The UN in New York Shuts Physically as Most Personnel Telecommute: Updates
The coronavirus has officially hit the United Nations at its New York City headquarters. On Thursday, March 12, the first reported case was confirmed by a diplomat with the Philippines mission to the UN, who said that a Filipino colleague had tested positive for Covid-19 and had notified the “UN medical director’s office.” The UN knew about the case that afternoon.
Twenty-four hours later, it announced that its personnel in New York — with exceptions — would be telecommuting from March 16 until April 13. The order was made, the UN said, “to reduce our physical presence at United Nations Headquarters, while continuing to deliver on our mandates.”
This step signifies that the UN appears to have moved into a modified Phase 3 response to the outbreak, having closed most of its headquarters building but still staying open for business, the spokesperson said, “albeit with a different approach, but our essential services to serve member states and go to support staff in the field will continue.”
[Update: The UN office in Vienna reported on March 17 that a cleaning woman who worked in the Vienna International Center has tested positive for the virus. She was last working in the center on March 2 and is said to be recovering. On March 18, a journalist based at the UN press corps in New York headquarters has also tested positive and is said to be recovering. On March 19, Unicef announced an employee has tested positive for the virus. More details below.]
As of late Sunday evening, March 15, the UN spokesperson said he had “not been advised by the medical director that UN staff have COVID 19 in the secretariat.”
[Update: As of noon March 16, the spokesperson said one person who works in the UN Secretariat building in New York has tested positive for the virus.]
The Security Council is expecting to postpone all of its meetings this week as well. Discussions are continuing as to what will be done when the Council must decide on renewing mission mandates.
It is unclear who else will be allowed into the UN premises for visiting, say, the credit union, the pension fund or the health insurance office, a retired UN staff member told PassBlue.
To help readers keep up with how the coronavirus outbreak is affecting UN operations worldwide, PassBlue is tracking developments on its social media accounts and updating this article, starting on March 16. A rundown of last week’s developments are listed below.
“The #COVID19 pandemic is a crisis that affects everyone,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted on March 15. “We must all play our part by showing solidarity with the most vulnerable — the elderly, the sick, those without reliable healthcare. Together, we can overcome the #coronavirus threat.”
[Update March 18: The UN spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, is now planning to hold his regular noon media briefing from home. It can be viewed live on UN WebTV or on Twitter @unwebtv.]
So far, the UN spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, said he would be holding his regular noon media briefing, which can be viewed live on UN WebTV.
In Switzerland, the Geneva office of the UN, which houses such high-profile agencies as the World Health Organization, announced curtailing of meetings as of March 16. The Human Rights Council, also based in Geneva, suspended its current session on March 13. It is still appointing people to fill expert posts and extending all 15 mandates due to end in March (13 are special rapporteurs).
In New York State, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced public schools would begin closing on Monday on Long Island and in Westchester County and New York City.
Thursday, March 19
• The UN Secretary-General calls for global solidarity to fight the Coronavirus pandemic: In his first-ever videocall with journalists, António Guterres called on the world’s richest countries to do more to address the coronavirus pandemic. He also said a global recession is now a near certainty.
Guterres delivered a short statement at lunchtime in which he asked the Group of 20 countries to to help poorer ones, despite that many of the rich ones are mostly affected by the virus. “We must apply the same logic to the most vulnerable countries in our global village and alleviate their debt burden,” he said.
With more countries closing their borders to fight the pandemic, Guterres also said about such actions and nationalist sentiments around the globe: “We can be physically separated, but we’re all in this together.” He answered only a handful of questions, which infuriated a few reporters, all of whom were tuned in remotely. Some noted that the whole world was watching how the UN reacted to Covid-19 and that Guterres should spend more time answering questions.
• From Unicef: “UN Medical Services advised us yesterday evening that one of our UNICEF New York colleagues has tested positive for Coronavirus (COVID-19). Our colleague is in frequent contact with UN Medical Services and, thankfully, is recovering well.”
• The Panzi hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo announced today that on March 4, the country officially discharged the last person in the country to have the Ebola virus, ending the epidemic that killed nearly 2,300 people since August 2018. But the first case of Covid-19 in the Congo was identified on March 10. The hospital adds: “Fortunately, many of the preventative measures that combat Ebola can also be used to combat coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19 — including frequent and thorough hand-washing; the use of personal protective equipment for medical personnel; and isolating and tracing afflicted patients. Thankfully, no patients at Panzi Hospital have been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of right now.”
The hospital was founded and is directed by Dr. Denis Mukwege, who was awarded a Nobel peace prize in 2018. He is called “the man who mends women” because of his work providing medical care to women in the eastern region of the Congo for maternal health problems, including rape victims recovering from the ongoing conflict in the area.
- The UN youth envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake, tweeted: “We may be at home but work doesn’t stop! Proud to have an incredible team (& supportive families) to keep our work going despite #COVID19. We usually have 1 team meeting per week but now we have 2. Second is to check in on each other & our families. How are you working from home?”
