.  The campaign aims to reach populations in communities where there are migrant shelters, safe houses, or temporary camps for people on the move.  More information online.

**COVID-19 — Children and Armed Conflict

The Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, has welcomed the effective implementation of ceasefires by parties to conflict following the global call for peace made by the Secretary-General on 23 March.

Ms. Gamba urged all parties to push further their commitment to peace by putting an immediate end to the recruitment and use of children as a key component of a ceasefire.

**COVID-19 — Refugee Health Professionals

And our colleagues at the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, together with the Council of Europe today encouraged Member States to benefit from the support that refugee health professionals can provide during the COVID-19 response.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, noted that several States in Europe have publicly appealed for refugee health professionals to join in national responses to the virus.  He emphasized that the UN agency fully supports such initiatives whereby health professionals can show their solidarity and give back to the communities sheltering them.

UNHCR is engaging with partners to find innovative ways to reach out to refugee communities, identify willing health practitioners, and facilitate access to online tests.

**COVID-19 — Measles

And the World Health Organization, and its partners, [including the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)] in the Measles & Rubella Initiative have warned that, as COVID-19 continues to spread, more than 117 million children in 37 countries may miss out on the life-saving measles vaccine.

Immunization campaigns in 24 countries have already been delayed, with more to be postponed.  More information online.

**Cyclone Harold

And in other news, the UN humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, yesterday announced the release of $2.5 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to get life-saving aid to thousands of people affected by Tropical Cyclone Harold in Vanuatu.

The cyclone made landfall in Vanuatu on 6 April on the island of Espiritu Santo, before hitting the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Tonga.  Initial assessments suggest that as much as 90 per cent of the population in Sanma, the most affected province of Vanuatu, have lost their homes.

More than half of all schools and almost a quarter of health centres were also damaged.  Crops have been destroyed and many communities are now cut off from help because of flooding and the destruction of roads.

The CERF funds will enable UN agencies and humanitarian organizations to get safe drinking water, food, shelter, and health care where it is most needed.

And that concludes my bit of the briefing.  I will then happily go to your questions and for which I need my glasses.

Let’s see what our friendly moderator tells us.

**Questions and Answers

Okay.  Edie, go ahead.

Question:  Thank you very much, Steph.  I have a couple of questions.

Spokesman:  Unmute… go ahead.

Question:  What is the prob… first, does the Secretary‑General have any reaction to the firing of a barrage of missiles today by the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), another missile launch?

Secondly…

[cross talk]

Spokesman:  Okay.

Question:  All right.  Go ahead.

Spokesman:  No.  Go ahead.  Go ahead, Edie.

Question:  Okay.  Secondly, is there any update on Yemen on Martin Griffiths’ talks with the Houthis and the Government on trying to get a real ceasefire?

And having just read and listened to you on the Secretary‑General’s announcement on trying to tackle misinformation on COVID‑19, he talked about a new UN communications response initiative to flood the Internet with facts and science.  How exactly is the UN planning to do this?  And, secondly, he said that the social media organizations need to do more.  Is he planning to speak, or has he spoken with any of the heads… the major heads of the big social media organizations?

Spokesman:  Okay.  Let me start with DPRK.  We’re, obviously, concerned by these latest reports.  I think we’re… once again, we call on the DPRK leadership to comply fully with its obligations under relevant Security Council resolutions.  For us… and we’ve said in the past and we’ll continue saying that diplomatic engagement remains the only pathway for sustainable peace and complete and verifiable denuclearization.

On the initiative, this will be done on various prongs, notably using social media channels.  I think we have seen… you know, whether it’s on WhatsApp groups or on other social media platforms, there have been spread of disinformation that is not just wrong but that can be harmful to the efforts of treating the pandemic globally.  I think it’s very important that people focus on the science and the facts in how to deal with the pandemic.

We will be in touch with various social media companies, and I think it is important noting that quite a few of them have already and are very active in trying to root out misinformation, suspending accounts of people that are actively pushing out just information that is plain wrong and dangerous.  And we think there’s very much… there’s a way to do this without hampering everyone’s right to free speech.

Maria?

Question:  What… you forgot my question on Yemen.

