Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock – Briefing to the Security Council on the Implementation of Resolution 2532, 9 September 2020

News and Press Release
Originally published


As delivered

Thank you, Mr. President.

And I will try to complement what Rosemary [USG Rosemary DiCarlo] and Jean-Pierre [USG Jean-Pierre Lacroix] just said. The first thing to say is that there is growing reason to believe that in the medium and longer term the weakest, most fragile and conflict-affected countries will be those worst affected by COVID-19.

As of this morning, there are over 26 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally. The virus is everywhere. More than 860,000 people have died. Roughly a third of these cases and fatalities are in countries affected by humanitarian or refugee crises, or those facing high levels of vulnerability.

But those are just the confirmed cases. We do not know the full extent of COVID-19 in fragile countries. Testing levels there are very low, and in some places many people are reluctant to seek help if they fall sick, perhaps because they fear being forced into quarantine in potentially unpleasant conditions, or because they don’t believe they will get any useful medical help even if they go to a health facility.

The better news is that it seems possible that the fatality rate from COVID-19 may be lower in these fragile countries than initially feared. That does remain uncertain for the moment, but if true would be a boon.

Nevertheless, what is now sure beyond reasonable doubt is that the indirect consequences of the pandemic in the most fragile countries are dwarfing the impact of the virus itself.

What are the indirect effects? Well, they are chiefly economic. The most fragile countries are exposed to the global economy, so the worldwide contraction hurts them too, including through weakening commodity prices, declining remittances and disruptions to trade. The anti-COVID measures fragile countries have taken themselves are also having a significant impact on incomes – lockdown measures are making it harder for people to make enough money to survive. That applies especially to daily laborers in the informal sector, and to many women.

Beyond the economy, the biggest indirect effect of the virus is on public services, especially health and education. That is, of course, the case everywhere, but the impact in the most fragile countries is larger than in better off countries. That is because people in fragile countries are highly vulnerable to killer diseases like measles, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDs, and because infant mortality and the numbers of women losing their lives in childbirth are much higher than in better off countries.

So any reduction in the availability of very basic health services makes a big difference in these countries. And, unfortunately, there is evidence of a significant crunch on health services as a result of the pandemic. Health care institutions are switching to try to tackle the virus, health workers can’t or don’t want to go to work, budgets are not being funded, immunization campaigns are being disrupted or delayed, and lockdowns have reduced the availability of vaccines, drugs and other health supplies.

Let me illustrate all that with two examples, on immunization and food security.

Vaccination campaigns have been disrupted in 45 countries facing humanitarian or refugee crises or high levels of vulnerability from other causes. Disruptions to immunization could put more than 80 million children under the age of one at risk of vaccine-preventable diseases.

The World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization report that food insecurity is spiking as people lose their incomes and have to reduce consumption. Twenty-seven countries are now in danger of a sharp deterioration in food security. Without timely action, child wasting could affect another 7 million children just in the first year of the pandemic.

As in richer countries, we also see effects on education and the position of women.

More than half a billion children in humanitarian crises and fragile contexts have been affected by school closures. Many girls now unable to go to school will never go back.

Gender-based violence, including domestic violence, is increasing. Calls to some hotlines have increased seven-fold, while services have been curtailed.

So the indirect effects of the crisis will be higher poverty, lower life expectancy, more starvation, less education and more child death.

A slew of research from universities and think tanks in recent months has warned that all this will reinforce existing grievances, and give succor to those with an agenda of restricting rights and liberties, just as Rosemary described well as extremist groups and other criminal groups seeking to take advantage of the pandemic.

So the risks of conflict, instability, insecurity, violence and population displacement are rising. The agenda of this Council, in other words, which you may think is plenty big enough already, is set to grow. That may be one of the main lasting effects of the pandemic.

Mr. President,

Let me turn now to the response of humanitarian agencies.

In March, the Secretary-General launched the UN coordinated Global Humanitarian Response Plan – the GHRP – for COVID-19. It has been repeatedly updated as the crisis has deepened, and now seeks $10 billion over the next 6 months to support 250 million people in 63 countries.