Wednesday, March 18
• Most personnel at the UN office in Vienna are working remotely or from home:
• UN personnel who are telecommuting face hurdles, like the rest of the world, trying to work digitally. A manager who works at the UN in New York told PassBlue: “They’ve got check-in meetings, leveraging Skype, Zoom and Whatsapp, things like that.” Unicef, she added, has been doing mindfulness and psychological support webinars, with some of the sessions offering suggestions for good coping strategies.
• Diplomats who represent their countries at the UN are tweeting about the pleasures and pitfalls of working online. Here, the Dutch ambassador, Karel van Oosterom, tweeted:
- The UN spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, held the UN’s first live media briefing remotely, from his home in New York City, virtually glitch-free. He took questions from reporters by text message, and made numerous UN announcements, including that the secretary-general is still coming into the headquarters to work; that 850 million students are out of school because of the pandemic, per Unesco; that personnel returning to the UN peacekeeping mission staff in Mali from countries that have reported cases of Covid-19 are self-isolating; and that the new head of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East is Philippe Lazzarini. And on a bleaker note: The International Labor Organization says the economic and labor crisis created by Covid-19 could increase global unemployment by almost 25 million people.
- A podcast featuring Dr. Gauden Galea, the World Health Organization’s representative in China, spoke with UN News about “cooperation between China and the UN” regarding Covid-19, and how a “decline in COVID-19 cases in China demonstrates that containment efforts can help alter the course of the pandemic.”
- • Unicef sent an email message to media, saying: We have spokespeople available for interview in New York, as well as spokespeople available in country and regional offices able to provide interviews on local, national and regional contexts. The noticed added:
- Our latest multimedia materials are available here, including: hi-res photo and video assets of supply distribution around the world; public service videos and handwashing guidance; infographics and myth-busting materials and more.
- On March 17, Unicef’s executive director, Henrietta Fore, said: “One week since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the number of cases continues to soar around the world. Hundreds of millions of children are not in school. Parents and caregivers are working remotely whenever they can. Borders have been closed. Lives have been upended. These are uncharted waters for all of us. At UNICEF, we are fighting a new virus, debunking myths and battling misinformation, all while looking after the well-being of our staff and our own families.” Full statement is here
- Unicef has also issued these guidance notes:
- Guidance for parents: How to protect yourself and your children
- Guidance for parents: How to speak to your children about Coronavirus
- Guidance on handwashing: Everything you need to know about washing your hands
- Guidance for teachers: Tips for having age-appropriate discussions to reassure and protect children
• The UN Correspondents Association (UNCA) sent an alert to members, who are based in the UN press corps in the New York headquarters building, that a fellow correspondent has tested positive for Covid-19, as of March 17. He is experiencing mild symptoms while self-isolating at home, as instructed by doctors. The UNCA advised everyone in the press corps to follow New York City guidelines:
The UNCA’s details about the journalist:”Our fellow UNCA member was last at UN Headquarters on Thursday, March 12th, attended the spokesperson’s noon briefing and spent time at the Delegates Lounge and in the press area on the third floor. Our colleague started feeling the symptoms on Friday morning, took the test on Saturday and immediately quarantined at home.”
Tuesday, March 17
• As China leads the UN Security Council this month as rotating president, it is wading into the waters of transparency. Late today, for example, the Chinese mission to the UN sent a message saying, among other things, “Council members are now consulting on relevant draft resolutions concerning Somalia and Sudan Darfur, and are preparing to take actions next week.” It ended with this reassuring note: “The Security Council stands ready to respond to any situation within its mandate.”
• Our intern did some sleuthing by asking other interns from European missions to the UN about their situations. Turns out they are being repatriated or strongly encouraged to go back home. The Italian mission to the UN was apparently the first to send its interns back home last week, followed by the Spanish mission, which canceled all internships.
The main reason for sending interns packing is that unpaid ones are not covered by a health insurance plan in the United States under their internship agreements with their countries. Interns at the French mission to the UN are free to telework or return to France, where strict confinements are being instituted. However, the French consulate in New York is strongly recommending that French people return home, adding that it is an individual choice.
The French mission to the UN is currently under a Stage 2 emergency and may turn to Stage 3, of containment. For the moment, only one of the two permanent representatives must be in the mission’s building, in East Midtown Manhattan. When the deputy permanent representative is in the office, the top ambassador has to be home. Some staffers are fully teleworking (chatting or video conferencing by WhatsApp).
• A quick check on official Twitter pages of the UN Security Council permanent-five countries — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — shows a range of messages.
The US mission to the UN, for example, has no personal “stay well” type of announcement but recently retweeted Secretary of State Pompeo’s announcement of sanctioning a Syrian military officer.
Britain’s latest tweet: “News: Foreign Secretary statement advising against all non-essential travel overseas.”
