Covid-19: UN Resident Coordinator Brian J. Williams interview for Diplomaticus at News24

  • UN programmess in Albania are working to make sure that the most vulnerable are not left behind.

Diplomaticus Talk Show  at News24, 14 May 2020

Interviewer Erion Kacorri

Interviewer: Welcome to our weekly programme Diplomaticus. Over 4 million people have been affected and more than 285,000 have lost their lives due to the new coronavirus COVID- 19 that hit the world. What are the economic and social consequences expected to affect the world and our country? For that, l have invited the UN coordinator in Albania, Mrs. Brian James Williams. Mr. Williams thank you very much for being here.

W: Thank you for having me!

Interviewer: Ms. Williams, what is the role of UN in such unprecedented crisis?

W: I mean, the UN has a big role to play of course all over the world. Really trying to accompany governments and help governments learn about what’s going on. As we all know from watching the news, COVID is something brand new, so we’re learning about it every day. The scientists all over the world are trying to study it, the UN is trying to capture this information and provide it back as quickly as possible to governments so that the governments have an idea about what to do. And then of course, it’s the whole family of agencies, and these agencies all over the world are doing everything they can. They’re providing food, they’re providing health care, they’re thinking about the education needs, they’re thinking about the regular communities that they work with and how to make sure these communities are not overly impacted by COVID or how to mitigate those impacts. So, really everywhere the UN is doing quite a bit.

I: How do you see the trend of the pandemic in Albania?

W: Here in Albania, I think we should congratulate the authorities and the Albanian people for really having reacted quite quickly. In those early days, in March, when no one had been found yet with the virus here, there was a lot of effort to look for it. Once it was confirmed, once there were some cases confirmed, the government reacted quite quickly. The lockdown measures here were fast and strong, and I think we see the positive results of that in the data. There has never been here in Albania explosive growth. Okay, there have been some days when the number has a little bit higher, maybe even in 20s, but if you look at the whole time since the beginning of March, it’s pretty flat. And really, the government deserves credit for that. Now, we know there are big economic impacts that come from the lockdown. You know, it’s a very blunt broad measure and it’s time - and the government is thinking - about how to open up slowly as many other governments in Europe are. Managing this next phase will be really tricky. There is a lot that we should be paying attention to in this next phase.

I: When you say next phase, what do you mean?

W: Well, so already today here in Tirana, and across Albania there’s more stores open, next week there’ll be more. We know that tourism is so important to Albania and we know there’s going to be a lot of pressure to open up a little bit - some different industries, restaurants, bars, coffee shops; [there are] so many informal workers that are not necessary covered by some of the relief programs. The economy needs to get going again. With the economy opening up a little bit, it means people are going to start mixing again, and the question is “How do you manage that movement of people getting back to work, traveling back to their offices, going more often to a restaurant? How do you do that, in a way that minimizes the opportunity for the virus to jump from person to person. At the end of the day, the enemy here is a small virus that you can’t see and our behavior is going to have to change a little bit. We can’t just go back to normal as if nothing ever happened. We are going to be going to restaurants where people are more spread out. Public transportation is going to be less used. I know there’s been new bike lanes popping up in Tirana, that’s a good thing. People are going to have to be more thoughtful about how they use public transportation. People should wear masks, frankly, not because you protect yourself, but because you protect everybody else if you wear a mask. So somehow, managing this opening up is really important. It’s important that if there is somebody infected in this new phase, that that person is found quickly and that all the contacts of that person are found quickly and that you close down any emerging cluster of infections.

I: Mr. Williams, how do we get back to where we were before the breakout of this pandemic, and how do we overcome the social-economic damage caused by COVID-19?

W: So, getting back to where we were before, the pre-situation, will not happen until we have a vaccine. So, until we have a vaccine or until we have very effective drugs to treat the illness, until then we are going to have to adapt out behavior as I said. I think what is really important is that we continue to think about how to support workers who are really dependent from week to week on that income to make sure that their families, you know, can eat and continue to prosper. So, we’re going to have to take some of these social distancing measures. I think social support measures are going to also be required for a longer period of time. In many countries, they’re talking now about a kind of a universal basic income. Really what that means is a social protection floor. How do we make sure that every family in Albania has the minimum amount of resources, to make sure of course they can feed themselves, they can send their kids to school, they can make sure their kids have school books and everything that’s necessary, they can buy the economic inputs they need if they’re agricultural or if they’re farmers, you know, they need to have enough liquidity that they can buy the inputs for their farm. So, we really going to have to look sector by sector and do an analysis about how the new environment, how does requiring to be socially distanced or physically distanced, how does that affect my business. I know the Minister of Tourism, for example, has said that of all the hotels and tourist facilities are going to have to have a COVID  coordinator. Somebody whose job it is to think through: okay in my business, in my hotel, in my restaurant, in my beach, what do I have to do to make sure that my clients are safe and am I providing information to my workers? How do the workers protect themselves? How do the workers protect their clients? So, to go back to you question, there is not going to be a new normal tomorrow. Maybe, there will be a normal such as we remember it next year; but for the rest of this year, we’re all going to have to behave differently. It’s going to have everybody to play their part.

