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UN secretary-general decries lack of global cooperation to beat pandemic

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres says that the world’s major industrialized nations are not doing enough to work together to combat the coronavirus global pandemic — and that there will be major consequences if they fail to unite.

In an interview Friday with tPBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff, Guterres urged leaders of the G-20 nations to adopt a common strategy in order to bend, and eventually break, the curve in new cases.

“I don’t think that these kinds of cooperation is happening,” said Gueterres, who led a virtual meeting of G-20 nations to discuss the coronavirus spread Thursday, “ I think this kind of cooperation must start effectively, because without it, we’ll be defeated by the virus and the cost will be enormous,” in both human lives and in terms of the economy. 

Gueterres said that until now, countries have been operating only in parallel to one another, making no efforts to ensure that their preventative actions are in syncr. He said that sometimes, even within the same nation, different parts of the country are taking different actions.

On Wednesday, the U.N. launched a global campaign to raise $2 billion to provide what Guterres called “the minimum of humanitarian response” able to try to bolster both prevention and response tactics to the virus. 

Other highlights from the interview:

Africa may be the next place hit hard by coronavirus. Guterres said that as the virus continues to spread, the continent of Africa is at risk.

“Africa is a continent with very little capacity to respond. And I am extremely worried that in those situations, we might have millions of cases with millions of people dying,” he said.

How will refugee communities fight the pandemic? Guterres, who previously served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the office he formerly ran had a “plan of action,” developed along with other U.N. agencies, to prevent the spread of the virus among communities of refugees and internally displaced persons.

Though some refugees and IDPs live in camps that are small without access to resources or reliable health care, which leaves them ill-equipped to fight a pandemic, their often remote nature could serve to help slow the spread of the virus, he said. Guterres did not mention that the U.N.’s main organizations supporting refugees have recently suspended refugee resettlement departures, given global uncertainty and hardened borders due to the coronavirus.

On war zones and coronavirus. Guterres also called this week for a global ceasefire so that areas in conflict could focus on fighting the coronavirus. He noted that some countries  seemed to respond positively, including in Libya, Syria and Yemen. But, in all those places so far, those answers have not translated into results–in fact, Gueterres said the fighting in Libya has gotten worse.  



Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The coronavirus pandemic has hit the globe at a time of massive refugee crises, confrontation between the world's great powers and armed conflicts in many countries.

    How does one coordinate a global response to an invisible enemy?

    For answers, I spoke earlier today with someone grappling with this and much more.

    He's Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations.

    Mr. Secretary-General, thank you very much for joining us.

    You told the leaders of the world's richest nations yesterday that every country on Earth is in a fight against this coronavirus, but not winning it. Why not? And do you think it's a fight that can be won?

  • Secretary-General Antonio Guterres:

    Well, this is a fight that can be won, and the demonstration is that it has been won already in some parts of the world.

    But it requires a very clear strategy. And the strategy must be to suppress the virus, and the strategy that needs to be adopted by all countries, in coordination, following the guidelines of World Health Organization.

    Until now, what we have had were a completely different set of measures in different countries, sometimes even within one country, different areas doing different things. And the virus is a very dangerous one. And it's not easy to control.

    So, we need concerted action by all major players. And, obviously, when, yesterday, I was meeting the G20, I was meeting not only with the leaders of 80 percent of the global economy, but of 90 percent of the cases of infection.

    So, if the G20 could come together, adopt a common strategy everywhere, concerted actions everywhere, following the guidelines of World Health Organization, aiming at suppression of the virus and the transmission of the virus, not of mitigation, not just of bending the curve, to break the curve of — that represents the number of cases, if that would be the common strategy.

    If we don't do it, if each country will do its own way, now we are seeing the virus, it moved from China to Korea, from Korea to Europe, from Europe to the West. Now it's moving south, and then moving south, Africa is a continent with very little capacity to respond. And I am extremely worried that, in those situations, we might have millions of cases, with millions of people dying, and a terrible tragedy that we need to avoid.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Mr. Secretary-General, where is the evidence that countries are working together?

