EXCLUSIVE: UN coronavirus relief chief Mark Lowcock appeals for immediate Middle East ceasefire

EXCLUSIVE: UN coronavirus relief chief Mark Lowcock appeals for immediate Middle East ceasefire
Interview with Humanitarian and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the UN's $2 billion humanitarian response plan.
7 min read
26 March, 2020
Lowcock has appealed for ceasefire across the region to combat the coronavirus [Getty]
The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, along with a number of senior United Nations officials, including the global agency's Humanitarian and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, launched a $2 billion humanitarian response plan to tackle the novel coronavirus, which has quickly spread across the globe.

The New Arab’s sister Arabic site, Alaraby Aljadeed spoke with Lowcock in New York this week on how the UN is dealing with the disease across the Middle East and North Africa, where thousands have been infected and killed by the virus. 

Below is the transcription of the interview.

The United Nations has launched an appeal to fund a $2 billion humanitarian response plan to combat the coronavirus pandemic. This comes at a time when rich countries, or strong economies, themselves face challenges on their own soil. How will you persuade these states to provide aid?

It’s true that every country thinks first of its citizens, its problems and the challenges it faces. The epicentre of the pandemic is now in Europe and increasingly in the United States, specifically here in New York. But the coronavirus cannot be defeated unless we can beat it everywhere around the world, and perhaps one of the most important things is to use a smart strategy. As we know, the virus has spread to more than 150 countries - states with very difficult humanitarian conditions - as is the case in a number of countries in the Middle East, such as Syria, as well as African and Asian countries. It will be in everyone's interest to support the most vulnerable societies that suffer from critical humanitarian conditions, otherwise the whole world will suffer from the threat of this virus for a very long time.

What are the latest updates about the spread of the virus in vulnerable countries that suffer from difficult humanitarian conditions?

Around the world, more than 400,000 cases and more than 15,000 deaths have been recorded in more than 150 countries. What has happened is in many countries, as  individual cases emerge, the numbers multiply rapidly and the challenge before us is to try to develop strategies, like for example in Southeast Asian countries - China, South Korea, Singapore and Japan for example - to act very quickly to get the outbreak under control by testing people, tracing contacts of people that test positive, treating them and then by promoting social distancing so people don’t accidentally pass the virus on to others. The best chance of containing this is by acting very early. It’s still in the early stages for these 14 countries we are pleading for help for now.

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We know that rich countries like the United States are struggling to provide coronavirus testing kits to those who need it. Does the United Nations have the capacity to provide tests in areas struggling with difficult humanitarian needs? Also, what are your estimates for the required number of test kits. What will happen to countries that do not receive testing kits?

There is a global shortage of all equipment needed to fight the pandemic, including tests, personal protective equipment, such as gloves, protective masks, ventilators, and many more. The World Health Organisation has shipped personal protection equipment to 68 countries and nearly 1.5 million test kits to 120 countries. This is a start, but there is a huge amount more to do and this will need to be scaled up as fast as possible. The only constraint on that, really, is the availability of all the supplies and the speed of the production. 

Could you tell us about the effect of the coronavirus on humanitarian operations around the world and in the Middle East, in particular, in war-torn Yemen?

We have not seen cases in Yemen so far but what is happening is, because of the scale back in airline traffic internationally, many places are becoming less accessible and many countries are imposing travel restrictions. That means it’s much harder to get in and out of the country and Yemen is an example of that. One of the things we are doing in this appeal is calling for money to scale up the capacity of the UN’s humanitarian air service - that’s the UN’s own air service. That is how we get aid workers in and out of Sanaa and other parts of Yemen at the moment. Because there is fewer commercial airlines due to travel restrictions, the UN air service needs to be expanded so we can get all the aid workers and their supplies in. 

In other places, there are already cases - like in Syria and Afghanistan for example. We need to scale up all those programs, we need to make sure we get more equipment and supplies to people, provide soap and water and make sure everybody has information so they know what to do to protect themselves. We need to organise the ongoing aid efforts a bit differently so we minimise the extent to which people gather in crowds, including distribution of foods, for example.

UN flights in Libya have struggled to reach some parts of the country and were recently prohibited from entering specific areas. How will the UN be able to distribute aid knowing that fighting continues on the ground despite calls for ceasefire?

All parties in Libya need to come to their senses. What they are doing by continuing the fighting is harming themselves, because it’s making it more likely that the virus will spread and get out of control. That will affect all sides, it’s going to affect everybody. That is why yesterday we called for this global ceasefire and the sooner people pay attention to that and do it, the better for their own health and prospects. 

Our advice is for all to allow UN humanitarian air service and our other UN flights in and out because the UN is there to help everybody and allowing access will be in everyone’s best interest.

Two cases of the coronavirus disease were confirmed in the occupied Gaza Strip, where as you know, the siege there has created dire circumstances. What can be done immediately to help Gazans under Israeli siege?

Gaza is covered by our appeal and I saw that other countries have offered financial aid to help the people of Gaza. The same thing that has happened in other countries successfully dealing with this should happen in Gaza. As many people as possible need to be tested, contacts of people who have been proven to have the virus should be traced, people diagnosed should be treated and isolated, and everyone needs to practise good hygiene, including hand washing, and social distancing. That is particularly important in densely populated parts of the planet like Gaza.

You mentioned coronavirus cases in Syria, which at the moment is divided into regions under the influence of different parties. What areas in Syria are you particularly worried about?

We are worried about the whole of Syria but probably the most vulnerable populations are the ones that are densely populated and with the biggest ongoing humanitarian needs. That includes the people of Idlib, because as you know, more than a million have had to leave their homes in the last three and a half months due to the ongoing fighting. Many are still living in tents or simply camped out under olive trees - they need better water sanitation, more medical services, more food and so on. There are people all over Syria who have lots of needs so I think that’s a country where there are enormous challenges. 

Some mental health programs have been canceled in the past due to scarce funding. Does your appeal include mental health services? Are you planning to add some programs?

Many of our appeals now include mental health programs, including all the existing humanitarian and refugee appeals we have in the countries covered by this new coronavirus appeal. Mental health and psycho-social support is a huge need in humanitarian settings. Coronavirus adds to the mental stress people face - so yes, it should definitely be one of the things that we plan for and talk about. 

What about countries, such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, which host large numbers of refugees - each has its own policies and conditions. What are the UN’s plans to help these states deal with, or prepare for, the novel coronavirus?

The virus does not distinguish between a migrant, a refugee or a citizen in their own country. The virus attacks everyone equally. The smart strategy for every country to follow is to try and protect everybody equally. Obviously we have a huge appeal to support refugees, especially in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and we’ve raised billions of dollars every year to help with that in recent years. It’s very important that while we put out our new coronavirus appeal, that we keep going with all those other programs. The UN reaches 100 million people all the time with these humanitarian programs - food, medicines, shelter, water. We need to keep going with that at the same time as dealing with the extra threat that comes with the coronavirus.

Ibtisam Azem is Alaraby Aljadeed's New York correspondent.

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