Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

20 May 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 and happy Wednesday.

**COVID-19 — Africa

In a new policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on the African continent, the Secretary-General highlights the continent’s swift response to the pandemic, but also calls for global solidarity with Africans now and to recover better. 

In a video message recorded for the launch, the Secretary-General said that most African countries have moved rapidly to deepen regional coordination, deploy health workers, and enforce quarantines, lockdowns and border closures. 

They are also drawing on the experience of HIV/AIDS and Ebola to debunk rumours and overcome mistrust of Government, security forces and health workers.  But, despite these efforts, the pandemic threatens progress achieved on the continent and will aggravate long-standing inequalities. 

The Secretary-General called for international action to strengthen Africa’s health systems, maintain food supplies, avoid a financial crisis, support education, protect jobs, keep households and businesses afloat, as well as cushion the continent against lost income and export earnings.

The Secretary-General also emphasized that African countries should have quick, equal and affordable access to any eventual vaccine and treatment.  These must be considered global public goods, he said.  He added that ending the pandemic in Africa is essential for ending it across the world.

The policy brief and the video message have been distributed and shared with you earlier today. 

**Africa Dialogue

On a related note, this morning, during the opening session of the Africa Dialogues series, the Secretary-General reiterated the solidarity of the United Nations with African countries as they tackle the new coronavirus. 

He welcomed African support for his call for a global ceasefire, but also warned that the pandemic is affecting capacity to support peace and security efforts across the continent. 

My message to the international community, he said, is that failure to respond quickly and adequately could jeopardize progress towards Silencing the Guns by 2020 and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as Africa’s “Agenda 2063”. 

He said that the empowerment of African youth and repeated that women should play a central role in all peace processes, just as they needed to be central to every aspect of the COVID-19 response.

These are still early days for the pandemic in Africa, and disruption could escalate quickly, he concluded, as he renewed his appeal for global solidarity with all African countries. 

**Africa

And in a joint statement following the publication of the Secretary-General’s Policy Brief on Africa, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and the Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), Solomon Dersso, called for urgent measures to help mitigate the impact of the pandemic.

Ms. Bachelet and Mr. Dersso said that while measures to restrict movement and increase social distancing were essential in the fight against the virus, they were having a dramatic impact on populations, especially those who rely on informal daily work for their survival.

They both also underlined the importance of preserving freedom of association, of opinion and expression as well as access to information during this time.  The human rights chiefs joined the Secretary-General's call for equitable access for COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.

**Economic and Social Council

Meanwhile, the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, today launched her report on the new Development Coordination Office in her capacity as Chair of the UN Sustainable Development Group (UNSDG).  The launch was part of the continued virtual Operational Activities Segment of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). 

Ms. Mohammed said that the human crisis caused by the pandemic is a reminder of the need to move faster and farther to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.  She added that now is the time for stronger coordination — for Governments and societies to come together to respond to the devastating impact of the virus and recover better. 

Ms. Mohammed explained that the report provides an overview of all activities and key results of the wider resident coordinator system. 

We’ve shared with you her remarks and the full report is on ECOSOC’s website. 

Also, in the spirit of transparency of the Secretary-General’s Agenda for reform, a new online portal went live today to better track the Special Purpose Trust Fund.  This is the financial backbone of the UN coordination system and now you can see where the money is coming from and to which country it is going.  It’s available on unsdg.un.org/SPTF.

**Human Development

And today, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) said that global human development — which is the combined measure of the world’s education, health and living standards — is set to decline this year for the first time since 1990, when the concept was first developed. 

The Human Development Office said that the world has seen many crises over the past 30 years, but still development gains continued to grow.  However, COVID‑19 may change this trend.  More information on this is available on UNDP’s website.

**COVID-19 — Child Malnutrition

And the World Food Programme (WFP) said today that COVID-19 may push an additional 10 million of the world’s children into acute malnutrition.  The UN agency estimates that the number of young children suffering from this life-threatening form of undernutrition could increase by 20 per cent as a result of the pandemic. 

The World Food Programme is working with Governments to monitor populations vulnerable to the virus and adapting nutrition support where required.  WFP is also working to ensure the production of specialized nutritious foods is not disrupted during the trade restrictions. 