I: Can we be positive for the future?

W: Of course, we can be positive! I mean, you know, as humans we are creative, we are inovative, we are also caring. I mean, take a look at what the world has done over the last 8 weeks. Its extraordinary! I mean, the amount of resources that governments have found, whether it is in Europe, whether it is in United States, the resources found to support payments to make sure that people can still eat and pay their rent. Its extraordinary! So, when there is a big crisis in front of us, we find ways to respond to it, and I’m optimistic that we are going to find ways to respond to this one as well. We are already seeing that in different countries. But it is going to be different. So, I’m positive, yes, but it’s going to be different, and it is going to require individuals to behave differently, it’s going to require governments to rethink a little bit their priorities. There is no question here, as everywhere, that health systems are going to need more work, because the health system is going to be under strain from COVID until the end of this thing. So, we should all be - and this government too - investing more in the health system, so it is stronger and it can continue to provide the regular health service that everybody needs, even while it’s keeping an eye on the COVID situation.

I: Mr. Williams, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres is talking about racism, hate speech and xenophobia fueled by the pandemic. What is Mr. Guterres exactly talking about?

W: He’s really worried. You know, in every crises, there is sometimes a temptation, and some people begin to look for a cause, a blame, and it’s so easy in this kind of situations, in different countries around the world to blame somebody else. The reality is this virus is a virus. It is not a person, it is a virus. Our world is so interconnected today. We already knew that. We knew that a pandemic was likely to happen. Experts have been thinking about pandemics for decades, and how to prepare for it. So, this is not entirely unexpected. What the virus shows is that we are an interconnected world. Nevertheless, sometimes it happens that some groups or some individuals try to blame, you know, an immigrant or a certain sector of their society as being the problem.

I: Or a country.

W: Or even a country. The Secretary General said “Look, this is a virus and the way to combat this virus is by working together and being supportive of absolutely everybody and making sure that, you know, it is not about blaming, it’s about working together to combat”.

I: Mr. Williams, United Nations appealed for 6.7 billion dollars to fight coronavirus pandemic in poor countries. According to the United Nations, there is evidence of incomes plummeting and jobs disappearing, food supplies failing and prices souring. What does the UN aim for through this fund?

W: You know, globally, the United Nations has three main strategies, or three main pillars. The first is what we call humanitarian assistance, and this is the 6.7 billion that you are referring to. It’s an appeal for the poorest countries in the world to make sure that those countries, the citizens have enough to eat and that basic services can continue. This is really for the least developed countries. This second pillar is healthcare specifically. And in every country, the World Health Organization, but also other UN organizations involved in healthcare are helping health systems to respond and you know, it’s not just COVID response, but is also like immunizations for example. We need to make sure that kids are still getting immunized against measles and other childhood diseases. Otherwise, we are going to end up seeing more problems from health problems that we know already. So, we need to continue with strong health systems. The third pillar is what we call socio-economic response. In here, we’re looking at a variety of measures, social protection floors as I was mentioning, maybe universal basic income, also looking at jobs. So, jobs is a big one, right? Here in Albania, a lot of UN programs are working with municipalities to make sure that the most vulnerable people somehow don’t get left behind. So, you know, we have some joint programs, they have provided food and hygiene kits to more than one thousand five hundred families, working with municipals governments to help them identify which of their citizens are the most at risk. Maybe it’s the Roma and Egyptian communities that do not have such good access to services. Maybe it’s people with disabilities. I mean a lot of families that have kids with disabilities for example, they can't have access to programs, the therapeutic programs they normally support their kids. Well, they’re getting support from the UN, so the parents are getting online coaching so, you know, through Zoom, the parents are getting coaching about what kinds of exercises for their kids so that those kids, at least, continue to get some kind of support. So, this socio-economic pillar is about jobs, maybe for all of those unemployed informal workers for the moment, we should be thinking about some short-term vocational training. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity. We need to support these people anyway, maybe we can put them into some vocational training of some kind so that we come out on the other end of this in a better position.