    Because we see squabbling between the United States and China, for example, calling each other names. I mean, where's the evidence that this kind of cooperation is happening?

  • Antonio Guterres:

    I don't think that this kind of cooperation happening.

    I think that this kind of cooperation must start effectively, because, without it, we will be defeated by the virus. And the costs will be enormous, of course, in human lives, and the cost will be enormous in relation to the economy and the society.

    This crisis is a crisis that is larger from the economic and financial point of view than the crisis of 2008. And in 2008, there was a concerted action by all members of the G20 in order to be able to address the crisis and to relaunch the economies.

    This time, we will need an even bigger effort. I was happy to see that the Senate in the U.S. approved $2 trillion, which corresponds almost to 10 percent of the American economy.

    But, of course, I'm very worried about the countries in the south, where these resources are not available and where the tragedy might be a terrible human tragedy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you're right about what the Congress has passed. The president is presumably going to sign it.

    However, one — only one billion of it — it sounds like a lot of money, but that's.05 percent of it — is set aside for international aid. You have called on the developed countries to help the developing countries.

    Do you see that kind of support forthcoming?

  • Antonio Guterres:

    Well, we need about $3 trillion for the developing countries, if one looks, again, at the same percentage of GDP.

    The question is to mobilize that in an effective way, in a nonbureaucratic way, without conditions that countries are not able to meet, and to do it massively in support to the countries of the south.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    At the same time, you have what is now, I believe, the largest population of refugees, displaced persons on the planet since World War II.

    What happens if the coronavirus hits those populations, which it's certain to do? How does that get addressed?

  • Antonio Guterres:

    Well, we have, through the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and International Organization of Migration, a plan of action, aiming, essentially, at preventing, avoiding at all costs — fortunately, many of these camps are in remote locations — avoiding at all cost the virus to come to them, and, at the same time, to build the minimum capacity to respond, even if we know that that will be extremely difficult.

    And that was the reason why I launched today — I launched yesterday an appeal of humanitarian agencies of $2 billion, which is a drop in the ocean of what we are discussing for the needs of the global economy, $2 billion to be able to provide to those most vulnerable situations in areas of conflict the minimum of humanitarian response, able to hopefully prevent the disease from coming, and, if it comes, to do our best to respond to it, knowing it will be very difficult to avoid the very tragic consequences.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So many challenges to face, Mr. Secretary-General.

    Earlier this week, on Monday, you have also called for a universal cease-fire, for wherever there are hostilities, for them to end because of the coronavirus. Is anyone heeding that call?

  • Antonio Guterres:


    We have positive answers in several situations. But the problem is not only to give a positive answer. It's to make sure that the answer is translated into action on the ground.

    There was an acceptance in principle by the two warring parts in Libya, but, unfortunately, on the ground, things got worse. In Syria, several of the actors have announced that they supported the cease-fire.

    In Yemen, all the parties have said that they would be ready to support the cease-fire. But this requires massive pressure from the international community.

    I have been appealing for members of the Security Council, for those more relevant powers in the world to put pressure on the parties of conflict in all these situations in order to be able to translate that principle, that idea that, indeed, they are ready to accept it into a reality on the ground.

    And, unfortunately, the risk that the good intention might not be translated into facts is a big risk.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    No question a big risk.

    Just finally, Mr. Secretary-General, where do you look for inspiration in all of this? I mean, I'm assuming you have never seen anything like this in your time working at the U.N., working with refugees.

  • Antonio Guterres:

    My inspiration comes from those people that — in — not only in my old agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but in UNICEF, the World Food Program, in peacekeeping missions.

    The courage, the resilience and the generosity that they show, this is, for me, an enormous inspiration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, thank you very much.

  • Antonio Guterres:

    Thank you very much.

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