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17 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 — Debt

Good afternoon.  A short while ago, we released the Secretary-General’s policy brief on debt and COVID-19.  It shows that the global pandemic-induced contraction in economic activity is having disastrous consequences, including on debt sustainability.

The brief outlines that this is not limited to low-income countries.  Middle-income countries, home to 75 per cent of the world’s population and 62 per cent of the world’s poor, are also highly vulnerable to a debt crisis, lost market access and capital outflows.

While in the best-case scenario, recovery in developed countries’ economies may start by the end of 2020 and reverberate to developing countries, it is also possible that this may be the start of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Apart from dealing with the immediate pandemic, additional resources will also be needed to stimulate demand, regenerate jobs and restore supply capacity to pre-crisis levels, let alone to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

**COVID-19 — Bretton Woods Institutions

Also today, at the World Bank/International Monetary Fund (IMF) virtual spring meetings, the Secretary-General addressed the high-level event on “Mobilizing with Africa”.

In his remarks, he underscored that during this crisis, the African Union and the African continent have shown unity and leadership — two of the most scarce commodities at the present time.

The Secretary-General warned that, as with the climate crisis, the African continent could end up suffering the most from a crisis that is not of its making.

The Secretary-General added that to help address the devastating economic and social consequences, he has been asking since the beginning for a comprehensive global response package amounting to a double-digit percentage of global Gross Domestic Product.

He pointed out that alleviating crushing debt is absolutely crucial and welcomed G20 steps, including the suspension of debt service payments for all IDA [International Development Association] countries and least developed countries.

For the Secretary-General, that’s a start.  But the severity of the crisis demands more.

Mr. Guterres also emphasized the need to focus on the most vulnerable and to ensure that the rights of all people are protected.  His remarks, as well as the policy brief have been shared with you.

**COVID-19 — Food Security

Meanwhile, the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, spoke this morning by video to the Group of Friends on Food Security and Nutrition.

She told them that, in the face of the current pandemic, it will not take much to tip millions more people into food insecurity.  An economic shock on the scale we are experiencing presents a real and present danger.

She said that we must act now, in a coherent and coordinated way, if we are to prevent COVID-19 from resulting in widespread hunger and food insecurity.

She added that, as we work on the immediate response to the pandemic, we must seize the opportunity to build back better by considering the complex links that underpin our food systems.  Now is the time to build the sustainable, resilient and inclusive food systems that we need to achieve the 2030 Agenda and create a better future for all on a healthy planet.  Her remarks are also with you.

On a related note, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the African Union and international partners yesterday sent out a joint declaration in which they committed to supporting access to food and nutrition for the most vulnerable in Africa.  They described the food and agriculture system as an essential service that must continue to operate during periods of lockdown, curfew and other containment measures.  You can read more on this on FAO’s website.

**COVID-19 — UNICEF

And in a statement issued today, the head of UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), Henrietta Fore, reiterated the Secretary-General’s call on warring parties to lay down their weapons to confront the pandemic to protect the 250 million children around the world living in areas under conflict.

A global ceasefire, she said, would protect children from being killed, maimed or forced from their homes by conflict.  It would also stop attacks on vital infrastructure like health centres and water and sanitation systems and would open space for vulnerable populations to access essential services like health care that are key to stopping a pandemic.  Her full statement is online.

**COVID-19 — LGBTI People

Also today, our colleagues at the UN Human Rights Office published a new guidance note for States and other stakeholders on COVID-19 and the human rights of LGBTI people.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said that States need to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people do not face discrimination or fear retribution for seeking health care amid the pandemic.

The guidance identifies major concerns and sets out key actions.  These include ensuring that measures introduced to lessen the economic impact of the crisis take LGBTI people fully into account as they are more likely to be unemployed and live in poverty than the general population.

**Libya

Turning to Libya:  Hostilities in and around Tripoli have continued to heavily impact civilians.  A humanitarian pause is urgently required.  The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) reports that at least 131 civilian casualties (including 64 deaths) were documented in the first three months this year.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Libya has increased to 49, including one death.  Most of the cases are concentrated in Benghazi, Misrata and Tripoli.

We, along with our humanitarian partners, are providing technical support to strengthen national surveillance and early warning and support the establishment of isolation wards in selected hospitals around the country.

In the last month, nearly 19,000 medical interventions were provided, and 53 public health facilities were supported with services and commodities.

And the International Organization for Migration (IOM) also expresses grave concern for the fate of hundreds of migrants returned to Libya by the coast guard this year who are now unaccounted for.  Despite multiple requests, Libyan authorities have not yet provided any clear accounting as to the whereabouts of these people, and why they were taken to unofficial detention facilities.

