António Guterres. Credit: Fiona Goodall Getty Images
The novel coronavirus pandemic is now the world’s top priority. Climate change will have to be put on the back burner, for now.
That was the message delivered to reporters from U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, via an unprecedented online press conference he organized last week. Guterres made himself available only electronically because he is in isolation.
Though Guterres still is urging countries to not lose sight of the global warming challenge and the Paris climate accord, the U.N. chief made it clear that all resources for now will be directed toward tackling the pandemic crisis.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, he said.
“It has been proven that the virus can be contained. It must be contained,” Guterres said. “If you let the virus spread like wildfire, especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world, it will kill millions of people.”
Guterres called the virus outbreak one of the worst crises the United Nations has ever faced. He said a steep and painful global recession is all but inevitable and that millions of families worldwide stand to lose their livelihoods.
Efforts to reduce poverty could be set back decades.
“We are facing a global health crisis unlike any in the 75-year history of the United Nations, one that is spreading human suffering, infecting the global economy and upending the people’s lives,” Guterres said. “A global recession, perhaps of record dimensions, is a near certainty.”
A crisis on this scale calls for a coordinated, international response, he added. “People are suffering, sick and scared, and current responses at the country level will not address the global scale and complexity of the crisis,” Guterres argued.
U.N. headquarters in New York has effectively shut down. It’s now running on a skeleton crew—as some 95% of staff have been ordered to stay home and telecommute where possible. It’s the same story at other U.N. regional offices, including in Rome where the U.N. World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are based.
The novel coronavirus dealt the U.N. system a further blow last week, when World Food Programme Director David Beasley, a former governor of South Carolina, announced he tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. Beasley has been instrumental in mobilizing funds to fight a record drought and food shortages in southern Africa.
“I began feeling unwell this past weekend after returning to my home in the United States from an official visit to Canada and I took an early decision to go into self-quarantine,” Beasley said in a statement. “So far my symptoms have been relatively light and I am in good spirits.”
Guterres also confirmed that a member of the U.N. resident press corps has tested positive for coronavirus. Reporters are now being kept up to speed on U.N. developments electronically—as they are locked out of the world body’s Manhattan offices.
U.N. observers see the organization’s new focus on the virus as an unfortunate but necessary step, especially in light of widespread backlash against multilateralism.
Martin Edwards, a professor of diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University, said he appreciates how difficult the shift in rhetoric has been for the U.N. chief.
But he argued Guterres had little choice.
“There is a need for a larger more coordinated multilateral response, and the governments that would be working together right now to lead on this—the U.S., China, Japan, European countries—are focused more on closing borders than on collaborating,” Edwards explained. “The secretary-general has to cope with a White House that has never been able to understand what international cooperation is for in the first place. So this is the challenge, and this is why he underscored the seriousness for the U.N.”
Edwards said Guterres can be expected to do his utmost to bring together national governments for a cooperative approach. But expressed doubts about his chances of success.
“Guterres can only help put the puzzle pieces together, but states right now don’t even want to play the game in the first place,” he said.
U.N. forced to pivot
During his virtual press conference Guterres gave a nod to the Paris Agreement. He said the pandemic could create an opportunity to rebuild the global economy along more sustainable lines. But he made it clear the world must focus first on the coronavirus crisis.
As it has struggled to tackle global warming for a quarter century, the world is also finding itself hard-pressed to respond to a global pandemic.
The United Nations is no exception, though officials are scrambling to organize an effective response despite travel restrictions and orders to work from home. Guterres insists the U.N. system has been ahead of the curve.
But the crisis has overwhelmed even the World Health Organization (WHO), the one U.N. agency that should have been most prepared.
In response, the United Nations Foundation, a think tank, has launched an independent fundraising initiative designed to help WHO cope, recently welcoming financial contributions from Silicon Valley giants Facebook and Google.
Though WHO is “on the frontlines of this fast-moving crisis” and is assisting all governments where it can, U.N. Foundation official Kate Dodson said in a release that outside assistance is critical. “This pandemic is unlike anything we’ve ever faced before, and will require commitments from all corners of the planet to tackle,” Dodson added.
Until recently, FAO’s top priority was a locust infestation in eastern Africa, a crisis that continues to threaten food supplies. But FAO now is shifting increased attention to the pandemic. Spokeswoman Sofia Maria Giannouli said the coronavirus outbreak hasn’t harmed locust control efforts so far, but she acknowledged FAO resources are being redeployed to help less developed countries head off a wider health emergency.
Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in a number of African nations with weak public health systems, including Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Congo—and more than a dozen impoverished countries in western African. Overall, cases of the disease have been confirmed in more than 30 African countries, according to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
FAO says it is involved in monitoring animal agriculture with an eye on preventing further animal-to-human spread of the virus, and on preventing other diseases from jumping from animals to humans. Scientists report that the coronavirus originated the same way as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and other deadly new viruses have: from the open wildlife trade in China.
FAO has urged a greater focus on safety. “While COVID-19 is not known to be a food borne illness, usual good practice as regards handling of animals and good food hygiene throughout the food chain are essential for public health and will aid in the prevention and control of infectious diseases,” the agency declared.
The United Nations’ main climate change initiatives have been moved online or are on hold. Several planned U.N. climate action gatherings have been canceled or delayed (Climatewire, March 12).
The offices of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have canceled all in-person meetings and foreign travel, and are working to arrange online conferences where possible.
Most recently, the U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a body based in Montreal, called off a series of regional meetings meant to roll out a new emissions trading program to begin this month.
ICAO said the regional planning seminars for its carbon offsetting and reduction scheme for international aviation simply have been postponed. But no new dates have been proposed.
With talk that the crisis could extend into the summer—or beyond—more gatherings could face a similar fate. Those include the U.N. Ocean Conference planned for Portugal in early June, and the World Conservation Congress at the end of June to be hosted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Marseilles, France.
The U.N. system and governments worldwide must be willing to make sacrifices to halt the coronavirus pandemic, Guterres said.
“My central message is clear: We are in an unprecedented situation and the normal rules no longer apply,” he said. “We cannot resort to the usual tools at such unusual times.”
He urged governments to open their wallets as wide as possible for emergency spending and economic stimulus efforts. “We see that whenever there is a problem in the banking system, trillions [of dollars] appear to solve the problems of the banks,” he told reporters. “And these trillions must appear now.”
Guterres added he would attend an emergency Group of 20 summit of world leaders this week. The G-20 meeting is to be held online.
But Edwards at Seton Hall said he was skeptical it would produce a major breakthrough.
“I’m really worried that the G-20 isn’t going to be the forum to bring countries together,” he said. “This is where populist governments have a problem. If your whole starting point is that the outside world is awful, it’s hard to suddenly turn on a dime and want to cooperate. And for many European countries right now, it’s hard to take the U.S. seriously.”