by William M. Reilly
UNITED NATIONS, March 25 (Xinhua) -- UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched a 2-billion-U.S.-dollar Humanitarian Response Plan on Wednesday aimed at fighting the coronavirus in the poorest and most vulnerable countries.
"The world faces an unprecedented threat," Guterres said in a tele-news conference. "COVID-19 is menacing the whole of humanity - and so the whole of humanity must fight back."
"The world is only as strong as our weakest health system," said the UN chief. With proper funding, the plan will save many lives and arm humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organizations with laboratory supplies for testing and with medical equipment to treat the sick while protecting health care workers.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization (WHO) director-general; Henrietta Fore, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) executive director; and Mark Lowcock, undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, joined Guterres in the virtual conference.
Earlier this week, Guterres appealed for a world-wide halt in hostilities amid the fight against COVID-19. Now he is pinpointing conflicts.
"The secretary-general calls today (Wednesday) on those fighting in Yemen to immediately cease hostilities, focus on reaching a negotiated political settlement and do everything possible to counter a potential outbreak of COVID-19," said his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, in a statement.
"More than five years of conflict have devastated the lives of tens of millions of Yemenis," the statement said.
The UN chief also recalled the need to concentrate on fighting the coronavirus when he sent his condolences to Chad following a Boko Haram attack on an army post in Boma in Lac Province which resulted in "a significant number of deaths."
He appealed for "an immediate and global ceasefire in all corners of the world - including in the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel - at this very moment when humanity is confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic," Dujarric told reporters in his daily briefing.
Likewise, Mankeur Ndiaye, the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, urged all signatories to the peace agreement to abide by their commitment to immediately cease violence and therefore, contribute to efforts to protect the country from COVID-19 and its harmful consequences.
In the struggle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the impacts are hitting women hardest, said UN Women's Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia.
"While the economic and social impacts on all are severe, they are more so for women," she said. "Many of the industries in the formal economy directly affected by quarantines and lockdowns -- travel, tourism, restaurants, food production -- have very high female labor force participation."
Women also constitute a large percentage of the informal economy in informal markets and agriculture around the world, Bhatia said. "In both developed and developing economies, many informal sector jobs - domestic workers, caregivers - are mostly done by women who typically lack health insurance and have no social safety net to fall back on."
She added that women typically shoulder a greater burden of care, on average doing three times as much unpaid care work as men at home before COVID-19.
Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) called on all governments to keep maritime trade moving by allowing commercial ships continued access to ports worldwide as the world addresses the COVID-19 pandemic, Dujarric said.
"Amidst the current COVID-19 outbreak, seafarers have come under increased checks and scrutiny in various ports," the spokesman said. Restrictions on trade and cross-border transport may interrupt essential aid and technical support, as well as disrupting businesses and having negative social and economic impacts in affected countries.
UNCTAD statistics show that around 80 percent of global trade is facilitated by commercial shipping, which carries the world's food, energy and raw materials, as well as manufactured goods and components, Dujarric said.
WHO said the COVID-19 pandemic is testing the resilience of robust health systems around the world, stressing the critical importance of sustaining efforts to prevent, detect and treat malaria, which exacts a heavy toll on vulnerable people in sub-Saharan Africa.
"As COVID-19 continues its rapid spread, WHO would like to send a clear message to malaria-affected countries in Africa," said Pedro Alonso, director of the WHO Global Malaria Programme. "Do not scale back your planned malaria prevention, diagnostic and treatment activities. If someone living in a place with malaria develops a fever, he or she should seek diagnosis and care as soon as possible."
Any interventions must consider the importance of both lowering malaria-related mortality and ensuring the safety of communities and health workers, he said. WHO will guide countries to safely maintain essential health services during the COVID-19 crisis.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has called on governments to take urgent action to protect the health and safety of people in detention and other closed facilities, as part of overall efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, the spokesman said.
She warned that "COVID-19 has begun to strike prisons, jails and immigration detention centers, as well as residential care homes and psychiatric hospitals, and risks rampaging through such institutions' extremely vulnerable populations."
Bachelet urged governments to not forget those behind bars and to reduce the number of people in detention, examining ways to release those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
The UN Human Rights Office and WHO are due this week to issue an interim guidance paper - COVID 19: Focus on persons deprived of their liberty - which will contain key messages and actions, Dujarric said.