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

17 March 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 Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

**COVID-19 — United Nations Country Teams

Good afternoon to the last hearty survivors of our press corps.  First of all, I would like to talk a little bit about the one topic which is on everyone’s lips, COVID-19.  UN teams around the world are continuing to offer support to national and local authorities to prepare and respond to the pandemic.

In Zimbabwe, upon the Government’s request, the UN is also supporting the most immediate preparedness needs such as training of healthcare workers, while ensuring their own safety, on caring for patients with COVID-19.  The UN is also supporting the Government with the school system’s preparation, with posters for schools and leaflets for students to take home and share with families, while also preparing for potential home-schooling needs.  The UN is also engaging with the private sector and civil society for a whole-of-society response to COVID-19.  In parallel, the UN has also supported the Government in developing a Risk Communication and Community Engagement Preparedness, Readiness, Response Plan, as well as public information material for distribution and display at health centres and other public places, including airports and other points of entry into Zimbabwe.  In China, the UN team has been supporting national and local efforts to share information on COVID-19 through traditional and social media channels targeting various age groups and communities.  These efforts have helped reach over 1 billion views on several social media channels.

UN entities also translated COVID-19 preparedness messages in more than 40 languages and dialects tailored to the elderly or those in ethnic minority communities.  On social media, the most prominent is the Social Distancing Campaign jointly launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Resident Coordinator, which has attracted over 51 million views and more than 540,000 people have participated in online discussions.  A subsequent online survey conducted in early March indicated a 34 per cent increase of people maintaining social distancing since the outbreak, and more than 90 per cent of survey respondents correctly identified hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and social distancing as some of the top four WHO recommendations.

**COVID-19 — World Health Organization

And WHO today called on Member States in South-East Asia to urgently scale up aggressive measures to combat COVID-19, as confirmed cases cross 480, with 8 deaths.  Eight of the 11 countries in WHO’s South-East Asia region have confirmed cases of COVID-19, and the numbers of cases are increasing quickly.  While this is an indication of an alert and effective surveillance, it also puts the spotlight on the need for more aggressive and whole of society efforts to prevent further spread of COVID-19, WHO said.  We clearly need to do more, and urgently.

**COVID-19 — Humanitarian Aid

Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that some of the 140 countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic are already in crisis due to conflicts, natural disasters and climate change.  They are home to millions of people who already need our emergency assistance.  The UN and its humanitarian partners are determined that crucial, lifesaving work for the world’s most vulnerable communities must be sustained.  That means continuing focused coordination across the global humanitarian system, swift fund-raising to ensure critical programmes have the resources they need, and maintaining effective humanitarian operations, leaving no one behind.  WHO has appealed for $675 million to fund the initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is currently working with WHO and other partners to coordinate a consolidated global humanitarian appeal.

The Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, has released $15 million from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund to help fund WHO and UNICEF’s efforts to contain the virus in vulnerable countries.  Other OCHA-managed funds in individual countries are also stepping up and country-based pooled funds have released money to scale up immediate preparedness in Afghanistan, Sudan and Jordan.  UN agencies and their partners are currently assessing where and how humanitarian operations on the ground are being disrupted to identify solutions as quickly as possible.  At the same time, we are taking precautions to ensure the safety of staff and the people we serve.

**COVID-19 — Pakistan

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) tells us that, in Pakistan, following the closure of the Torkham and Chaman official border-crossing points with Afghanistan, the voluntary repatriation of registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan has been suspended.  This is due to the Government’s precautionary measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.  Several UNHCR Voluntary Repatriation Centres in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are closed until further notice.  UNHCR said its utmost priority is to support global efforts on lessening the spread and impact of COVID-19, and to assist the Government of Pakistan with its comprehensive preparedness and response plans.

**Libya

On a related note, the UN Support Mission in Libya, UNSMIL, joins the call by international partners on all parties to the Libyan conflict to declare an immediate humanitarian cessation of hostilities, as well as a halt to the continuing transfer of all military equipment and personnel into Libya.  That is in order to allow local authorities to rapidly respond to the unprecedented public health challenge posed by COVID-19.  While UNSMIL continues its efforts in facilitating an inter-Libyan dialogue on the political, military and economic tracks, UNSMIL urges all parties in Libya to take the bold step in unifying their efforts in facing this pandemic.

**Syria

The UN continues to step up its cross-border response efforts out of Turkey to address the needs of hundreds of thousands of newly displaced women, children and men in north-west Syria.  Since 1 December 2019, approximately 960,000 people have been newly displaced in Idlib and surrounding areas, mainly women and children.  The mass displacement further increases needs across north-west Syria, where over 4 million people are living in severe conditions.  Between 1 and 16 March, over 650 trucks carrying food, shelter material, water, sanitation and hygiene and nutrition assistance have been sent into north-west Syria through the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam border crossings, as authorized by the Security Council.  A detailed humanitarian readiness and response plan for north-west Syria has been in place since the end of January, covering both cross-border, and delivery from within Syria, with an updated funding requirement of $500 million to assist over 1.1 million people in need.  Over $300 million has been provided by donors towards this plan, but more is needed to fully address critical life-saving needs.

**Central African Republic

Turning to the Central African Republic, you will have seen that we issued a statement last night where the Secretary-General strongly condemned the attack perpetrated by anti-Balaka elements against local officials on 15 March in Grimari, in the Ouaka Prefecture.  United Nations peacekeepers confronted the attackers and one Burundian peacekeeper was killed.  The Secretary-General also strongly condemned another attack on Sunday by suspected elements of two armed groups against a United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) patrol on the Ndélé-Birao axis.  One peacekeeper from Pakistan was injured.  The Secretary-General emphasizes that attacks targeting United Nations peacekeepers may constitute a war crime under international law.

And today, peacekeepers in the Central African Republic are continuing patrols in and around the city of Ndélé, the area where the Pakistani blue helmet was injured on Sunday.  The patrols are conducted in coordination with the country’s gendarmerie, to protect the population and prevent new clashes.  In other news, today, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, welcomed the recent adoption of a Child Protection Code by the Central African Republic’s National Assembly.  The code criminalizes the recruitment and use of children, emphasizes that children associated with armed groups should be considered primarily as victims and addresses other grave violations against boys and girls, such as sexual violence.

**United Republic of Tanzania

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said today that the recent sentencing of eight senior members and one former senior leader of the United Republic of Tanzania's main opposition party on charges including sedition and unlawful assembly is further troubling evidence of the crackdown on dissent and the stifling of public freedoms in the country.  The Office says that the latest sentences highlight what appears to be an ongoing strategy by the Government to use the criminal justice system to target its critics, imposing large fines or jail terms on opponents, journalists and civil society figures.  The Office asks the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania to abide by its international obligations to respect human rights, including the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association and freedom of expression.

**Uzbekistan

An estimated 50,000 stateless people in Uzbekistan are set to acquire citizenship following the passing of a new law in the country.  A provision in the Citizenship Law signed by the Uzbek President last Friday will come into effect on 1 April, conferring citizenship to registered stateless people who were granted permanent residence in Uzbekistan before 1 January 1995.  UNHCR welcomes the law and provided recommendations to national authorities during its drafting.

**Sustainable Development Goals

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe  (UNECE) today launched a first regional report on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals  (SDGs).  The report looks at change over recent years by reviewing 49 indicators across all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.  The report found that countries in Europe are making good progress in targets like reducing extreme poverty, covering the population with social protection, providing modern means for family planning, and having low levels of maternal, infant and child mortality.  However, there has been slow progress in areas such as reducing pollution, protecting marine areas, development assistance, and disaster-risk reduction strategies.  You can find the full report online.

**Financial Contribution

And, finally, some good news on this day: thanks to Malta and its full payment to the UN’s regular budget, we now have reached 72 contributions.  Many thanks to Malta for that.

**Twitter

I just want to flag that now you can watch the noon briefing live on Twitter from the account @UNWebTV.  This is in addition to the livestreaming from our website.  That’s it from me.  Are there any questions?  Yes?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  And for all of my colleagues watching, wondering why I'm here, I'm still waiting to get my Internet at home fixed so it's usable.  I've already gotten some text messages.  My questions are two.  First, I know there is a major fund‑raising campaign going for coronavirus to help the WHO.  Is the Secretary‑General thinking about doing any other kind of other global fund‑raising to help all the people without the virus whose lives are totally impacted by this pandemic?

Deputy Spokesman:  We are looking at further steps.  We know that we will need more funding to deal with the pandemic, and we are working closely with UN Member States and the private sector to ensure funding and equipment is available to fight COVID‑19, both in Member States and among the vulnerability community, such as the refugees and displaced people we help.  So, there's a lot of expenses that will be coming, and we'll have to evaluate down the line what further steps are needed to get the funding we need.  Obviously, we know, at the same time, that Governments themselves will be facing economic hardships.  There's going to be an economic impact of COVID‑19 on many Member States, and we're only now just beginning to understand the scale of that.  So, we know that money will be tight, but we are urging all countries to help pool what they can right now to get this pandemic stopped as quickly as possible, because, obviously, the economic benefits of solving this quicker, rather than having it linger on in so many countries, are almost incalculable.

