UN chief warns first virtual leaders’ summit of ‘epochal’ health crisis

22 September 2020, 16:44

Antonio Guterres
UN General Assembly. Picture: PA

Antonio Guterres said coronavirus is just a ‘dress rehearsal for the world of challenges to come’.

Secretary-general Antonio Guterres has warned the UN’s first virtual meeting of global leaders that the world is facing an “epochal” health crisis, the biggest economic calamity since the Great Depression, threats to human rights and worries of a new Cold War between the US and China.

In a grim state of the world speech to the UN General Assembly’s annual high-level meeting, the UN chief said the coronavirus that had “brought the world to its knees” was just “a dress rehearsal for the world of challenges to come”.

He called for global unity, first and foremost to fight the pandemic, and sharply criticised populism and nationalism for failing to contain the virus and for often making things worse.

Days after the pandemic shut down large parts of the world in March, Mr Guterres called for a global ceasefire to tackle it. On Tuesday, he appealed for a 100-day push by the international community, led by the Security Council, “to make this a reality by the end of the year”.

“There is only one winner of conflict during a pandemic: the virus itself,” he said.

Reiterating a warning he made to world leaders a year ago about increasing US-China rivalry, he said: “We are moving in a very dangerous direction.

“Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a Great Fracture — each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities.

“A technological and economic divide risks inevitably turning into a geo-strategic and military divide. We must avoid this at all costs.”

Mr Guterres said armed movements from Cameroon to Colombia, the Philippines and beyond responded to his original appeal even if several ceasefires were not sustained.

But there are reasons to be hopeful, he said, pointing to a new peace agreement in Sudan, the launch of Afghan peace negotiations, and ceasefires largely holding in Syria’s Idlib province, Ukraine and elsewhere.

“The world needs a global ceasefire to stop all ‘hot’ conflicts,” he said. “At the same time, we must do everything to avoid a new Cold War.”

The UN chief delivered his speech in the vast General Assembly Hall, where only one mask-wearing diplomat from each of the UN’s 193 member nations was allowed, spread out in the chamber.

“In a world turned upside down, this General Assembly Hall is among the strangest sights of all,” Mr Guterres said.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has changed our annual meeting beyond recognition. But it has made it more important than ever.”

Among those speaking later are US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose countries have reported the highest and second-highest coronavirus death tolls respectively.

Also on deck are President Xi Jinping of China, where the virus originated, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, which has raised international eyebrows with its rapid vaccine development.

By Press Association