**Security Council — Middle East

And back here, Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, briefed the Security Council this morning.  He warned that the continuing threat of annexation by Israel of parts of the West Bank would constitute a most serious violation of international law, deal a devastating blow to the two-State solution, close the door to a renewal of negotiations, and threaten efforts to advance regional peace and our broader efforts to maintain international peace and security.

He noted the announcement by the Palestinian leadership yesterday evening that it will see itself absolved “of all the agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli Governments and of all the obligations based on these understandings and agreements, including the security ones”.

Mr. Mladenov told the Council members that, whatever our individual assessments of the Palestinian reaction to the Israeli threat of annexation may be, it is certainly one thing:  it is a desperate cry for help.  It is a call for immediate action.  He added that he would be meeting with the Palestinian Prime Minister tomorrow to get more details on the decision. 

He asked the Security Council members to join the Secretary-General in his call against unilateral steps that will hinder current diplomatic efforts to create the conditions for bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the table.  He said that Israel must abandon threats of annexation and the Palestinian leadership must re-engage with all members of the Quartet.

At 3 p.m. today, Rosemary DiCarlo, the Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, will brief the Council in an open session on Venezuela. 

**South Sudan

Turning to South Sudan, UN peacekeepers there are in Pieri in northern Jonglei State following reports that many people were killed and injured in intercommunal clashes over the weekend.

Peacekeepers couldn’t verify the numbers of casualties due to conflicting reports, but the UN team spoke directly with the relatives of those killed, injured or forced to flee their homes.  They also saw many huts having been burnt to the ground.

The Mission says the violence is being fuelled by economic deprivation due to devastating floods which wiped out many homes and killed thousands of cattle.  The Mission also said those involved in the fighting are emboldened by the Government not having appointed local governors.

In recent months, to deter intercommunal violence, the Mission has brought the warring groups together for reconciliation and peacebuilding.  However, COVID‑19‑related travel restrictions and prevention measures have stalled these talks. 

Also, during these same weekend clashes in Jonglei, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), staff member and two staff members of another humanitarian organization were killed on 16 May.  The Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan, Alain Noudéhou, strongly condemned the killings, noting that the Government, all parties and communities must step up efforts to protect aid workers who are taking great risks to their safety in order to provide much needed assistance to the most vulnerable people in South Sudan.

**Cyclone Amphan

And I have another update on Super Cyclone Amphan, which made landfall in India today along the border with Bangladesh.  Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that the UN teams on the ground continue to work with the Government of Bangladesh to prepare and support those in need. 

Given the current pandemic, this support includes distributing personal protective equipment, disinfectants and other materials to evacuation shelters.  To reduce the person-to-person contact during the delivery of aid, e-cash distributions will be used. 

We along with our partners are mobilizing more than 1,700 mobile health teams and preparing for emergency food deliveries. 

The Super Cyclone is taking a westerly trajectory towards India, but nearly 8 million people in Bangladesh remain at risk.  The Bangladesh Government has evacuated more than 1.8 million people in high-risk areas. 

**COVID-19 — Kenya

Returning to Africa, and an update on our efforts concerning the current pandemic.  In Kenya, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and other aid agencies as well as the Government are strengthening their COVID-19 response, after authorities confirmed that two people tested positive for the virus in the Dadaab refugee camp. 

In Dadaab, isolation and quarantine centres with nearly 1,000 additional beds have been constructed, and 125 handwashing stations are being installed at food distribution sites, schools and markets. 

UNHCR, the World Food Programme (WFP) and their partners have provided double rations of food and hygiene products such as soap and jerrycans, to minimize the need for large gatherings and queues. 

UNHCR’s Global COVID-19 Response plan has so far received 31 per cent of the $745 million needed to assist refugees impacted by the virus. 

**COVID-19 — Armenia

And from our colleagues in Armenia, where there are more than 5,000 confirmed cases of the virus, the UN team there, led by Resident Coordinator Shombi Sharp, has been supporting the Government’s plan to address the pandemic. 

WHO (World Health Organization) is directly helping the Ministry of Health and is providing personal protection equipment, test kits and other supplies.  UN experts are also ensuring that laboratories, hospitals and other facilities are prepared to respond to the pandemic.