I: Mr. Williams, according to the United Nations, the virus will have most destabilizing and devastating effects on the poorest countries. Do you expect such crisis to hit Albania as well?

W: Well, for sure Albania is going to get hit hard by COVID, as all countries in the region are, there is no question about it. We know how important truism is for Albania, so we need to find a way to figure out how to support some tourism, and to take care of all those people who normally live from the tourist industries. For sure, we are not going to see the same kinds of numbers of tourists this year as we’ve seen in the other years, that’s for sure. Of course, we want to support a maximum number of those that can be done safely, but we also want to find ways to support those informal workers who so far maybe have not benefited yet from any programs. We want to find ways to support those informal workers. So, that is going to be an impact. I think regional cooperation is really important, too. So, you know, Albania also exports a lot of agricultural [products]; well that requires open borders, that requires supply chains to work, that means there is a lot of front workers and customs and at borders that need to make sure that trucks of tomato or whatever, can pass through the border. So, Albania is going to be affected. We know that the Government is putting together a kind of economic recovery program and on the UN side, we’ve also have been instructed, every country around the world, whether UN programs has been instructed to put together a kind of socio-economic program. We’re going to be working with the government to make sure that our program is supporting theirs, of course. But there is going to be impact. It is important, it is not going to be back to normal next months.

I: Does UN in Albania have information that people here have lost their jobs during the pandemic?

W: The government here has information that people have lost their jobs. So, we know that there has been a pretty high impact in terms of people who are not going to work anymore and we need to get those people back to work as quickly as possible and we should be thinking about other ways to engage those who might not get a job right away but we should be finding some other way; vocational training, for example, or maybe some other public works programs that give them some short term opportunities to at least help bridge the period until, hopefully, next year, you know, there’ll be a full tourist recovery.

I: Mr. Williams, you have stayed in Albania during the pandemic. How did this whole process of working from home and the phased return work? How do you see all this process?

W: I think in Albania, as well as elsewhere in the world, working from home actually worked better than most people expected. You know, even this morning, I was in a call with some of the other embassies of the European Union Delegation and the Prime Minister and minister Ahmetaj and everybody was on Zoom. You know, everybody was doing the same thing. So, actually we’ve been able to do quite a bit that way. What you can’t do is really get out into the communities as easily as before. So, all those bits of work that require going out and meeting groups of people is much harder than before, but not impossible. Even in training for example, the World Health Organization here in Albania has done a lot of work training health workers, nurses and other front-line medical staff through Zoom, or whatever, about ok what is COVID, what  are the symptoms, how do you respond to those symptoms, how do you wear protective gear, what kind of protective gear do you need. I mean, you can only imagine the amount of training that is going on everyday as we learn more about COVID, and you know, most of that training has been done by Zoom or equivalent.

I: Of course. Mr. Williams, one last question; Albania was hit by a major earthquake in November. What is United Nations doing to support the post-earthquake recovery in this country?

W: Yeah, I mean, poor Albania, right. We thought one disaster was enough and then we got another one. I think the government and ourselves as well are trying to stay focused on the earthquake and I would say that even over the last 10 days there has been a lot of renewed attention to this, as people start to feel a little bit more comfortable, at least with the lockdown phase of COVID. We are going to be working with European Union on school reconstruction, with the UNDP, with some cultural heritage reconstruction with UNOPS. UNDP and FAO are looking at economic recovery in the earthquake zone. UNICEF is looking at how to support the soft side of education in earthquake zones, so that how can teachers be better prepared so that if an emergency happens, you know how can they respond; online education is something that is important when your school is not accessible like because of the earthquake, or your school is not accessible because of COVID. So, online education and distance education, UNICEF has been doing a lot of work with the platform called “” to respond to that to make sure kids continue to receive an education. So, we’re still focused on earthquake response, working with a number of different partners and in some ways some of that reconstruction work is helpful for the economy actually, so it's good that we get it started quickly.

I: Well, Mr. Williams, thank you very much for the interview.

W: It’s my pleasure! Thanks for having me!

I: Honorable viewers, thank you for your attention. See you next week. Please comment  on our Facebook account.  You can watch our program on YouTube. Goodbye!


Media Contacts
UN entities involved in this initiative
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
International Atomic Energy Agency
International Labor Organization
International Organization for Migration
UN Women
United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women
Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS
United Nations Development Programme
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
United Nations Population Fund
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
United Nations Children’s Fund
United Nations Industrial Development Organization
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
United Nations Office for Project Services
World Health Organization