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17 March 2020

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) (in person), the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) (the last three by phone from Geneva).

The topics addressed were COVID-19 and the east Africa locust infestation.


Alessandra Vellucci, for the UN Information Service (UNIS), stated that, as the UN Secretary-General had said, the United Nations remained opened for business under these special circumstances. The UN would continue to implement its mandates and serve the people around the world. The double objective of the UN, including UN Geneva, was to protect its staff while delivering on its mandates, which was why most staff based at the Palais des Nations were telecommuting. It was hard to specify how many people were at the Palais on a regular day given that there were usually conferences and meetings taking place with external participants. First figures on how many people were in the Palais today should be available this evening. Ms. Vellucci emphasized that the Palais was not closed; the critical staff were on site and UN’s functions were being carried out by both those in the building and those telecommuting.

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the coronavirus pandemics now had a foothold in more than 140 countries, some of which had already been in a difficult situation before the pandemics. OCHA remained determined that life-saving aid to the most vulnerable communities had to be continued, as more than 100 million people in the world relied on the aid from the United Nations. OCHA was working closely with its UN and local partners to coordinate the response to the COVID-19 pandemics. Efforts were underway to increase preparedness in Afghanistan, Sudan, and Jordan. Mr. Laerke stressed that it was important not to forget the existing crises and needs. UN agencies were identifying if and how the operations on the ground were disrupted. OCHA was also working on informing vulnerable communities on the ground on how to protect themselves from COVID-19.

Responding to questions, Mr. Laerke said that, while the economic repercussions of the pandemics seemed to be dire, OCHA hoped that the donors would continue to support its operations as they had always done. Mr. Laerke further stressed that the COVID-19 pandemics was now overlapping with the pre-existing crises, and the humanitarian community was trying to respond to both with everything it had at its disposal.

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that two WHO staff had been confirmed as being infected with COVID-19. They were now self-isolating at home and doing fine. Except for the essential staff, all WHO staff were working from home.

Syria had no confirmed cases of COVID-19, informed Mr. Lindmeier responding to a question. WHO was extremely concerned about the possible effects COVID-19 might have on internally displaced persons in northwest Syria, who already lived in dire conditions. A COVID-19 triage system was to be established in all health facilities in Syria’s northwest, to prevent or limit transmission. Due to the overcrowded living conditions and inefficient space for self-isolation in camps and host communities, community- and camp-based isolation would restrict movement of suspected cases.

Across Syria, only 64 percent of hospitals and 52 percent of primary health centers had been fully functional at the end of 2019, as many as 70 percent of medical professionals had left the country. The capacity of preparedness of the country for the pandemics was rated at two on a scale 1-5.

On another question, Mr. Lindmeier stressed that, unlike Ebola, COVID-19 was spread through droplets, and bodies of deceased persons were thus not contagious. WHO experts were looking into possible detrimental effects of ibuprofen for those infected with COVID-19; for the time being, the WHO recommended using paracetamol instead.

Mr. Lindmeier confirmed that all WHO press briefings would now be virtual, and no journalists would have access to the WHO building.

Mr. Lindmeier, answering other questions, said that there were close to 15,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Iran, with 853 deaths. There were 99 confirmed cases and three confirmed deaths in Lebanon. The health authorities there, as elsewhere, should focus on testing, tracking and treating.

Andrej Mahecic, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), added that there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among refugees in Lebanon. The situation was very fluid and was changing fast. Meanwhile, there were ten confirmed cases among refugees and asylum seekers in Germany - Munich, Berlin and Heidelberg.

Responding to a question on Europe receiving migrants from Turkey now that the Schengen area’s borders were closed, Mr. Mahecic said that the new EU rules would clearly have an effect; the exact repercussions remained to be seen. UNHCR was working with the Greek national authorities on increasing preparedness and boasting local capacities; everyone should be included in the response. UNHCR believed that there was little reason for suspension of asylum. At the moment, there was no blanket testing of refugee populations, said Mr. Mahecic; the key priority was infection prevention and control.

East Africa locust infestation

Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that a wave of desert locusts in East Africa was now forming more swarms in parts of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, putting at risk the main crop harvest in May and June, and threatening the food security of smallholder farmers. The desert locust was considered the most dangerous migratory pest in the world. The current upsurge, which had started in 2019, was the worst in 25 years in Ethiopia and Somalia, and the worst in 70 years in Kenya. Assessments were ongoing to determine how the locust upsurge was exacerbating food insecurity in affected areas.

The cost of responding to the impact of locusts on food security could be at least 15 times higher than the cost of preventing the spread now, stressed Ms. Byrs. In South Sudan, desert locusts had affected four counties in the Eastern Equatorial region since arriving in mid-February. Although the swarms were small compared to those in Ethiopia and Kenya, they could continue to spread unless controlled. WFP had provided vehicles to the government of South Sudan and FAO for surveillance and control activities. Severe hunger continued to stalk communities across South Sudan, particularly among displaced people and in areas affected by floods in 2019. Ms. Byrs emphasized that without immediate food assistance, the capacity of millions of South Sudanese people to feed their families would be compromised.

Geneva announcements

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), informed that ahead of the World Tuberculosis Day, 24 March, a press conference would be organized on 20 March. More details would be shared shortly.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog170320

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