To ensure that education continues, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) have provided computers to the Ministry of Education so that vulnerable children can access distance learning.  UNICEF is also working with the Government on training teachers and providing guidance. 

UNDP is helping to retrain young people living in communities where jobs have been lost due to COVID-19 for remote work, while UNHCR is increasing its support for refugees through online language education and psychosocial support.  UNHCR and its partners are also distributing cash assistance to refugees and asylum seekers and the team is also helping with distribution, sending supplies to some 1,600 elderly people living alone in remote villages. 

**World Bee Day

And today marks World Bee Day.  This year, the focus is on good practices adopted by beekeepers to support their livelihoods and deliver quality products.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an undeniable impact on the beekeeping sector, affecting production, the market, and as a consequence, the livelihoods of beekeepers.

Bees and other pollinators, such as butterflies, bats and hummingbirds, are increasingly under threat from human activities. 

One her twitter account, the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed, reminded that bees are some of our smallest climate action heroes.  She added that a wide variety of plants that keep our planet healthy depend on bees — not to mention all the people who depend on pollination for their livelihoods and on honey to make our lives a bit sweeter.  Thank you.

To mark the day, a virtual event — under the theme “Bee Engaged” — will highlight the importance of traditional knowledge related to beekeeping, the use of bee-derived products and services, as well as their importance in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. 

**International Day for Biological Diversity

And related to this, I want to flag that Friday is the International Day for Biological Diversity.  This year’s theme is “Our solutions are in nature.”  In his message, the Secretary-General said that preserving and sustainably managing biodiversity is necessary for mitigating climate disruption, guaranteeing water and food security and even preventing pandemics. 

COVID-19, he said, has shown how human health is intimately connected with our relationship to the natural world.

That message has been shared with you. 

**Noon Briefing Guest

Tomorrow morning, at 9:30 a.m., the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Director-General, Qu Dongyu, and the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, will launch a revised appeal for the desert locust crisis.  The event will be webcast on FAO’s website.

FAO has revised the initial appeal, for which $131 million has been pledged, to address expanding threats and needs in West Africa and South-West Asia, in addition to the Greater Horn of Africa.  $311 million is now needed to implement locust control on 3.2 million hectares, and provide livelihoods support to 313,000 households. 

And to answer your questions about the revised appeal, Keith Cressman, FAO’s Senior Locust Forecasting Officer, will be our guest at the noon briefing tomorrow. 

And I will leave it at that, and we will turn to our nice moderator to see if there are questions to be had.

**Questions and Answers

James Bays.

Correspondent:  Thank you, Steph.  Can you hear me okay?

Spokesman:  James?  Yes, there you go.  How are you?

Correspondent:  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Sorry.  I can hear you.  Go ahead.  You were on mute on my end.

Question:  Oh, sorry.  I thought… yeah.  Okay.  I've got a couple of different questions, if that's okay.  Sorry.  I had a phone call while you were doing the announcements at the beginning and didn't… missed some of it.  Tell me if you already mentioned this, but a foreign… Yemen national dying of COVID‑19 in Sana'a, Yemen, can you tell us any more about that?

Spokesman:  No.  We understand that that is, in fact, the case, but I don't have any more details at this point.

Question:  Okay.  Couple of other questions, which are about the way the UN is working now and will go on working.  What are the sort of plans to change things in Headquarters with a plan eventually to get staff back in here?  I notice, for example, the elevators now have signs on them saying two persons only and face masks must be worn.  One assumes there's quite a lot of planning work going on about how Headquarters would work on the date that it is decided that more people should return here.  What is the thinking, and what is the discussions going on there?

Spokesman:  Well, the thinking is that we're going to have to go… to be very careful, base all our decisions on sound medical advice and scientific advice. 

Currently, the telecommuting, as ordered by the Secretary‑General, is in place until the end of June.  At some point before the end of June, a recommendation will be made to the Secretary‑General as to how to move forward. 

There is already planning on how a phased return of staff would look like, and that is under way.  When that starts is the question.  Obviously, it will depend on the global situation and very much depend on the situation in New York City.  We also have to look at all sorts of other factors, including childcare, transportation issues.  So, whenever the return is decided, it will be phased and done very carefully.

