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20 March 2020

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the World Food Programme.

Spokespersons for the World Health Organization, United Nations Water, World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe briefed by phone.

COVID-19 pandemic

Answering a question from journalists, Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that in the course of his virtual press conference on 19 March, which focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres had stressed the need for “solidarity, hope and the political will to see this crisis through together”. Managing this crisis also offered a “unique opportunity” to “steer the recovery toward a more sustainable and inclusive path”. The Secretary-General also detailed three critical areas of action: tackle the health emergency, focus on the social impact and the economic response and recovery and “recover better”.

Ms. Vellucci also said that the Swiss Government had not yet declared the full containment and that, for the time being, the Palais des Nations remained fully open and functional.

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that as of the evening of 19 March, the number of cases worldwide had exceeded 200,000; it had taken three months to reach the first 100,000 cases and only 12 days to reach the next 100,000. This was a typical curve of the pandemic and it showed where the focus of action had to be: on reducing the number of new cases to give everybody time to adapt, cope and treat as many patients as possible. Additional time was needed to catch up with the production of the necessary medical materials and equipment, and to search for the vaccine.

In response to questions, Mr. Lindmeier reiterated that it took only 12 days to double the number of cases worldwide, but the scenarios varied from one country to another - in France, it took only four days to double the caseload. The focus must be on slowing down the spread of the virus, which highlighted the importance of applying a comprehensive package of measures. This must start with “testing, testing, testing - if you don’t know who is infected in your country, the measures will not be adequate”, he said. Testing, treating and tracing contacts remained of utmost importance.

Several countries did face a challenge in ensuring the sufficient number of tests, which underlined the importance of slowing down the spread of the virus to give time to the medical industry to produce the necessary equipment and materials. The World Health Organisation continued to work with all countries to ensure they had the capacity to test; so far, it had shipped 1.5 million diagnostic tests to 120 countries.

While systematic testing remained a priority, because “we must know what we’re up against”, the countries must adapt to their realities and capacities and apply different scenarios. As for the United Kingdom’s intention to purchase antibody tests, Mr. Lindmeier welcomed any advances in science and technology that could help to develop new weapons against the virus.

Humanitarian response and the COVID-19 pandemic

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), highlighted the concern for the 100 million people living in war zones and other emergency settings who depended on the United Nations humanitarian assistance. As the virus reached the places, the consequences could be devastating. The humanitarian imperative was to keep getting the life-saving help to people in need and take action to avoid the potentially catastrophic impact of COVID-19.

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was working to raise awareness on how to protect from the virus and ensure the safety of staff and people they served. The global humanitarian response plan was to be launched the following week, the Central Emergency Relief Fund had released $15 million to help contain the virus in vulnerable countries and several country offices had released funds to scale up preparedness.

The world needed to continue to support the most vulnerable, Mr. Laerke said. “To stop COVID-19 anywhere, it must be stopped everywhere.” Maintaining the global humanitarian response was an act of global solidarity and an act of enlightened self-interest.

Elisabeth Byrs, for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), highlighted the impact of COVID-19 on school meals, noting that over 860 million children and youth – about half of the world’s student population – had to stay away from schools and universities. As a result, 300 million primary school children were now missing on school meals. WFP was working with governments and partners to ensure they and their families continued to receive support to meet their food and nutritional requirements during the COVID-19 crisis.

Responding to questions, Ms. Byrs said that 18 million children around the world participated in the school meals programmes run by WFP. Reiterating concern for the wellbeing of all children, she said WFP was working to ensure that the children continued to receive food and nutrition they needed, including through food rations they could carry home.

On the impact of sanctions on the COVID-19 situation, Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), noted that normally, humanitarian aid should be allowed to flow freely and pass through.

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the World Health Organisation was working with all countries, including those under sanctions such as Iran or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Asked about the aid deliveries to north-west Syria, Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the cross-border operation from Turkey into Syria was continuing. Preventive measures were being put in place to avoid accidental transmission of the virus.

Sudanese refugees

Andrej Mahecic, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), briefed on the emergency airlift for Sudanese refugees in Chad, which had been executed on 19 March. Following the recent clashes, more than 60,000 people - mostly women and children, exhausted and malnourished - had fled across the border. The charter flight, which had brought aid items for some 10,000 people, had been fully paid for by the UPS, United Nations Refugee Agency’s private sector partner. Press release.

Climate change and water in the focus of the World Water Day and World Meteorological Day.

Daniella Bostrom, for the United Nations Water (UN-Water), said that UN-Water and the World Meteorological Organization were commemorating both World Water Day on 23 March and World Meteorological Day on 23 March, under the theme of climate change and water. In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many events had been cancelled. A dedicated webpage had been created to advise people how to stay safe while commemorating World Water Day or how to move the events online.

On 23 March, World Water Day, the Water Resilience Coalition and the World Water Development Report, she announced. UN-Water was also working to insert the topic of water in the climate change negotiations during the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or
COP26, in Glasgow in November.

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), noted that one of the biggest impacts of climate change was on the water, which in turn affected sustainable development and security. But, in contrast to internationally coordinated information about rising temperatures, data on water resources was patchy and incomplete. Ms. Nullis stressed that “we can’t manage what we don’t monitor and measure”, a message that had become unfortunately too familiar in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. An estimated 3 billion people lacked access to handwashing facilities.

Asked about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the greenhouse gas emissions and whether it would help to keep the global warming below 2°C in the coming years, Ms. Nullis said that it was too early to say. In January and February, the measuring station in Hawaii had recorded the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations that were significantly above the levels recorded in the previous year. The levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels had been significantly reduced, both in China and Italy.

CO2 stayed in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and even longer in the oceans, which meant that the world would see more global warming in the future, stressed Ms. Nullis. “The global warming will not stop because of this pandemic.”

Pledges to the Trees in Cities Challenge pass 10 million trees mark

Jean Rodriguez, for the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), said that all over the world, mayors and local authorities were taking climate action through tree-planting in and around cities. They recognize trees as crucial allies in the fight against polluted air and climate change - a single tree could absorb up to 150 kg of CO2 per year. Turkmenistan had joined the “Trees in Cities Challenge” - a global tree-planting campaign launched at the 2019 Climate Action Summit - and had announced the intention to plant over 2.2 million trees in its cities. More information: https://treesincities.unece.org/

International days

20 March is the International Day of Happiness and the French Language Day.

21 March is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, World Poetry Day, International Day of Nowruz, World Down Syndrome Day and the International Day of Forests.

Correspondents had received the message of the United Nations Secretary-General said that the International Day of Nowruz.

22 March is the World Water Day, while World Meteorological Day is commemorated on 23 March.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog200320

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