Exclusive – UN’s Antonio Guterres: “In the face of the pandemic, a moratorium on African debt is necessary”.

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 30 March – 3 April

By Olivier Marbot

Posted on Wednesday, 1 April 2020 14:14
Switzerland United Nations
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses his statement, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)/

The world is facing a crisis of the likes not seen since 1945 and the creation of the United Nations. Antonio Guterres spoke about this on Tuesday 31 March to Jeune Afrique, while unveiling the report which takes stock of measures to be taken to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Measures that address health, economic and social aspects of the crisis.

The Portuguese former Prime Minister is calling for a general mobilisation and also for coordinated and solidarity-based action.

Without seeking to create any controversy with the heads of state who continue to downplay the seriousness of the disease or prefer to hide behind their borders, he insists above all on the necessary support for developing countries, particularly African ones, which will not be able to finance the required measures alone.

The report you are presenting today is very comprehensive, but isn’t it a little late?

Antonio Guterres: No, it is not. If you look at the content of the report, especially the political positions, the main points were already stated by me three weeks ago and also during the preparation of the last G20.

The document published today is an in-depth work, involving all the UN agencies and regional commissions. It is a collective position that will enable us to effectively support countries in their response to the pandemic.

It contains an economic and social response, in addition to the health assistance provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This report is not a first working tool; it shares experiences and consolidates what has already been done.

Nevertheless, we hope to achieve ceasefires in some places. I will be reporting on this over the weekend, mentioning the successes but also the failures. That is an essential step.

In 2014, the Security Council had declared the Ebola epidemic an international threat. In the face of the coronavirus, nothing of the kind. Why not?

I cannot answer that. It is the responsibility of the member states of the Security Council.

For our part, we have launched operations on the ground to stop the crises in order to combat the virus better. That is why I have decided to launch a global appeal for a ceasefire, and why all our special representatives in the various conflict zones are working in a very committed manner.

But for the time being, the ongoing conflicts do not seem to be ending…

That’s right. In Libya, in particular, we had positive responses from both sides to our appeal, but then the situation got worse …

But even so, it has created a positive dynamic. Our special rapporteurs on the ground are in contact with the parties in conflict. There is mobilisation, including in countries that may have an influence on certain warring parties.

We have had interesting responses in Colombia, the Philippines, Yemen, Syria, Cameroon… But of course, between statements and reality there is often a huge difference, and there are those who like to provoke on all sides.

Nevertheless, we hope to achieve ceasefires in some places. I will be reporting on this over the weekend, mentioning the successes but also the failures. That is an essential step.

There are two main forms of responses that correspond to two systems: an “Asian” response, which seems to be quite effective, and a “Euro-American” response, which is obviously less effective. Which model should Africa follow?

Unfortunately there are not only two models, there are many! That is the problem.

For us, it is very clear that the transmission of the virus must be suppressed by two types of measures. Firstly, testing, screening, and of course, the treatment and isolation of patients.

And then travel restrictions and distance between people.

Naturally, countries that are not sufficiently prepared to test are obliged to take more extensive containment measures. The ideal, as Tedros Ghebreyesus said for the WHO, is to test, test, test…

The less you have the possibility of doing this, the more you have to opt for more blind measures.

READ MORE: WHO’s Tedros: ‘Don’t abandon the poorest to coronavirus’

But it seems to me, listening to you, that it is Asian countries that have applied the best method….

South Korea and Singapore have put a great deal of emphasis on testing, that’s true. From this point of view they are probably the most interesting models.

Benin’s President Patrice Talon believes that confinement is unrealistic in Africa, where many people are in extreme economic fragility and have to work every day to survive. What do you think about this?

What is obvious is that a big financial effort is needed to support people who could lose their jobs or who work in the informal sector.

This is why we are calling for the mobilisation of sums representing 10% of each country’s GDP. Developed countries are in a position to do this themselves but resources must be found so that developing countries can do the same. And this represents an amount that we have estimated at $3tn.

This means, in particular, significantly increasing the International Monetary Fund’s capacity to act, coordinating swaps between central banks, all this to bring more liquidity to the emerging countries.

The question is, do we revive the economies as they were before, or do we take the opportunity to correct the aspects that have made our world more vulnerable?

You also talk about a moratorium on the debt of poor countries or, at least, on the payment of interest. Can we believe that?

The World Bank talked about it at among its board of directors, and African ministers discussed it at length today (31 March).

In any case, it is necessary. This crisis is not financial, it is human. The liquidity of financial systems must be maintained. Money must continue to flow to keep households and small businesses in developing countries afloat.

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Africa: opportunity to reshape development

You insist on the idea of getting out of this crisis in order to “move towards a better and more united world”. Do you really believe this?

We are going to go through a depression, that’s obvious, but then we’re going to revive the economy. The question is, do we revive the economies as they were before, or do we take the opportunity to correct the aspects that have made our world more vulnerable? We need a more sustainable, more inclusive economy. Responses will be united or they will be ineffective.

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