Spokesman:  Oh, yes, on Yemen.  Sorry.  Discussions are continuing on Yemen.  Martin Griffiths is very much engaged with all the parties, and when, I think, he’s ready to emerge with some update, he will do so.  But he’s spending quite a lot of time on the phone and, I assume, on various videoconferencing platforms.

Maria?

Question:  Hi, Steph, and everyone.  Glad to see you.

Spokesman:  Good to see you.

Question:  I have two questions.  I have two questions.  One a follow‑up on Africa.  While you are trying to help countries, do you have any estimation when the apex of the disease will be reached in African countries, like, generally in African region or separate and different African countries?

And second question on Russia, do you have any estimation of how the situation is developing there, like, how the Russian Government is dealing with the situation, and has SG been in touch with Russian authorities?

Spokesman:  On your sec… on your last part on Russia, I will have to get back to you and see what contacts have been had relating to COVID‑19.

On the part from Africa, I think, to underscore the need to respect the science, those are questions best asked of the World Health Organization and the Africa CDC.  From our point, we… you know, we are not in the scientific lead.  So, the World Health Organization, I think, would be able to answer your question, and I think it’s note… it’s important to note the very important role being played by the Africa Centres for Disease Control, which has been updating the public regularly.

We are working in support of African‑led initiatives to fight COVID‑19, and that’s exactly what these solidarity flights are, in support of them.  Over.

Abdelhamid.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Can you hear me now?

Spokesman:  Perfectly.

Question:  Okay.

Spokesman:  I see Maria, but I hear you.  Go ahead.

Question:  In Tripoli, there is 27 health facilities.  Fourteen of them were damaged beyond any repair.  The SG had an initiative to investigate health facilities damaged in north-western Syria.  Can he do the same from what happened and could he help facilities in Tripoli, which could be labelled as war crimes?

Spokesman:  It’s a valid question.  The investigation into the destruction of cases in Libya – I’m sorry, in Syria - was based on what we had in terms of… sorry.  Let me rephrase that.  The investigation in Syria was based on the fact that there was direct financial support to the health facilities that were destroyed.  It was… they were des… they were… so, this was why it was done as a Board of Inquiry within the framework of the Secretary‑General’s own authority.

We are very concerned about the situation… the escalation of violence in Libya.  I think it’s, frankly, alarming.  We’ve seen… in the areas close to Tripoli, as you mentioned, we have seen the destruction of health facilities.  And, frankly, for the last months… for more than a year, we’ve been calling out not only the destruction but sometimes the targeting of health professionals.  We’ve seen ambulances and ambulance drivers being targeted.

The UN Mission on the ground, the humanitarian team has been calling and continues to call on all parties to the conflict to de‑escalate the fighting, to immediately respect the calls by the Secretary‑General and the international community for a humanitarian pause.

Libya’s problems are not going to be solved by this continued fighting, this continued violence, this continuing suffering of the Libyan people.

Meanwhile, our humanitarian team on the ground and our… the partners, especially the local partners on the ground were all continuing their efforts to respond to the urgent humanitarian needs at this time.  And this is a message that has been passed… the message of the need to de‑conflict has been passed to all the parties in Libya.

Benny Avni?

Question:  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes, I can hear you.  I can hear you.

Question:  Okay.  So, you said before that there will be guarantees for free speech, but this is quite a tricky situation, isn’t it?  I mean, there are a lot of leaders around the world who are fighting misinformation, disinformation, fake news, etc., pretending to fight it, while, in fact, what they are doing is hampering free speech.  How exactly are you going to play that tricky situation?

Spokesman:  It is, of course, a delicate balance.  The right to free speech is the right to free speech, and it doesn’t have any… it needs to be respected.  But that’s a balancing act that is played out every day around the world, even in the most free democracies.

It is clear that, you know, news organizations, social media organizations have responsibilities to make sure not to spread information that is just highly detrimental, if not dangerous, to our efforts to spread the virus.

Mr. Bays?

Question:  Who decides that?  Who decides what’s misinformation, what’s…

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General is not going to be the one to decide.  What we are doing is we will push out scientifically based information, information that will help us, as the global community, fight the virus.

