UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for greater global cooperation to address the world's most serious problems. Photo: Reuters

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres held a major virtual news conference on March 25 to ask the world to raise US$2 billion for developing nations in Africa, Asia and South America, called the Global Humanitarian Response Plan. The money he called “a drop in the ocean” is for the next nine months, indicating a belief the virus won’t disappear before then.

Interviewing specialists, The Wall Street Journal said the coronavirus is “now taking off in the world’s poorest countries.”

“From Venezuela to Pakistan to the Democratic Republic of Congo – and nearly every developing country between – confirmed cases have started to spike in recent days, a sign the contagion is advancing exponentially, disease-control experts say,” the Journal wrote.

Missing from the UN and other recent projects was Central America, the migrants leaving violent homelands and the prisoners on the US side of the border.

UN Headquarters grows quiet

At the United Nations, meetings have been canceled or handled remotely. But senior staff are seen in the building at conference tables during virtual news conferences, including the heads of major bodies as well as some undersecretaries general. Guterres is in his office most days, telephoning world leaders.

Among the many conferences postponed or canceled is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s crucial five-year review. The new date is supposed to be no later than April 2021.

Then on March 28, Guterres met with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to hand over 250,000 face masks the UN had in storage. He said he hoped that the protective equipment would “play some small role in saving lives.” Many of the world body’s more than 4,000 staff live in New York. The mayor called the donation and other positive moments “grains of light.”

Some 86 UN staff members have contracted the virus, most of them in Europe, said chief UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric at his daily briefing on March 27. And the UN Security Council is holding closed meetings by videoconference, including one on Libya and Sudan. But it has not agreed on coronavirus resolutions, with the US and China arguing with each other.

Changing the world?

Basically, the UN wants to stop the coronavirus from enveloping the developing world, a near-impossible task. It will use teams of staff and partners already in nearly every fragile country. And there are 110,000 peacekeepers in 13 nations, who are not permitted to rotate while the virus is spreading.

The World Health Organization (WHO), headed by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is at the global center for news, help and advice on the coronavirus. the WHO had declared the virus a world pandemic and gave the disease it causes the name Covid-19. He gives a daily briefing.

The WHO recently undertook a blanket distribution of protective equipment to 24 African countries. The Geneva-based UN agency has also brought scientists together and helped fund research and a future vaccine. On Saturday, Ghebreyesus announced that the WHO had enrolled patients in Norway and Spain in a “drug trial to test treatments for the coronavirus.” More than 45 countries are contributing to the trial.

Even Israel, sharply critical of the United Nations, said it was the right body to deal with the pandemic. According to its UN ambassador, Danny Danon: “The UN secretary general and its institutions, in particular the World Health Organization, are proving that the United Nations is just the organization that the world needs to address the global nature of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Who is donating funds?

Contributions are promised from all sorts of organizations and nations, although one is not certain when they will arrive or where they will go. The Group of Twenty, the world’s richest nations grouping, has promised to raise “whatever it takes,” perhaps $5 trillion.

The World Bank had made $12 billion available to help countries coping with the health and economic impacts of the global outbreak. The International Monetary Fund has said $10 billion could be mobilized in loans to low-income countries tackling the virus. The African Development Bank has offered $3 billion in a bond with a three-year maturity. The European Union in February announced an initial contribution of €232 million ($259 million).

And then there are sanctions. The administration of US President Donald Trump has added to those against Iran and countries who trade with it, insisting that this did not prevent humanitarian relief. Under pressure, Tehran is supposed to negotiate an arms and nuclear pact, although the US pulled out of the atomic agreement former president Barack Obama had negotiated. Venezuela and Cuba are also high on the sanctions list. Both Guterres and Michelle Bachelet, the human-rights commissioner, have repeatedly called for easing the embargoes.

The US State Department has released a long list of new funds for low-income nations but not via the United Nations. This is in addition to what they already contribute to the World Health Organization and UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund, always headed by an American).

Children, children, children

UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore warned nations not to stop programs that tackle measles or cholera. She said that one in six children does not have hygiene services. And she recalled that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa of 2014-2016 resulted in spikes in “in child labor, neglect, sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies.”

Fore had a dream. On February 19 in a Council on Foreign Relations speech, she spoke of how she was organizing telecommunication firms so that every school in the world could be connected to the Internet.

War zones

In charge of coordinating the UN program is Mark Lowcock, the undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs. Landing on his plate also is how to help countries involved in war, conflict and violence – think of Yemen, Mali, South Sudan, Myanmar, the Central African Republic, Afghanistan and Syria, to name a few.

Lowcock admitted there was a problem because these nations had the weakest health systems, which made it easy for the disease to take hold. “So if anybody on the planet wants to be safe, the best approach is to keep the people in the most vulnerable places safe, and we know that, if we act early, we will have the best response,” he said.

He is helping agencies contract transport, by sea, air and truck, to get supplies to the suffering. But a major effort will be to get help to migrants and refugees, where keeping a social distance is nigh impossible.

Some experts speculate that like smallpox introduced to Africa by colonialists, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 came to developing nations through travelers on holiday or business trips. For example, in Egypt, the first cases of the disease appeared to stem from a cruise ship where locals who served tourists contracted the virus, Business Insider said.

Expel the messenger

We journalists are not safe either. The Committee to Protect Journalists has produced a list of correspondents expelled from nations in one week only for writing about the coronavirus.

The Foreign Press Association in New York objected to the US expulsion of some 90 Chinese journalists after Beijing did the same to several American correspondents, saying neither country should be expelling journalists.

“If you roll in the mud with opponents, bystanders can’t tell you apart,” said Ian Williams, president of the FPA.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.

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Evelyn Leopold

Evelyn Leopold is a writing fellow and correspondent for Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She is an independent journalist based at the United Nations as resident correspondent. She was bureau chief for Reuters at the UN for 17 years, and is chairwoman of the Dag Hammarskjöld Fund for Journalists. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.