Question:  And one last question, if I can.  How is the UN during this telecommuting period using all of its staff?  Because one assumes there are some staff who can't be very productive when they're telecommuting.  There are all sorts of staff here for the maintenance of the building, and there's clearly not the same level of maintenance required.

And, secondly, there are all the public facing staff that deal with all of the public that comes through h the building, the tour guides.  Are these people being redeployed, retrained? What are they being used for at this stage after two months?

Spokesman:  Some… the maintenance staff continues, because the building continue… needs to be maintained.  In fact, they're cleaning more than they were in regular times.  So, the plant needs to be maintained, the electricity and so on. 

Some of the public facing staff is working from home and doing press briefings from home.  That's what we do.

Our… for example, our great tour guides are working on virtual tours, answering questions.  There is a programme within the Secretariat to redeploy staff.  So, some staff that work in offices that, for whatever reason, due to the lockdown, may not be as busy are helping out other parts of the building… of the administration that has seen its workload increase.  So, there's a way for us to call on reserved staff if we need more help, and we're trying to make sure that everyone is working… is fully employed and fully busy.

Question:  And a final point on this.  So, it's fair to say no UN staff of any sort have been furloughed?  Is that also true of contractors, permanent contractors working for the UN?

Spokesman:  That's correct of staff.  I can't speak for contractors.  Obviously, I think we know, unfortunately, the contractors that we see every day who work for our catering have been impacted.  But other contractors who work for the cleaning staff are continuing to be fully employed, if not more than fully employed.

Okay.  Let's see.  Abdelhamid.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Mladenov, in his speech, said that the Quartet should start immediately trying to convene a meeting, and he called on the US, European Union and Russian Federation to work with the UN.  That's his words.  Does that mean that the SG would take an initiative to try to resume or to try to contact the Quartet or other members of the Quartet for an immediate meeting?

Spokesman:  Abdelhamid, I think it means exactly what… there's no further meeting than what Mr. Mladenov said in his call on the [inaudible] Quartet.  So, I really have nothing to add to what he said.  When, obviously, we have more to announce, we will.

Karina and then Edie.

Correspondent:  Hi, Stéphane.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes, hi, Karina.

Question:  Hi.  Thank you.  The Secretary‑General suggested to the President of the General Assembly switching to a pre-recorded format for messages during the GA.  Have you received any response from the President of the GA?

And quick follow‑up.  How would you foresee the work of the press during the upcoming GA to do… given all the circumstances? Should we expect to cover it from home, or what are the current arrangements?

Spokesman:  On your first part… thank you for the question.  On your first part, we have not, as far as I'm aware, received a response from the President of the General Assembly.  Obviously, there will need to be consultations with Member States. 

And, also, just keep in mind that the next session of the General Assembly will actually be under a different presidency.  So… and the elections for the new President of the General Assembly have not taken place. 

So, I don't expect to hear back very… in the next few days, but the important thing to stress is that this… these are decisions that will be taken by Member States, and we will be there to support them.

As for the work of the press, I think we have to see what the situation is.  We very much hope that there will be some re‑opening of the building by then, which will be a signal that things have improved in New York City, which they are on the right track to do so.  So, I think you will cover it in a way that is appropriate for whatever… whichever way it is organized. 

But you're still able, at this point, to come into your offices.  So, I don't anticipate any great issue, but we'll, obviously, be working with you and the Correspondents Association to make it as fun as it always is during the GA.

Edie?

Question:  Thank you very much, Steph.  I also had a follow‑up question similar to Abdelhamid's, basically asking whether the Secretary‑General himself might take the initiative on trying to convene the Quartet, given the urgency that Mr. Mladenov said was needed. 

And I had two other follow‑up questions if you want to…

Spokesman:  Sure.  Mr.  Mladenov, I think, was very clear in his urgency of the matter and of the situation.  At this point, I have nothing I'm able to share with you. 

Your second question?

Question:  Yeah.  I was going to ask whether there was any progress on following up on the impact of the Secretary‑General's call for global ceasefires to all conflicts and also whether you've checked and whether there's any possibility that we're going to get to ask some questions to him next week.

