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We need a 'war economy' to deal with COVID-19 crisis, UN chief Antonio Guterres tells Euronews

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Antonio Guterres is speaking to Euronews about the United Nations' response to the coronavirus crisis.
Antonio Guterres is speaking to Euronews about the United Nations' response to the coronavirus crisis.   -   Copyright  SALVATORE DI NOLFI/AP Photos
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"We are living in a war situation with this virus, we need to deal with it with a war economy."

They were the words of UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres as he used an interview with Euronews to call for a clear and coordinated global response to the coronavirus crisis.

Guterres said he wanted to mobilise a double digit percentage of the global economy to "break not bend" the growth curve of coronavirus.

And it is not only breaking the curve of the virus that should be at the forefront of global efforts, he said, but to also seize the dramatic situation "as an opporunity" to create an economy that is more inclusive and sustainable going forward.

"Many things will change, I would say irreversibly in our lives," he told Euronews.

He also said:

  • Countries have been slow in reacting to coronavirus crisis but now is not the time for a blame game
  • If we don't tackle the COVID-19 crisis millions of people could be infected and die
  • The crisis will be much more serious if there is no strategy or coordination
  • Special initiatives are being formulated to try to "silence the guns" of war around the world, as "there is only one war that is needed - it's a war against the virus."

As of Wednesday evening there were more than 450,000 cases of COVID-19 confirmed worldwide, with more than 20,000 deaths.

Interview transcription

Isabelle Kumar, Euronews: "You've said the whole world must fight to stop this pandemic reaching apocalyptic proportions. Pinpoint for us, and briefly, the concrete measures you are calling for to be taken globally.

Antonio Guterres: "I think that we need to be clear on our strategy. And our strategy is to suppress COVID-19. And we can only suppress COVID-19 if all the countries have an articulated plan of action combining, of course, testing, tracing and quarantine with the measures of restriction of movement and contact.

"And of course, this is to be done probably differently depending on the testing capacity of each country where testing and tracing is less effective, more lockdowns will be necessary. But these needs to be done in a coordinated way to suppress COVID-19 in the developed world and then with a very strong capacity to help the developing countries to do the same.

"We need to have a clear strategy. It is not just to, I would say, mitigate. If you look at the curve of the cases, we need to break that curve. Not only to bend the curve. We need to suppress. And then we need to mobilise what I believe is required, which is a double digit percentage of the economy at national level and of the global economy in order to address the socio-economic consequences of this disease.

"And this is not the financial crisis like 2008. Of course, we need to keep the liquidity of the financial systems, but it is essential to support people and businesses. It is essential to make livelihoods work. It's essential to keep ourselves afloat and businesses afloat. And this is the support that is absolutely crucial. This is being done in several countries. But again, it needs to be done in a coordinated way at the level of the G20 and then it needs to mobilise and I [estimate] that we will need about 2.5 to 3 trillion dollars to help the developing countries do the same.

"The IMF has already a lending capacity of about $1 billion. We need special drawing rights that in a war economy we need to print money. The way to print money globally is through special drawing rights to put at the disposal of the developing world, mobilise all other international financial institutions, increase the swaps between central banks especially to help the emerging economies to be able to concentrate this huge volume of resources for the developing countries, also to be able to address the challenges to their societies.

"And then finally, I think we need to prepare a recovery and to prepare a recovery for a better economy, a more sustainable and inclusive economy. We don't need to replicate exactly the economy of the past. Many things will change, I would say irreversibly in our lives. We need to be able to use this dramatic situation also to seize it as an opportunity to make our capacity to have more inclusiveness and more sustainability in our economies prevail."

Kumar: "Mr Guterres these are very high ambitions at a time when the world is on its knees. We see strong economies like the EU buckling. The US is in the firing line. You're calling for trillions to be mobilised here. But at a time of global pandemic, leadership seems to be in short supply. So do you think that now we require a new global mechanism that would supersede sovereign states to deal with pandemics as we all face the future pandemics in the future?"

Guterres: "Well, I've just suggested that the G-20 should create immediately a mechanism of coordination of their own response to the pandemic and that the guidance of the World Health Organization, these needs to be done in a systematic, coordinated way. We cannot have completely different policies from country to country if they are not articulated to a common objective, which is to suppress the vitals. Look, the American senate is discussing a two trillion dollar package and two trillion dollars corresponds exactly to close to 10 percent of their GDP, which means we are coming close to this two digit approach, percentage approach of the global economy that will be necessary. And there are ways to do it. If we do it in a coordinated way, I think the G-20 will be an excellent opportunity to bring things together and to create the conditions, the IMF, the international financial institutions, the central banks to produce what is necessary. As I said in a world economy you print money in a modern way, but you print money in a way also that expresses solidarity to the developing world, not only boosting the response each of the developed countries, but creating the conditions for that to be done worldwide."

Kumar: "If the past is anything to look from, solidarity has been in short supply, especially when it comes to developing nations, the ultra vulnerable as you have called them now. You were the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. You know the situation in these refugee camps, unhygienic, best conditions, people living in overcrowded conditions as well. What do these people need the most urgently when you call for this solidarity?

Guterres: "Well, they need everything. We have just issued the inter-agency plan, a humanitarian response plan, addressing exactly the response to COVID-19 in those situations that are already under enormous humanitarian stress, areas of conflict, fragile states, refugee camps, internal displacement camps, and to create the conditions to make sure that in these areas you will have medical capacity. You will have testing kits. You will have the equipment that is necessary to treat patients at the same time that you have water and soap and points of water and soap with people to wash their hands, that you have the capacity to address the needs of the health staff that is working in such terrible circumstances. All these in a package that brought together UN agencies, NGOs appealing to the world to 2 billion US dollars of funds in order to respond exactly to those situations in the most vulnerable of the vulnerable countries in the world."

Kumar: "Yes, vulnerable communities are really on the front line of this and they will bear the full brunt of this kind of this coronavirus crisis. But do you think the World Health Organization was too slow to react to this, given that there were warnings of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus back in December?"

Guterres: "I think the World Health Organization has issued clear guidelines. Since the beginning, I think member states were slow in reacting. But now the question is not to enter into a blame game with ones blaming the others. The action that is needed is to bring everybody together in a coordinated way to suppress the vitals and to make sure that the people and the businesses need to survive are effectively helped by a massive mobilisation of funds that to the present situation requires. We are living in a war situation against the virus. We need to deal with it with a war economy."

Kumar: "You talk about a war economy, war situation, but you've also called for a global ceasefire. Again, some might say that is very ambitious with war raging on so many fronts. Now you are obviously in contact with warring factions. Is that being taken on board by any of these factions?"

Guterres: "Yes, we have the first of all, all my special envoys and representatives are developing initiatives in order from Syria to Yemen to Libya to all other places in order to make sure that the guns are silenced. And several of the movements have already responded positively. In some places we are seeing even cooperation in addressing the COVID-19 response. Unfortunately, in other situations, things are going on, especially when we have terrorist organisations that do not respect anyone or anybody. You have seen this attack in Chad that killed 93 soldiers. And I want to express my deep condolences to the Chadian people. But I feel that there is a growing conscious that there is only one war that is needed. It's a war against the virus."

Kumar: "Okay, war against the virus. But for ordinary people, this is going to mean a massive change to their lives. The ILO has said that some 25 million people could lose their jobs. Now translate this crisis, this coronavirus crisis, the recession, the depression that might follow into what this means for ordinary people around the globe."

Guterres: "But that's exactly why it is necessary to be clear in the strategy. The strategy is to suppress the virus and to create the conditions for an early recovery. When that is done in a way in which everybody works together, it's not just to keep, I would say, a mitigation effort that will make it last for months and months and months. Now, we must break the curve. We must suppress the virus to limit exactly the impact that you are seeing. And at the same time, we need to mobilise those resources I mentioned to a double digit of the global economy. Exactly to support the people that are losing their jobs or losing their salaries. Exactly to support the businesses that we must make survive in order to then push for the recovery of the economy as soon as we control the disease."

Kumar: "In a word, Mr. Guterres, are you hopeful this is gonna happen?"

Guterres: "Well, I think that people are gaining conscious that this is serious and this is going to be much more serious if there is no solidarity and if there is no effective coordination. If we just let the virus go, we are talking of millions of people being infected and millions of people that can die. And we absolutely need to avoid it. So, tough measures in an articulated way, under the guidance of WHO to suppress the virus, and the very dramatic mobilisation of resources in order to be able to keep households and businesses afloat."