United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers a statement at the UN headquarters in New York, Jan. 6, 2020. Antonio Guterres on Monday called on parties concerned to exercise maximum restraint to stop escalation of global tensions. (Xinhua/Li Muzi)
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers a statement at the UN headquarters in New York, Jan. 6, 2020. Antonio Guterres on Monday called on parties concerned to exercise maximum restraint to stop escalation of global tensions. (Xinhua/Li Muzi)

by William M. Reilly

The UN system is working to help countries, particularly those in armed conflict, to brace for impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appeals for greater effort to answer his call 10 days ago for a global ceasefire.

“There should be only one fight in our world today: our shared battle against COVID-19,” he told a virtual press briefing on Friday.

In addition to about 70 member states, his call has been endorsed by regional partners, non-state actors, civil society organizations and others, said Guterres.

But, it is not enough, he told correspondents. “There is a huge distance between declarations and deeds.”

“We need to do everything possible to find the peace and unity our world so desperately needs to battle COVID-19,” he said.

“The worst is yet to come,” the secretary-general warned.

In one of the major conflict zones Guterres referred to, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) warned that fighting is further worsening in and around Tripoli, Libya, with COVID-19 bringing new threats.

The conflict has severely impacted Libya’s health system and medical services, the agency said. It has strained the government’s financial resources.

The UNHCR says it and its partners are providing generators, ambulances, prefab containers and tented clinics, in support of local health care services. It is also raising public health awareness among refugees, asylum-seekers and Libyans.

The agency also renewed its call to release those held in detention.

The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) said Syria is one of the countries where the risk of mass infections in prisons is extremely high.

The agency said the situation in all official prisons and make-shift detention facilities is alarming, particularly in the overcrowded central prisons, in the detention facilities run by the four government security branches and in the Sednaya military prison.

Vulnerable groups detained in Syria include elderly people, women and children, and many people with underlying health conditions, some of them as a result of the ill treatment and neglect they have experienced while in detention, said the OHCHR.

It also called on all parties to allow humanitarian actors and medical teams unhindered access to prisons and other places of detention to check the conditions under which the detainees live and assess their needs.

In Egypt, the OHCHR said it is concerned about overcrowded prisons in the country and the risk of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus among more than 114,000 inmates.

The agency urged the government to follow the lead of other states and release those convicted of non-violent offenses and those who are in pre-trial detention, who make up about one-third of those in jail.

The office also recommends the release of administrative detainees, those who are in particularly vulnerable situations due to their age and serious underlying medical conditions and those who are arbitrarily detained due to their political or human rights work.

The humanitarian coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory, Jamie McGoldrick, released 5.16 million U.S. dollars from a humanitarian fund to support the COVID-19 Humanitarian Response Plan. This is in addition to an allocation last month of 1 million dollars.

The United Nations and humanitarian partners are requesting 34 million dollars to respond to COVID-19 to prevent further transmission and mitigate the worst effects of the pandemic in support of Palestine’s COVID-19 response.

The UN system is ramping up its support in Afghanistan for COVID-19. It is backing measures on preparedness, containment and mitigation.

The World Bank already approved a 100-million-dollar grant for Afghanistan’s emergency response and health systems preparedness.

The United Nations and its humanitarian partners in Venezuela are distributing COVID-19 diagnostic kits, aiding in epidemiological surveillance, assessing health services, helping in the training of staff, distribution of hygiene kits to hospitals, development of guidelines and dissemination of information.

The world organization also is facilitating dialogue between the ministries of health of Venezuela and Colombia for coordination of the response.

A 61-million-dollar Venezuela COVID-19 preparedness and response plan focuses on supporting critical health programs and strengthening the capacity of 16 hospitals across the country and increasing access to water, sanitation and hygiene in vulnerable communities.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said 23 migrants have tested positive for COVID-19 in the Ritsona open accommodation site in central Greece. The IOM-managed camp hosts 2,700 people.

The agency warned that the immediate inclusion of all migrants in the national response to COVID-19 is not only a humanitarian measure but essential to public health policy in the country.

The agency said that Greek authorities have placed the site under quarantine for the next 14 days. Enditem

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