Spokesman:  We're working on the second part of your question. 

I think there will be a briefing by a senior Political Affairs official, I think, tomorrow at which the issue of the ceasefire will be discussed.

I think Richard Roth had a question, which he's too shy to say… to speak for himself.  So, I will read it out for him, and the question was:  What is the Secretary‑General's reaction to the USAID (United States Agency for International Development) administration letter demanding that the UN stop promoting abortion in its pandemic response?

What I can say is that we have, indeed, received a letter from the acting Administrator of the USAID sent to the Secretary‑General earlier this week.  It's been received, and we will respond to it. 

In the meantime, I do want to clarify that any suggestion that we are using the COVID‑19 pandemic response as an opportunity to promote abortion is not correct. 

While we support health care that prevents millions of women from dying during pregnancy and childbirth and protects people from sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, we do not seek to override any national laws.

A written question from Iftikhar:  Does the UN plan to replicate the gesture made by its Cabo Verde country team members in other coronavirus‑hit developing countries as the world body leads the fight against the virus?

I think Iftikhar was referring to the voluntary contributions from salary and others in the Cabo Verde office.  I know our colleagues in Kazakhstan have also donated goods.  And, in fact, our staff here in New York are working with the City of New York to send donations and to support the community. 

It is, obviously, up to staff worldwide, but I think UN staff, wherever they are, are very cognizant of the need to support the local communities in which they work.

Toby and then Alan.  Toby?

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Thanks very much.  Hope you're well today.  A question on… are any UN offices or field teams making any sort of preparations that you're aware of, provided the annexation discussed today at the Security Council moves forward?  Are there any plans being discussed or preparations?

Spokesman:  Well, let me put it this way.  I think all the comments regarding the threat of annexation by Israeli authorities have been very public.  So, we are very well aware of them, and I will leave it at that.

Alan?

Correspondent:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yep.

Question:  I have a follow‑up on the Middle East Quartet question.  The diplomatic source told to our agency today that such a meeting could be held even this week.  Do you have any signs of such a situation?  Do you have any signs that such a meeting could be really held tomorrow or the day after tomorrow?

And is the SG directly engaged in some kind of negotiations regarding the preparation of such a meeting?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Mr. Mladenov is our representative… is at the Quartet… at the envoy level, leads our efforts.  I think he was pretty clear in his message calling on the US, the Russian Federation, the European Union, to work with him and others to come forward with proposals that would enable the Quartet to take up its mediation work… role and work jointly with countries to advance the prospect of peace. 

At this point, I have nothing I'm able to share with you on a possible date for a Quartet meeting.

Okay.  Abdelhamid, another question.

Question:  Thank you again.  You know how much I pay attention to the language Mladenov gives a speech.

Spokesman:  I've noticed. 

Question:  Yes.  Today, the British Ambassador mentioned the name of the boy killed.  He said his name is Zeid Qaisiyyia, and his age is 15, and he was shot in the head by the Israelis. 

Mr. Mladenov mentioned… he said that a teenager was killed in Fawwar refu… Fawwar, a neighbourhood near Hebron, Fawwar… I don't know if he said refugee camp or not, but he said Fawwar near Hebron, a teenager was killed.  So, which is… which portrays the accuracy of the incident, the British statement or Mr. Mladenov?

Spokesman:  I can't speak to the British statement.  I know Mr.  Mladenov had addressed the killing of the young man, I think, in a tweet or in a statement earlier in the week.  I think the framing of how this case is mentioned does in no way show any less caring for the loss of life in this ongoing conflict.

All right.  Iftikhar…

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  You're welcome.  Iftikhar had another question:  While welcoming the agreement between Afghan leaders on forming an inclusive government, the UN has been calling the Government and Taliban to be in peace dialogue.  Is the UN in contact with both parties?

Our team on the ground continues to be in contact with all relevant parties in Afghanistan. 

Okay.  Florencia, do we wrap this up? Let's see.  Yep.  That's it. 

Okay.  Have a wonderful day.  See you tomorrow.  Why not?  Bye‑bye.

For information media. Not an official record.