Coronavirus threat to global peace and stability, UN chief warns

Helen Davidson
Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images

The head of the United Nations has called the coronavirus pandemic the “fight of a generation” and a threat to world peace and security.

The secretary general, Antonio Guterres, warned the UN security council that the pandemic had the potential to increase social unrest and violence, which would greatly undermine the world’s ability to fight the disease.

It was, he said, the UN’s most grave test since it was founded 75 years ago and had already hindered efforts to resolve international, regional and national conflicts.

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“This is the fight of a generation and the raison dêtre [reason for being] of the United Nations itself,” he said.

More than 95,000 people had died by Friday morning after contracting Covid-19, according to Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking the figures. More than 1.6 million had been diagnosed as the economic impact continued to grow. One in 10 Americans had lost their job as a result of the virus and the IMF chief said the world was on track for the biggest downturn since the Great Depression.

Guterres said the world was already seeing the “ruinous social and economic impacts. But the pandemic also poses a significant threat to the maintenance of international peace and security.”

He warned the pandemic could lead to opportunistic terror attacks, the erosion of trust in public institutions, economic instability, political tensions from postponing elections or referendums, and Covid-19 “triggering or exacerbating various human rights challenges”.

He said security council involvement would be “critical to mitigate the peace and security implications” and “a signal of unity and resolve from the council would count for a lot at this anxious time”.

After its Thursday meeting with Guterres, which was held via closed video link, the security council issued its first statement since the outbreak began. It expressed “support for all efforts of the secretary general concerning the potential impact of the Covid-19 pandemic to conflict-affected countries and recalled the need for unity and solidarity with all those affected.”

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Amid the call for unity, China weighed in on a growing row between the World Health Organisation and Taiwan.

Late on Thursday China’s Taiwan affairs office accused Taiwan’s government of “unscrupulously using the virus to seek independence, venomously attacking the WHO and its responsible people, conniving with the green internet army to wantonly spread racist comments … We strongly condemn this.”

It followed the trading of accusations between the WHO and Taiwan over recent days, largely stemming from Taiwan’s continued exclusion from WHO membership and activities because of lobbying by China’s Communist party government, which claims Taiwan as Chinese territory. Taiwan has been successful in preventing a mass outbreak but has repeatedly complained of being left out of the coordinated global response, risking Taiwanese lives.

The WHO has been accused of being too deferential to China and praising its virus response despite the government initially suppressing information about the outbreak. The WHO denies the charge and on Wednesday its director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he had been subjected to months of attacks including racist ones against him and black communities, and accused Taiwan of condoning the “campaign”.

In response Taiwan’s foreign ministry demanded a clarification and apology for the “groundless” accusation and an “extremely irresponsible act of slander”.

The Trump administration has joined in criticism of the WHO, accusing it of putting politics first by ignoring early warnings sounded by Taiwan. The state department on Thursday said the WHO left it too late and “chose politics over public health”.

This week Donald Trump threatened to withhold funding from the WHO, but was accused of seeking to make it a scapegoat in order to distract from his own failings in preparing the US for its own outbreak, which had infected more than 465,000 people and killed almost 15,000 by Friday morning.

In other developments:

  • EU countries agreed to a €500bn relief deal for members hit hardest by the pandemic.

  • Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, was moved out of intensive care after being admitted three days earlier suffering from coronavirus.

  • Around the world people have been told to stay home over the Easter holiday. Authorities in several countries have warned of roadblocks to enforce social distancing.

  • China has stepped up monitoring and reporting requirements for asymptomatic “silent” carriers. President Xi Jinping said on Wednesday that new challenges to China’s economic and social recovery were emerging.

  • The New York governor said a record 799 people died from Covid-19 on Wednesday, bringing the state’s total loss to 7,067 people. Cuomo warned the economic impact on the state was expected to be worse than 9/11. There were signs of hope, with New York recording its lowest number of new hospitalisations since the outbreak began.

  • The South Korean city of Daegu, which endured the first large coronavirus outbreak outside of China, on Friday reported zero new cases for the first time since late February, as new infections across the country dropped to record lows.

  • There have been calls for high-level inquiries into allegations of inhumane treatment in some aged care facilities. Around the world appalling stories have emerged from residential care homes for older people, including in Spain where the army has reported finding dead and abandoned people in their beds.

  • The death toll in UK care homes is likely to be far higher than reported, the Guardian has learned, with hundreds of people dying from confirmed or suspected coronavirus without yet being officially counted.

  • Bangladesh imposed a “complete lockdown” in its Cox’s Bazaar district, which is home to more than a million Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Myanmar, and South Africa extended its lockdown by a further fortnight, enforced by police and the army.

  • The official death toll from the coronavirus outbreak in Iran passed 4,000, the country’s health ministry reported on Thursday, after 117 more people were confirmed to have died from the disease in the previous 24 hours.