**COVID-19 — Democratic Republic of the Congo

And as we mentioned earlier this week, parts of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are experiencing renewed violence.  This morning, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) warned that this could have terrible consequences, as the country is preparing to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The DRC already has the largest internally displaced population in Africa, with more than 5 million people uprooted by conflict.  There are also half a million refugees from neighbouring countries.

UNHCR is strengthening its regular health and sanitization activities in camps, sites and transit centres, where possible.  The current prevention measures include temperature screening at entry points.  The agency has also installed some 365 handwashing stations and carried out an initial distribution of more than 23,000 soap bars.

The agency also continues its advocacy for equal access to refugees and displaced people in the national health systems being put in place to fight COVID-19.

**COVID-19 — Indonesia

Turning to Asia:  In Indonesia, the UN is helping to secure ventilators and other essential medical supplies to fight the pandemic.

According to the Government, there have been more than 5,500 cases and nearly 500 deaths in the country.  More on this on IOM’s website.

**Locusts

And I also have an update on the locust situation in Greater Horn of Africa.  The Food and Agriculture Organization and humanitarian partners are continuing ground and aerial control operations, including the treating of over 200,000 hectares in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

Desert locusts continue to pose a major threat to food security and livelihoods in the Greater Horn of Africa as more swarms form and mature in northern and central Kenya, southern Ethiopia and Somalia, all coinciding with the beginning of the long rains and the planting season.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that if the swarms are not contained, impacts on crops and forage will drive up hunger in areas already facing very high levels of food insecurity.

As of yesterday, $116.3 million had been pledged toward the FAO locust appeal, seeking $153 million to support the response in 10 countries.

**COVID-19 — Nepal

And sorry, just going back to Asia for the moment:  In Nepal, 16 COVID-19 cases have been officially confirmed so far, and the UN country team there is working to address immediate health needs and the short- and long-term recovery to mitigate the impacts of the lockdown.

We have launched a Preparedness and Response Plan which required $38 million for humanitarian, as well as social and economic, recovery needs.  This Plan has been presented to national and international partners and will be updated shortly to include the Government’s needs.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is working with the Government on securing equipment, surveillance and laboratory capacity.

And we are also working with the Government to answer people’s questions about prevention and care, and [are] also addressing rumours, disinformation and stigma, while promoting the prevention of domestic violence.  Young volunteers from seven provinces have been mobilized to roll out social media campaigns produced by the UN team.

**COVID-19 — Panama

And in Panama, the UN migration agency, IOM, is working with the Government to mitigate the threats that migrants face, as well as the overall risks to public safety, posed by the pandemic.

Panama receives close to 25,000 migrants every year, who are entering mostly via the dense, Darién Gap wilderness that serves as the border between Panamá and Colombia.

**Ukraine

In a statement we issued yesterday evening, the Secretary-General welcomed the release and exchange of prisoners related to the conflict in the eastern part of [Ukraine].

The Secretary-General said that he hopes that this important humanitarian action, ahead of Orthodox Easter, will serve as a positive step towards more progress, including a permanent ceasefire, in line with his global appeal, as well as further disengagement of forces and unimpeded humanitarian access across the contact line.  That statement is, of course, online.

**Damien Corrigan

And sadly, today, we have to end on a sad note.

One of our veteran and very talented UNTV colleagues, Damien Corrigan, passed away last night.

You will know him and have seen Damien manning the cameras at the stakeout and photo-ops, ensuring that you have the images of the momentous events that take place in the UN building.

Damien had 35 years of work at the UN under his belt having covered every Secretary-General from [Javier] Perez de Cuellar onwards.

He was a wizard at the teleprompter, where he handled just about every Head of State during the General Assembly.  He had a stalwart command of the lens, and unflappable nature, not to mention amazing expertise at The New York Times crossword puzzle, which he finished every day.  He will be greatly missed by all of us in these halls.

Our sincere condolences go to his family in Ireland, as well as his wife Jen and his children Jack and Kirstin and all of his colleagues in TV production who work tirelessly behind the scenes, particularly in this very difficult period.

I know that they and all of us will miss him dearly.

All right.  I will now take your questions.  Just one production note.  If you want to speak, you have to have your video turned on, as well as your audio.  Otherwise, the system will not function properly.

All right.  Let’s see what we have and what Florencia [Soto Nino] tells me to call on.  Bear with me two seconds.

**Questions and Answers

All right.  Sherwin?

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Hi, everybody, and condolences to UN family.  I suppose we’re lucky there’s no briefing tomorrow because there won’t be any more bad news.

Steph, two questions.  Can you hear me?  Is it all good?

Spokesman:  Yep.

Question:  The Secretary‑General has often talked about the UN being as strong as the collection of its parts.  So, I wonder if there’s any concern from the Secretariat, the Secretary‑General himself about the reputation of the organization, the reputation of the World Health Organization… [inaudible].

Spokesman:  Sherwin.  You broke up there.

All right.  Sherwin, I think I got the gist of your question, though I didn’t hear the whole part.  It is clear that the UN is a large and varied family.  Obviously, it is, at its heart, an organization of Member States.  The more those Member States are united, the more effective the organization will be.

We look forward to strong messages of unity and solidarity from the various legislative bodies.  We’ve all seen the reports of various discussions being held with the General Assembly and the Security Council.

For his part, I think the Secretary‑General has been very clear and very much leading on the need for global solidarity, for effective leadership.  He has put the UN machine to work, I think, on many fronts.  One of these is policy briefs, which would help policymakers that we’ve been releasing on a regular basis.  To give you another example, the logistics and supply chain arm of UN has been mobilized that we start to see the solidarity flights in Africa.  We’ve been highlighting the work of the UN country teams around… [cross talk]

Operator:  I will connect you to the conference.  [laughter]

Spokesman:  Sorry… mute your mics.  [inaudible]

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Do you need me to repeat, or are you good?

Spokesman:  No, I got it.  I just need you to all mute your mics.  Thank you.

We have seen the work and we’ve been highlighting the work that the UN country teams have done in support of Member States at the local level.

The WHO has been leading in our medical response.  They have people on the front lines providing support to countries in terms of equipment, testing kits, a million pieces of equipment, as well as providing guidance to policymakers.

It is important for every part of the UN, every individual part of the UN, to work in unity and to work forcefully to fight the virus, and I think that will help underscore the need for this international organization at a time of great crisis.

Question:  I have another one, if I may.  Just one more.  Could you just talk about how the UN has shifted in the last month in terms of its reliance on technology, some of the hiccups that you’ve experienced?  How’s this new period been in terms of readjusting how the Secretariat works?

Spokesman:  Well, I think… and I can only speak for really what’s going on here in this building.  It has been a shift.  It’s been a shift of how we work, where we work, when we work.  And I think every organization is going through this, whether it’s international broadcasters or journalists, or ourselves.  But I think what has been clear to me is that, under the leadership of the Secretary‑General, the staff has really mobilized to keep working wherever they are and often in challenging conditions, having to juggle childcare issues and care of loved ones, but we have kept working.

The Secretary‑General has kept his weekly meetings with his Executive Board, his regular meetings with the Senior Management Group, which brings together all the leaders of the UN.

It has, obviously, put a strain on our technical setup, but I think, as you see from the way we’ve been able to conduct these briefings and now having a back‑and‑forth, I think our technical colleagues have really stepped up to the plate.  I mean, we’re basically using videoconferencing capabilities as TV production.  But I think we’re moving in the right direction.

We’re using all these digital and online tools, collaborative tools.  And the work of the UN goes on, whether it’s humanitarian work, whether it’s peacekeeping, whether it’s supporting Member States, I think it has gone forward without much of a hitch.

Edie?

Question:  Thank you very much, Steph.  And, first, on behalf of myself and, I’m sure, the entire UN Correspondents Association (UNCA), we wish Damien’s family [well] and send our condolences to them.  And I know we’re all very sad about his sudden death.  We all knew and remember him and talked to him at the stakeout often.

My question is… actually, I have two short ones and one long one.  The main question is, does the Secretary‑General have any reaction to the announcement by China on the major revision that added nearly 1,300 fatalities to the death toll in Wuhan, where the coronavirus pandemic began?

And my two other ones were, you said you were… I think you said you were going to send us the websites to track contributions… if you… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Yeah, those were sent yesterday from the Spokesman’s email.  We’ll resend them to you if that was a problem.

Question:  And all… thirdly, the Secretary‑General didn’t do a briefing this week.  Is he going to do one early next week, or can you give us any indication?

Spokesman:  I would very much hope so.  I’ve learned my lesson not to certify something that I’m not certified to do, but I very much hope so.

Now, I forgot your… oh, sorry, on China.  No comment on the particulars of the case, because that’s really a question of… for scientists and WHO.  What I would say broadly, I think it’s… at this time of crisis, it’s very important that every Member States show as much transparency as possible in terms of reporting on numbers, and it’s completely understandable that numbers will be issued and then possibly revised.

Evelyn.  Evelyn?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  On WHO, Ambassador [Kelly] Craft has gone out of her way on two interviews, radio and television, to back up President [Donald] Trump’s criticism of WHO.  Has the SG spoken to her on the subject, or will he?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General… you know, it’s not surprising that an ambassador would amplify the message from a Head of State.  The Secretary‑General has had a number of conversations with Ambassador Craft, and I think his position on WHO in private is exactly what he expressed publicly in his numerous statements.

Pamela?

Question:  Hey, Steph.

Spokesman:  Hey, Pam.