Social media companies, news organizations are making those decisions all the time.  I think… but I think it is important that we all do what we can to fight the spread of dangerous misinformation on fighting the virus.

Mr. Bays?

Question:  I have two questions for you, Steph.  I’d like to follow up on what you were just talking about.  The Secretary‑General’s new statement talks about evidence‑based governance and leadership.  Is he worried that some of the information coming from places that should be trusted sources is not reliable?  And, specifically, can I ask you about President [Donald] Trump saying you should perhaps try hydroxychloroquine when medical professionals are saying that could be very dangerous?  My second question will come after that.

Spokesman:  Okay.  This message has been in the works for quite some time now.  This is something that’s been of concern to the Secretary‑General.  It is not targeted at one particular individual or one particular Member State.  It is something that we have seen the world over and is of concern to the Secretary‑General, and that’s why he decided to issue the message.  Second question, James.

Question:  My second question is, there’s a Security Council meeting coming up on Syria, chemical weapons.  When the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) came up with its landmark report last week, the Secretary‑General noted that report.  I’m wondering whether there’s a chance now to read it in detail.  And can I ask you, does the Secretary‑General condemn the Syrian Government’s use of chemical weapons, not just the use of chemical weapons in general?

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General has, indeed, received the report.  Our experts are studying it in detail.

We once again reiterate 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.

There will be a further… as you mentioned, there will be a briefing to the Security Council, and Izumi Nakamitsu, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, will be briefing the Council on 15 April.  And I think we’ll be able to share that statement, and I will have more information… [cross talk]

Question:  A very quick follow-up.  He says it’s important that the person… the people who carry out the attacks are identified.  The OPCW has done its job.  It’s identified the Syrian Government.  He then says there should be accountability.  So, surely, the first part of the accountability is the Secretary-General directly condemning the Syrian Government for the actions by the OPCW.  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  I think we’ve… we’re directly condemning the use of chemical weapons.

Question:  By the Syrian Government?

Spokesman:  Pam.  Pam Falk.  I’ve used the words that I can use.  Pam?

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Question is, yesterday, Farhan [Haq] said that there would be new guidelines issued by the WHO on wet mar… on my question on wet markets.  He said, “I believe the” WHO “today made clear and will have new and revised guidelines coming out tomorrow.”  I’ve looked.  I’ve asked WHO.  Do you know of any new guidelines that have been issued today?

Spokesman:  I think you’d have to check… as always, if Farhan said it, it must be true, but I think you’d have to check with WHO.

Correspondent:  All right.  If there’s any way you can also find out, I’d appreciate it.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Ibtisam?

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Good to see you.  So, I have two questions.  The first one has… a follow‑up on Yemen.  So, you said that Mr. Griffiths has the front meet… virtual meetings or phone calls.  Are these meetings with… like, with any party apart, or did he have any meeting where the front parties were together in the same call?

And my second question has to do with the Security Council meeting last week on corona, COVID‑19.  So, the Security Council came with a very thin press element statement or press elements.  How disappointed is the Secretary‑General?  And does he want to see resolution as there was resolutions on HIV or Ebola from the Security Council?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  All I would say on the Security Council is that we would… obviously, I think, we would all benefit in any situation from a strong, united voice from the Security Council.

Your first question, oh, was on Yemen.  My understanding is that there mostly… there have been different permutation of meetings.  I’m not aware that there has been a meeting with all of the parties present via video, but I will check… we’ll check with Martin’s team and get back to you.  [The Spokesman later said that there have so far been no virtual meetings with all the parties.]

Iftikhar was asking about the situation in Afghanistan.  Are UNHCR and WHO personnel on the ground in Pakistan helping authorities with the refugees?

Yes, UNHCR is present on the ground in those countries.

All right.  I don’t see any more questions.

Just to let you know that, if all goes well, we will have the Secretary‑General do a virtual press briefing on Thursday, probably around 12:30… anywhere between 11 and 12:30.  We don’t know exactly what time, but we’re working towards that.

That’s it.  We shall see you all mañana.  Take care.  Bye-bye.

For information media. Not an official record.