Coronavirus could kill millions if allowed to spread like wildfire: UN chief

The world is “at war” with a virus, which if allowed to “spread like wildfire” would kill millions of people, UN chief Antonio Guterres said

Coronavirus could kill millions if allowed to spread like wildfire: UN chief


The world is "at war" with a virus, which if allowed to "spread like wildfire" would kill millions of people, UN chief Antonio Guterres said on Thursday and called for a coordinated, decisive and innovative policy action from the world's leading economies to combat the pandemic.

"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 people's lives," Guterres said in a first of its kind virtual press conference on the COVID-2019 pandemic.

Warning that a global recession of record dimensions is "a near certainty", the UN Secretary General cited International Labour Organisation estimates that workers around the world could lose as much as USD 3.4 trillion in income by the end of this year.

"It has been proven that the virus can be contained. It must be contained. If we let the virus spread like wildfire – especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world -- it would kill millions of people," he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has sickened more than 210,300 people in at least 145 countries and as of Wednesday evening, at least 8,809 people have died, more than half of them outside China, where the epidemic first began in the city of Wuhan.

Guterres stressed that current responses at the country level will not address the global scale and complexity of the crisis and called for a coordinated, decisive, and innovative policy action from the world's leading economies.

Welcoming the decision by G20 leaders to convene an emergency summit next week to respond to the epic challenges posed by the pandemic, he said the world is in an unprecedented situation and the normal rules no longer apply.

"We cannot resort to the usual tools in such unusual times. The creativity of the response must match the unique nature of the crisis – and the magnitude of the response must match its scale. Our world faces a common enemy. We are at war with a virus," he said.

Guterres, however, noted that if the coordinated global action is done right, "we can steer the recovery toward a more sustainable and inclusive path. But poorly coordinated policies risk locking in -- or even worsening -- already unsustainable inequalities, reversing hard-won development gains and poverty reduction".

Calling on world leaders to come together and offer an urgent and coordinated response to this global crisis, Guterres underlined three critical areas for action -- tackling the health emergency, focus on the social impact and economic response and recovery and refrain from the temptation of resorting to protectionism.

He said there is an immediate need to move away from a situation where each country is undertaking its own health strategies to one that ensures, in full transparency, a coordinated global response, including helping countries that are less prepared to tackle the crisis.

"Governments must give the strongest support to the multilateral effort to fight the virus, led by the World Health Organisation, whose appeals must be fully met," he said.

Emphasising that the coronavirus pandemic is unlike the 2008 financial crisis and injecting capital in the financial sector alone will not be the answer, Guterres said, "This is not a banking crisis – indeed banks must be part of the solution. And it is not an ordinary shock in supply and demand; it is a shock to society as a whole." He said this is essentially a human crisis and called for wage support, insurance, social protection, preventing bankruptcies and job loss.

"We need to get resources directly in the hands of people. A number of countries are taking up social protection initiatives such as cash transfers and universal income," the UN chief said.

He said children are also paying a heavy price.

More than 800 million children are out of school right now and many of them rely on schools to provide their only meal.

"We must ensure that all children have access to food and equal access to learning – bridging the digital divide and reducing the costs of connectivity. We must ensure that lessons are learned and that this crisis provides a watershed moment for health emergency preparedness and for investment in critical 21st century public services and the effective delivery of global public goods," Guterres said.

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