We have raised around $2.4 billion since March, and I want to express my thanks to those donors who have generously contributed. The money provided has meant that, among other things, humanitarian organizations have:

  • Provided 730,000 health workers with personal protective equipment, including masks, gloves and gowns.
  • Provided information on the virus and how to protect yourself from it to more than a billion people in nearly 60 countries.
  • Reached nearly a hundred million children with distance learning.
  • Provided tens of millions of people with soap, detergent and other improvements to water and sanitation systems.

The GHRP has also funded a unique logistics facility, under which the World Food Programme has stepped in to fill the gap left by disappearing commercial air services in many countries. The operation has so far transported 21,000 health and humanitarian workers to and from the front line, as well as more than 56,000 cubic metres of essential cargo – equivalent to 66 Boeing 747s. Without this lifeline, many humanitarian operations would have shut down.

Mr. President, my office is publishing regular detailed reports on implementation of the GHRP, containing more detail of how the money provided is being used.

The Secretary-General has repeatedly called on Member States and others to facilitate the movement of humanitarian personnel and cargo, including by issuing special movement permits, clearances and visas on arrival.

Those calls have not been, I am afraid, adequately heeded.

In most of the countries where my office is present, restrictions imposed since March on visa issuance have delayed and curtailed the flow of aid workers to their duty stations. Currently more than a thousand international staff are affected. As a result, we are seeing a reduced operational presence in three quarters of the countries where we work, which is materially affecting program delivery.

We have also seen a disturbing further increase in violence against health workers. During the first six months of the pandemic, the ICRC recorded more than 600 incidents of violence, harassment or stigmatization against healthcare workers, or against patients and medical infrastructure in relation to COVID-19.

Aid workers themselves are also vulnerable to the virus. The number of confirmed cases among UN staff alone runs into the thousands, and the death toll is mounting. Where possible those who are most sick are evacuated to places where they can get good medical care, and Jean-Pierre described the system we have but unfortunately too often that does not happen. And I, Rosemary and Jean-Pierre want to pay tribute to those taking extraordinary risks with their own welfare in the desire to help others.

Alongside assistance from humanitarian agencies, others, in particular the international financial institutions, have an important role to play in helping the most vulnerable countries cope through the crisis.

I want to say a few words about that, because the more generous, prompt and effective the help the most vulnerable countries get from the IMF, the World Bank and similar institutions, the more people in crisis can be cushioned from the worst effects of the economic crunch and the more the risks to instability and fragility can be avoided.

In the 2008-09 financial crisis, the leading shareholders of the international financial institutions – most of whom are countries sitting round this table today – agreed they should take exceptional measures to protect the global economy, including their poorer members.

The pandemic is a more damaging event than the financial crisis, but the response this time has been far from exceptional. It barely justifies the description of tepid.

The G20 and OECD countries have, rightly, adopted domestic economic stimulus measures amounting to more than $10 trillion to protect their own populations from the worst effects of the pandemic and lockdown. That amounts to more than 10% of global income.

Low income and fragile countries do not have the resources, capacity or access to markets to do the same thing. So they are reliant on support from elsewhere, especially the IFIs.

But of the $143 billion in financing from the international financial institutions so far, only 7 per cent has been committed to low income countries. That represents little more than 2 per cent of their combined GDP. One fifth of what the better off countries have done at home.

Such a low level of support is alarming, because it increases the likelihood of the pandemic generating the sort of dangerous long-term consequences I talked about earlier.

It is also surprising: there is little dispute about what ought to be done, and recent experience has shown that it can work. And the costs to taxpayers are minimal, because the resources can largely be generated off the international financial institutions’ own balance sheets.

To speak plainly, woefully inadequate economic and political action will lead to greater instability and conflicts in the coming years. More crises will be on this Council’s agenda.

So, Mr President, the burden of my advice to you today is that while we may have been surprised by the virus, we cannot say the same of the security and humanitarian crises that most certainly lay ahead if we don’t change course.

Thank you.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit