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24 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.

All right.  Good afternoon.

We have a special guest today — Reem Abaza, the Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly — who will brief you once I’m done.

Please remember, for both Reem and myself, to mute your microphones and make sure that you are sending both the audio and the video if you want to speak.  Otherwise, the system will not be able to function.

**COVID-19 Tools

As you will have seen this morning, the Secretary-General spoke at the WHO (World Health Organization) launch to accelerate the development, production and equitable access to new COVID-19 tools.

Also taking part in the event were Dr. Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus], President [Emmanuel] Macron of France, the President of South Africa, the Chancellor of Germany, the Head of the EU (European Union) Commission, as well as many other world leaders as well as health partners.

In his remarks, the Secretary-General stressed that human health is the quintessential global public good.  Today, he said, we face a global pandemic like no other.  In an interconnected world, none of us is safe until all of us are safe.

The Secretary-General stressed that the world needs the development, production and equitable delivery of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, therapeutics and diagnostics tools.

But, he said, this must be a vaccine and treatment that are affordable, safe, effective, easily-administered and universally available — for everyone, everywhere.

The Secretary-General expressed confidence that this can be done, saying he knows we can put people first.

Mr. [Antonio] Guterres called for this to be one of the vital lessons of this pandemic:  the need for new urgency in support of global public goods and universal health care coverage.

**Humanitarian Action against COVID-19

Our humanitarian colleagues are telling us that aid groups — large and small — are supporting the world’s most vulnerable people in the fight against COVID-19.

Humanitarian organizations — including UN agencies, the Red Cross and others — are carrying out efforts ranging from working to build global supply chains and air bridges to delivering masks and medical equipment to communicating life-saving messages from cars and bicycles.

Lockdowns, curfews and restrictions on movements of personnel and cargo are impacting the humanitarian response, but aid workers are determined to continue their life-saving work to continue to help some 117 million people around the world.

To support the humanitarian response by all, the UN is urging access by fast-tracking of health and aid workers and also supplies at borders and within countries.

The humanitarian system urgently needs funding to continue to fight the virus while maintaining critical pre-existing programmes.  The $2 billion COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, which, as you’ll recall, the Secretary-General launched a month ago, has received so far $697 million.

You can read more about what aid organizations are doing to respond to the crisis on OCHA’s (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) website.

**Media Freedom

From Geneva, Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, says she is alarmed by restrictive measures imposed by several States against independent media, as well as the arrest and intimidation of journalists.

Ms. Bachelet said some States have used the pandemic as a pretext to restrict information and stifle criticism.

The Human Rights Office has received reports of journalists disappearing after critical coverage of the COVID-19 response.  News outlets have also been closed by authorities over their reporting.

The free flow of information is vital to fighting the pandemic, she said, adding that we have never depended on free media more than during this pandemic.  Credible, accurate reporting is a lifeline for all of us.

**Cyberattacks

And in a worrying development, the World Health Organization (WHO) said yesterday that since the start of the pandemic, they have seen a dramatic increase in the number of cyberattacks directed at its staff.

The number of cyberattacks is now more than five times the number directed at the Organization in the same period last year.

This week, some 450 active WHO email addresses and passwords were leaked online, along with thousands belonging to others working on the virus response.

The leaked credentials did not put WHO systems at risk because the data was not recent.  However, the attack did impact an older extranet system, used by current and retired staff as well as some of WHO’s partners.

The organization is now migrating affected systems to a more secure authentication system.

Scammers impersonating the World Health Organization in emails have also increasingly targeted the general public in order to channel donations to a fictitious fund and not the authentic COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.

**Security Council

And in New York this morning, the Special Representative and head of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), Zahir Tanin, warned the Security Council about the country’s particular vulnerability to the threat of a wider outbreak of the COVID-19 virus.

Mr. Tanin said that strong leadership and political unity are needed in Kosovo now more than ever, as the battle is waged against the “enormous challenge” posed by the virus.  He added that even as heroic efforts are being made by medical personnel, the country’s health-care resources are stretched thin.

He also expressed concern over internal political instability, including the 25 March parliamentary vote of no-confidence.

And later today, the Under-Secretaries-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs as well as for Peace Operations, Rosemary DiCarlo and Jean-Pierre Lacroix, are also expected to brief members of the Security Council on Sudan.

**Latin America

And the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says it is supporting efforts in Latin America to tap into the skills of refugee and migrant health-care workers to support their national responses to COVID-19.

Countries like Peru, Argentina, Chile and Mexico have put in place special measures to authorize the hiring of foreign qualified health professionals and technicians.  These include those awaiting licensing or whose certification is yet to be validated by host countries.  Others have adopted expedited recognition processes to fast-track their inclusion in national health responses.

UNHCR says that thousands are now working with national health systems responding to the pandemic.  Many more stand ready to support and give back to the communities that are sheltering them.

I will highlight a few country level cases.

**Lebanon

The UN in Lebanon is urging collective action to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on children and youth.  It is providing support to the Ministry of Education and Higher Education as well as the Ministry of Agriculture, among other partners in Lebanon, by developing alternative solutions to school closures to ensure that learning never stops. 

UN agencies in Lebanon are assisting and preparing as well as deploying inclusive distance learning solutions.  Distance learning support includes activities for the production of pre-primary and basic education lessons, as well as well-being materials, the gender-based violence approach and health awareness for students and parents.  

The UN team in Lebanon is also providing assistance for developing communications learning materials and special TV episodes, targeting teachers and parents, to raise their awareness on addressing the stress and psychosocial needs of children during remote learning exercises.

**Haiti

In Haiti, the pandemic is moving to push more Haitians into severe hunger.

Close to four million people — or nearly 1 in 3 people on the island — is already facing acute food insecurity and need urgent assistance.  One million of them are in a situation of severe hunger.  That’s according to a study conducted late last year by the Government, with support from the World Food Programme (WFP) and the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization).

In the first four months of the year, WFP has reached 200,000 people, and has also restarted emergency food and cash distributions in many of the country’s departments.  As the virus led to school closures, WFP is now starting to provide take-home food rations to schoolchildren and their families.  In normal times, WFP’s school meals programme in Haiti provides a daily hot meal to approximately 300,000 children.

And in these times, the agency says it is vital to scale up food assistance and is appealing for additional funding to do so.

**Myanmar

From Myanmar, where there are now 127 confirmed cases, the UN team is supporting the Government’s efforts to protect all groups of people from the virus, including people held in detention facilities, as well as people working in those facilities.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is working with authorities on a preparedness plan for prisons.  To support the UN’s work in prisons, we, in a programme backed by the Governments of Sweden, Switzerland, the UK as well as the United States — the UN is purchasing infection control supplies, including masks, gloves, soap, hand sanitizer, thermometers and personal protective equipment.  With the support of UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme against HIV/AIDS), the Government and NGOs (non-governmental organizations), the UN is also boosting access to information and vital health-care services for those with drug use disorders and for people living with HIV and tuberculosis.

The Resident Coordinator, Ola Almgren, has welcomed the Government’s pardon and release of close to 25,000 people on 17 April, in addition to continued efforts to strengthen the sanitary procedures in prisons and detention facilities.  Mr. Almgren reiterates the UN’s support to the Government’s response to COVID-19 across all areas and to leave no one behind in our own COVID-19 efforts in areas including preparedness, recovery, development and peacebuilding.

**te d’Ivoire

And in Côte d’Ivoire, where there are 952 confirmed cases, the Resident Coordinator there, Phillippe Poinsot, is leading the UN team’s support to the Government in its response to the virus.

As with many African countries, the economic impacts hit first before the health crisis developed, with many sectors currently in distress and livelihoods deeply impacted by a partial lockdown.  The UN team is supporting with policy advice ranging from the level of lockdown required to advising authorities on cash transfer payments and the overall governance mechanisms for the national response.

The World Health Organization is directly supporting the Government’s emergency Health plan in Cote d’Ivoire.

As part of a joint humanitarian effort, the team has put together a joint $355 million response plan covering water and sanitation, nutrition, education, protection and communication.

The UN is also working on aid coordination and resource mobilization with the World Bank and other partners.

**Afghanistan

The situation in Afghanistan is quickly transforming into a food and livelihood crisis, according to our humanitarian colleagues there.

Food prices in urban markets have increased significantly since mid-March against the backdrop of an ongoing response to conflict and natural disaster-driven food insecurity.

We, along with our humanitarian partners, are providing double food aid rations, and phased distributions are being implemented to limit the potential spread of the virus.

While the[re is an] ongoing international flight suspensions into the country, the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service started air-bridge services connecting flights from Kabul to Doha yesterday.  Flights are transit only and are expected three times a week, pending demand.  More information online.

**Mozambique

In Mozambique, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) warns about the challenges still faced in the northern area of the country, one year after being hit by Cyclone Kenneth.  The category-4 tropical storm struck communities of some 280,000 people on 25 April [2019].  IOM says that many families in the region are still working towards recovery from the cyclone.

Apart from that, the Province of Cabo Delgado, which borders [the United Republic of] Tanzania, is affected by displacement due to insecurity.  In February of this year, cholera was also identified, impacting hundreds of people.

Mozambique announced its first case of the COVID virus on 22 March, and by 23 April had reported 46 confirmed cases, most located in the capital, Maputo, and in the Cabo Delgado province.

**Somalia

And turning to Somalia, our colleagues there tell us that we along with our partners yesterday launched the COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan, which seeks just over $500 million.

The plan is in support of the Government’s Comprehensive SocioEconomic Impact and Response Plan, which was launched late last month.

The new plan, which covers the next six to nine months, aims to respond to the public health and immediate humanitarian and socio-economic consequences of the pandemic.

As of yesterday, there were 328 confirmed cases in Somalia, with 16 reported deaths.

**Yemen

And just a note on Yemen: I was asked about the ceasefire extension in Yemen earlier today.  And I can say that we welcome the Saudi extension of the unilateral ceasefire in Yemen.   We hope that the Yemeni parties will take advantage of this opportunity to make progress on the ongoing UN-led negotiations and conclude, as soon as possible, the agreement for a nationwide ceasefire, confidence-building measures, economic and humanitarian measures and the resumption of the political process. 

**International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace

And finally, today is the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace.

In his message, the Secretary-General said the COVID-19 pandemic is a tragic reminder of how deeply connected we all are and stressed that combating the virus requires us to work together as one human family.

But multilateralism is not only a matter of confronting shared threats, he said; it is about seizing common opportunities, adding that we now have the opportunity to build back better than in the past, aiming at inclusive and sustainable economies and societies.  His full message is online.

**Launch of Rise for All Initiative

And I want to flag that on Monday, the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, will be here to brief you on “Rise for All”, a new initiative that brings together women leaders to mobilize support for the UN Recovery Trust Fund and the UN road map for social and economic recovery, as laid out in the UN framework for the immediate socioeconomic response to COVID-19.  The Deputy Secretary-General will be joined by UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) Administrator, Achim Steiner.

We hope to be trying out our new virtual press briefing room on that day.

I will take some questions from you and then we will turn to Reem for an update on the President of the General Assembly.

**Questions and Answers

Let me go to my trusty moderator.  Edie.  Edie?

Correspondent:  Thank you very much, Steph.  I'm here.  Thank you, and happy almost-weekend to everybody.

On…  I wondered whether the Secretary-General has any comment to follow up on the increasing attacks on journalists as a result of the pandemic.  It's not only the Human Rights Commissioner, but also Reporters Without Borders that put out a big report on this same issue. 

And as a follow-up to Yemen, can you tell us what Martin Griffiths is doing in response to the extension of the ceasefire?

And as a third comment, I am sure I speak on behalf of all of us, that we would like to have a press conference with the Secretary-General to hear his assessment of where his global ceasefire call and all his other appeals are going, and a lot of other questions.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Excellent.  On your last bit, I have relayed that call.  We are working on setting up something later next week, but I hear you, and I always want him to brief, because it gives me a day off, so we're pushing in that direction.

On Yemen, what Martin Griffiths is doing is seizing the opportunity and redoubling his contacts with all the parties to try to seize this moment and get the parties to agree to and implement his proposals.

On your first question, it is a trend that is worrying…  on your first question, on the issue of journalists being attacked and harassed, it is a trend that is very much worrying the Secretary-General.  He fully agrees with the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  And also, it is something that is highlighted and underscored in his policy brief on human rights, which was just released.

I will now go to Iftikhar, who e-mailed a question. 

Financing for development forum yesterday adopted, now come document recommending steps to alleviate the serious economic situation COVID, developing  country.  What are the next steps?  Do the General Assembly…  do these go before the General Assembly for endorsement?

As for the administrative next steps, I do not know, Iftikhar.  We can try to find out, or I would encourage you to reach out to our colleague, Paul Simon, who works for the ECOSOC [Economic and Social Council] presidency and handles press questions.  [He later informed the correspondent that the document on Financing for Development Follow up is expected to be adopted on Monday, with the deadline for expiration of silence procedure at 2 p.m. that day.]

We think it was very important for this body to speak with one voice and adopt this document. 

Let's go to a live question, and then I'll go to another e-mail one.  Toby?

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes, I can.  Go ahead.

Question:  Hi, nice to see you.  Question regarding the letter sent from Senate Foreign Relations Committee senators, requesting a review of the WHO response to COVID-19.  Looking for a response there from the Secretary-General.  That's the first question.

Second question regards domestic violence and the threat of domestic violence that we've been hearing about from numerous bodies and agencies, which is, you know, who specifically is being targeted now, as a result of the isolation measures during COVID-19?  And what are the policy responses that we should be seeing in response to this growing problem?

And the third is a similar question related to another appeal that we've heard recently, which is increased Internet usage and time spent online, which you mentioned today.  What sort of regulations do we need to see put in place, or policy recommendations, that can address these newfound dangers?

So first one is senator letters.  Second one is domestic violence.  Who specifically is being targeted.  And third one is on children online, recommendations for that.  Thank you very much.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Let me try to take these in some order.

On the letter, yes, we've seen the report and the letter has been received.  An answer will be drafted. 

You know, as for the Secretary-General's position on the issue writ large, I would refer you back to his statement that he made on [8 April], and those words and that position remains. 

On the issue of domestic violence, it is something that the Secretary-General flagged very early on, more than three weeks ago, if I'm not mistaken.  The risk that — not just the risk, but the fact that we've seen that the lockdown is often putting women and girls and children at increased risk when, especially, women and girls can be trapped with their abusers.

We have been, I think, very heartened to see a very positive response from a number of Member States, who have also flagged this issue. 

In terms of policy recommendation, what is important that, as countries put in place COVID-19 response plans, that those include support for women and girls, support for abuse hotlines, support for shelters; that concrete measures be taken for what is a very, very real problem.

If you look at some of the reporting that's been done around the world in the last three weeks, you've seen a lot of countries report very high spikes in the calls received to hotlines.  And, of course, that's in countries where such hotlines exist, where such a framework already exists.  We know that in many developing countries, there is no place for people, for women and girls to call.

So it's very important in their response plans, at the country level, policy makers put this in place. 

Your third question, my memory runs short…  on Internet…  I would encourage you to look at the policy briefs we've put out on children.  I know UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) has also spoken about the risk of children and adolescents spending too much time online with the risk, the increased risk of radicalisation that poses.  And again, these are issues that policymakers need to put in place as they roll out response plans. 

There was…  there had been an e-mail from Maggie, which I think covers what I've just answered on the letters.

So I will go to Mr. Bays of Al Jazeera.

Question:  Hello, Steph.  I have two questions for you.  You can do them one by one. 

Today is the Day of Multilateralism.  You had a major event which the Secretary-General took part in.  In times past, if you had a global crisis and world leaders coming together, you would have expected the US to play a leading role.  Is the Secretary-General disappointed there was no US involvement today?

Spokesman:  The Secretary-General knows that the US continues to play a very important role in international affairs and we continue to see the United States as a critical partner of the United Nations.

Your second question?

Question:  Okay.  My…  I'm here with my second question, which I think follows on a little bit from Toby's question.

Does the Secretary-General, I know we've asked this before, but does the Secretary-General feel there should be some sort of lessons-learned inquiry?  Because I know you're still doing the fight…  firefights.  This is a rolling crisis and it may go on for months, maybe years in some form, and…

Clearly, there are…  clearly, there are lessons that must be learned.  Should such an inquiry be set up?  And what's an appropriate venue for it?

Spokesman:  Listen, the Secretary-General was very clear in the statement he made on 8 April, that there will be a time to look back, how all these different entities, whether it's international or national, reacted during this crisis.  There will need to be a lessons-learned.  He does not feel that now is the time to do that exactly and he said it on 8 April.  There will be a time.  We are in a time of extreme crisis, as it relates to the virus.  We will keep looking at this…  keep looking at this issue.  We continue to believe that the World Health Organization, which is leading the UN's effort on the medical field, should continue to be supported.

Your third question?  And I have to say, the light above your shoulder kind of makes it look like you have an interrogation light right in my face, but…

Correspondent:  I happen to be in the studio.  And you'll be pleased.  As it's the weekend, I have no third question.

Spokesman:  Oh, excellent.  Thank you for that. 

Okay.  Maria.  Maria?

Question:  Hi, Steph.  I have a couple of questions…  do you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yeah, I can hear you and see you.

Question:  Great.  So yeah.  I'm sorry if you already commented, my Internet is terrible today, so I lost you a couple of times.

Anyway, the first question about escalation between US and Iran, do you have a comment on that?

And the second one, do you have an update on the cases of COVID among United Nations system, Especially in different peacekeeping missions?  Because I saw a disturbing comment from Mali, and probably, like, you can give us a little bit more details about the patients in different countries.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  So on Iran, what I can…  bear with me two seconds.  Bear with me two seconds.