Question:  And one other question, on Libya, is the acting SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary-General] making any efforts to try to get both sides to try and deal with the pandemic and the impact in the country?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes.  You'll have seen the Mission today was a part of a joint call by a large number of international groups to all of the parties, trying to get them to declare an immediate cessation of hostilities and also halt all the transfer of military equipment and personnel into Libya.  So, that's part and parcel of our efforts, while we still try to keep up with progress on the political, military, and financial tracks.  Of course, as you know, the effects of COVID‑19 make all these efforts a little bit more complicated, including efforts to hold different conferences and gatherings in places like Geneva, as you can imagine.  But, at the same time, we are keeping up with our tracks.  Stephanie Williams, who is the acting Special Representative at this time, is continuing with the efforts that were made by her predecessor, Ghassan Salamé, and we're hoping that we can keep this up.  Evelyn?

Correspondent:  Evelyn, your microphone.

Question:  My microphone.  I totally forgot.  Thank you for being here.  I'm here because I'm expecting delivery of applications for the Dag Hammarskjöld fund and whether… for journalists, and we don't know if we can have a programme this clear, but we have to go through some motions and not let journalists… 100 journalists sit in limbo.  Okay.  What's the web… is it a website or a Twitter page that you're having… that people are looking at to get information on the UN?  What's the URL?

Deputy Spokesman:  You can go to www.un.org/coronavirus, and there is up‑to‑date information on what we're doing.  So, in addition to the briefings that we've been putting out, both here and from Geneva, there is one place where all of our efforts are being put up.  And, of course, you can also look at our News Centre site.

Question:  At the what?

Deputy Spokesman:  Our normal News Centre site, but the coronavirus page has it all in one place.

Question:  Is there a Twitter page that's in… that you look at mostly?  But that's all right.

Deputy Spokesman:  Yeah, there's also the Twitter page for the News Centre.  And like I said, you can also… we also have a new account, the @UNWebTV account, where you can also get the live stream…  the live feed of these briefings from Twitter.

Question:  @UN what?

Deputy Spokesman:  It's @UNWebTV.

Correspondent:  Oh, yeah.  We know that one.

Question:  Now, how many people usually work in this building?

Deputy Spokesman:  As Javier Pérez de Cuéllar used to say, about half of them.

Correspondent:  About half of them, yeah.

Deputy Spokesman:  The serious answer is that there's normally around 3,000 people in this building and sometimes, on an average day, about 1,000 visitors.  As you know, the outside visitors, you know, the tours, the bookshop and so forth, those have been closed for the time being.  But, today…  for example, on 4 March, we had 11,033 swipes into the building.  In other words, 11,000… more than 11,000 times that different pass cards were swiped.  It's not the same thing as 11,000 people, of course.  It will be less than that.  Today, the number of swipes into UN Headquarters, as of about 10:30 a.m., was 489.  So, it's way down from 11,000.

Question:  Right.  And who's working?  Is it peacekeeping, OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs], people who have to keep track of conflicts around the world?

Deputy Spokesman:  No.  Even different types of essential staff are working from home.  The criterion is people whose actual presence in this building is required.  We have a lot of facilities to allow people to conduct meetings remotely, to process all of the various forms and documents that we need remotely.  So, the work of the UN, whether it's writing reports, whether it's dealing with crises in different spots, many of those things still can be done remotely.  But a determination is made on who has to be here.  For example, I have to be here right now today just to talk to you, but the other members of the Spokesperson's office are all still at work and patching in remotely, and we confer with each other and do our notes and our other work through email.

Question:  Do you go to morning meetings upstairs, personally?  And then who's still there?

Deputy Spokesman:  There's a handful of people at morning meetings, but many of our morning meetings, our established morning meetings, include people calling in through secure networks.

Question:  Right.  So, there's…  the whole peacekeeping staff is not here?

Deputy Spokesman:  There will be some staff in each of the key departments who… you know, but, again, the main criterion about this is not how important your tasks are.  The main criterion is, do your tasks require your presence in this building?  And so, that's how we're making that determination.

Question:  Don't they need that?  They have maps and lights and satellites, and they can do… they can't do all that from home?

Deputy Spokesman:  Maps and lights and satellites.  A lot of the information from those can be accessed through different secure networks, and that's what we're trying to do for a lot of our staff.  And if that's it… okay.

Question:  Oh, one more question.  Zimbabwe.  Who's doing that training, WHO or someone else?

Deputy Spokesman:  This is… the UN country team is helping support the Government of Zimbabwe, again at their request.  We're…  we've been providing daily updates about what different country teams are doing, and we'll keep trying to get those as we go along, but the staff of the country team is trying to do the support.  Okay.  Have a good afternoon.

For information media. Not an official record.