Question:  Thank you for the [inaudible] as always.  Just any reaction on the Secretary‑General’s report and statement to the IMF World Bank?  Thanks.  Any back‑and‑forth?  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Reaction… oh, no… [cross talk]

Question:  …What did they say about the proposals in the report…?  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  To use the diplomatic phrase, I would hope that his statement was warmly received by all participants, but I’m not aware… I mean, the meeting was not webcast.  So, we shared the remarks, but it was an invitation‑only meeting, but you may want to contact our colleagues at the World Bank or the IMF.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Yesterday, Martin Griffiths, in his briefing to the Security Council, he sounded a little bit optimistic about the possibility of a positive answer to his call for comprehensive ceasefire from both parties.  And, at the same time, he said the war is escalating.  So, can you explain that?  Did he receive any correspondence from both parties about possible acceptance of his initiative, which is based on three major points, as you know?

Spokesman:  You know, Mr. Griffiths is one of our most experienced mediators and negotiators, so he knows exactly what he’s saying.  He’s also a native English speaker, so I’m sure he knows exactly the meaning of each word in English that he uses.  And I have no reason to analyse what he told the Security Council publicly.  I think he has been working tirelessly, and he’s been in touch with all the parties, very much on a regular basis.

Maria?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Hi, everyone.  I have quite bad connection today.  Do you hear me?

Spokesman:  I hear you perfectly.

Question:  Thanks.  I have two questions, one about high‑level week of General Assembly.  Is there any update about the possibilities for ready to take place on September or it can be rescheduled or it can be hold in kind of another format?  Like, can you update on that?

Spokesman:  I think that’s very early.  Obviously, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.  One, most importantly, it will have to be a Member State decision.  This is a decision taken by the General Assembly, the President of the General Assembly.

Obviously, you know, on one hand, there’s certain things, events that need to happen and votes and meetings that need to happen.  On the other hand, we will also be guided by the situation globally, by the situation in the City of New York and the State of New York and in the United States in general.  So, obviously, it’s a calendar event that we are fully aware is approaching, but I have nothing to share with you at this point.

You had a second question, Maria?

Question:  Yes.  That second one is about unilateral sanctions, what Secretary‑General position is on this… that some countries, including Russia, which are under unilateral sanctions there, approaching, like, the effects of pandemic and the situation is getting worse, but…

Spokesman:  I think the Secretary‑General has said publicly and, I think, we’ve… I’ve said it a number of times in the last month or even more that we believe that sanctions that are impacting countries’ ability to cope with the COVID outbreak should be lifted.  And the Secretary‑General has had conversations in that sense with a number of Member States.

We will not be able to win against this virus until all of us, all of the health systems are able to deal with it successfully.  So, this has been the Secretary‑General’s position, and he has said so, both privately and publicly.

I have a question from Iftikhar, who says, will the SG be making an appearance in Saturday’s virtual WHO Global Citizen One World Concert to raise funds for health workers?

Iftikhar, thank you for the question, because it’s something I should have flagged proactively.  Yes, very much so.  The Secretary‑General and the Deputy Secretary‑General have both recorded messages that will be aired during the stay‑at‑home Global Citizen’s concert.  We’ll try to get you embargoed copies of those messages later today.

And I had a question that was emailed to me from The Tribune online in Delhi about the Secretary‑General’s reaction to India’s efforts to send medicine and other supplies to other countries around the world.

I think the answer that I give you is the same I gave to our Cuban colleagues yesterday, is that the Secretary‑General calls for global solidarity in this struggle against the virus, and that means that every country who is in a position to help another country should.  And we salute those countries that are doing so.

Any other… oh, Oscar.  Sorry.  I don’t think I… I don’t see any other…

Correspondent:  I sent you a written question.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Let me… oh.  Can we express Reem… can we expect Reem [Abaza] to join these briefings?

I would be happy to have her.  We may have to have separate briefings, because it’s a little difficult to switch back and forth, but we will reach out to her, and you should reach out to her, as well, because I’m sure we would all love to hear from her.

Anyone else?

Question:  Did you receive my memo?

Spokesman:  Go ahead, Gloria.

Question:  Hello?

Spokesman:  Yes, go ahead.

Question:  It’s an important memo that there’s a Chicago company that has made a very big breakthrough.  It was announced to me yesterday.  It’s called Gilead, G‑i‑l‑e‑a‑d, and they have an effective treatment for the coron… the virus.  And already the stock market is zooming.  I thought it would be interesting… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Gloria, I have no medical expertise, and I don’t pretend to have any, so that’s really not a question I can answer.  You may want to direct that question to the experts at the World Health Organization.

Correspondent:  Okay.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  You’re welcome.  Anyone else?  All right.  Take care.  Enjoy what… however we spend our weekends in lockdown, and we shall see you on Monday.  Cheers.

For information media. Not an official record.