On Iran, our line is for all parties involved to avoid any sort of escalation, whether in action or in rhetoric. 

Your other question…  yes, on the number of cases, COVID cases, in terms of the UN system.  There are…  I'm sorry, hold on.  I need to pull up the right document here. 

As of yesterday evening, there were 284 cases among the UN worldwide.  We understand that there's been a number of cases.  This includes…  sorry, we understand there have been a number of cases in Mali, in the mission, but the total for the…  sorry.  The total for…  I'm sorry, I'm getting information sent out to me.

The total for cases within the UN Secretariat, including field missions, peacekeeping and political missions is 43.  So, the 284 number is UN system, worldwide.  In terms of Secretariat, peacekeeping and field missions, it's 43.  The mission in Mali (MINUSMA) itself has 32 confirmed cases, 28 uniformed personnel, and three civilian staff members, and one dependent of a local staff. 

I can assure you that the peacekeeping mission in Mali is and all our peacekeeping missions are taking the utmost precautions in terms of trying to prevent the spread of the virus, notably within…  both within the mission and within the civilian population by supporting the Government's efforts, both with guidance and with practical help. 

Did you have another question, or did I answer everything?

Okay.  Maurin Picard?

Question:  Hi, Stéphane.  Thank you.

The major event this morning with the WHO was rife with technical difficulties.  Can you help us understand why this is so hard to set up such a connection with all the world leaders first?

And second, due to President Macron and Chancellor [Angela] Merkel speaking in their own language, why we cannot have any translation on the UN website?  Thanks.

Spokesman:  Okay.  The WHO event was organised and hosted by WHO, so for any questions, technical questions, I would go to them.

In their defence, we are in a brand-new world and connecting world leaders, whether they're sitting in Paris, in Berlin, in Pretoria, in New York, in Geneva, is a challenge for all of us, and I think everyone is trying to do the best they possibly can. 

And teaching everyone from journalists to world leaders to mute their mics, I think, is always a challenge, as well.

Abdelhamid, did you have a question?

Correspondent:  Sorry, I was asking about the translation on the UN website.

Spokesman:  On the translation, again, WHO hosted the event.  You would have to ask them about the interpreters.  I know there were interpreters in the room.  It may be possible…  you should check with them.  Possibly, the interpretation was laid down as a separate track after the event, but there we go.

Abdelhamid?

Correspondent:  Thank you, Stéphane.  First, I want to remind you that today is the first day of Ramadan, and I think the SG issued a statement, so…

Spokesman:  Yes, and we flagged that statement very proactively yesterday.

Question:  But…  Thank you.  But my question, in Saudi Arabia, the authorities have tried to move, by force, a tribe called the Hweitat from their land to build a tourist project called the Newoom, taken by a French company, I think.

They killed an unarmed man called Abdelrahim Hweitat, and they arrested eight of his family, of his tribe.  Are you aware of these developments, especially…

Spokesman:  If you want to e-mail us this, I'd…  it's the first I've heard of it, but I'm happy to look into it.

Correspondent:  I did send it to Florencia [Soto Nino], so I will e-mail it to you.

Spokesman:  Perfect, and Farhan [Haq] as well, okay?

Pam Falk, CBS.

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Hi, everybody. 

The…  the World Food Programme Chief, David Beasley, last week…  I mean, earlier this week, to the UN Security Council, called for a lifting of any humanitarian restrictions in terms of access, and also called for the supply chain to be kept open, like ports, and with regard to South Sudan and Yemen and other places.

Has there been any reaction to that call?  He said there would be famines of Biblical proportions that are coming.  Thanks.

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, this is an issue that we continue to highlight every day, whether it's in Afghanistan or in Haiti.  We hope the response will be felt by increasing contributions to WFP's appeal, to our global humanitarian appeal. 

As for exactly what has been received, I think you should check with WFP, because they will be handling those things.

Question:  Yeah, I was just wondering.  Do you have…  you know, has there been any further appeal?  This was on Tuesday, and he's talking about famines in certain countries.

Spokesman:  Yeah, no…  I mean, we've been echoing those appeals at a country level.

And just to add something to Maurin, I'm told that if you watched it on the WHO's website, there was different tracks of interpretation available.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Okay.  I think that's it.  I will now throw it to Reem and see if this works.  There we go.  Okay. 

Thank you all, and I shall leave you.  Bye.

For information media. Not an official record.