China: “More than 40000 medical workers have been dispatched to Hubei from all over the country. That’s unity! That’s strength! That’s solution! Great country! Great people!”
France: retweeted a message in French only from its foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Russia: “Now that the world mobilizes its efforts to combat #COVID19, let’s recall how many infections global science has already defeated. 40yrs ago #USSR-proposed and @WHO- supported program turned out a success. It helped eradicate #smallpox. USSR provided >400 mln vaccines worldwide.”
• A Lebanese diplomat told PassBlue that the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee, which focuses on UN budgets, held an informal meeting online and is holding another meeting this afternoon, so diplomats are busy.
• Jacqueline O’Neill, Canada’s ambassador for women, peace and security, tweeted about a virtual meeting held yesterday with the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders about on the Generation Equality Forum sessions this year and other matters.
• The UN mission in Cyprus tweeted about telework, saying:
• As countries drastically cut entry into their territories because of the Covid-19 health crisis and restrictions on international air travel continue, travel plans for resettling refugees are being severely disrupted. Some countries have also placed a hold on resettlement arrivals. Refugee families are being directly affected by the regulations in the course of their travel, with some experiencing extensive delays and others stranded or separated from family members. As a result of such situations, the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration, “are concerned that international travel could increase the exposure of refugees to the virus,” a statement read, admit that the the organizations were “suspending resettlement departures for refugees. This is a temporary measure.”
• The UN spokesperson held a noon briefing from the NY headquarters, touching on highlights: UN teams globally are still offering support to national and local authorities to prepare and respond to #Coronavirus, like in Zimbabwe, with home-schooling. The WHO is reporting that the number of cases in Southeast Asia is spreading rapidly, and “called on Member States in South-East Asia to urgently scale up aggressive measures to combat COVID-19, as confirmed cases cross 480, with 8 deaths. Eight of the 11 countries in WHO’s South-East Asia region have confirmed cases of COVID-19, and the numbers of cases are increasing quickly.”
Countries “already in crisis” are experiencing further stresses as Covid-19 hits them. So far, no other UN personnel in New York, other than the case announced yesterday, is reported to have Covid-19, said Farhan Haq. And Haq had no updates on the status of the person with the virus who works in the UN headquarters.
• The UN office in Vienna reports its first case of Covid-19, involving a female member of the cleaning staff at the Vienna International Center. The cleaner, who is employed by an outside contractor, fell ill at the center on Marc 2, after office hours and was assisted by three members of the UN Security and Safety team. The cleaner worked on 13 rooms on the 10th floor of the center’s B building, which is part of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The relevant staff have been informed. The cleaner has not been in the building since March 2, the UN says.
Austrian health authorities initially diagnosed influenza. Late evening on March 16, the authorities informed the center’s Medical Service that the person had tested positive for Covid-19 coronavirus. The person has been evaluated at a hospital and is recovering, the UN added, saying the “Media Service assesses the risk to the first responders, who were wearing protective clothing, as zero. None of them has developed any symptoms over the last 14 days. There is no residual risk to personnel at the VIC. Close contact tracing has identified no further individuals among VIC personnel. Close contact is defined as 15 minutes face-to-face interaction at a distance of one metre or less.”
• Earth Day Network, the global organizer of Earth Day, will mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day with the first Digital Earth Day, a global digital mobilization on April 22 to address the most urgent threats to people and the planet. More details here.
• WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America), a US-based research organization that tracks human rights in South America, is postponing its 2020 WOLA Human Rights Awards Ceremony and Benefit Gala. It will now be held on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020 and still be held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. Honorees: Congresswoman Veronica Escobar and Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center.
• The Hungarian ambassador to the UN, Katalin Bogyay, is an active tweeter. Her latest on mourning a quiet UN building scene:
• A new story by Barbara Crossette for PassBlue looks at not only the tensions rising among civil society groups over the Generation Equality Forum sessions, celebrating the Beijing+25 anniversary, but also will they even be held? One session is planned for Mexico City in May and the other in Paris in July.
Monday, March 16
* Russia’s mission to the UN, like many others country missions in New York, is operating with reduced staff. Russia’s deputy permanent representative, Dmitry Polyanskiy, told PassBlue today that it is getting its orders from Moscow, not the UN Secretariat. “So we have some recommendations from from the Secretariat and we try to respect them,” Polyanskiy said. “We have some instructions from Moscow force in terms of general precaution to cautionary measures and preventive measures against coronavirus.”
Polyanskiy confirmed that there are no Security Council meetings planned this week as of March 16, because no meeting was deemed urgent enough. The Council is also still testing possible online meetings, and he added that he thinks that it is currently safe to hold meetings in the Council Chamber.
* One person who works in the UN Secretariat building in New York City has tested positive for the virus, the UN spokesperson announced at the noon media briefing.
* In a press conference, the World Health Organization expressed concerns for low-income countries, as the virus is spreading: “As the #coronavirus moves to low-income countries, we’re deeply concerned about the impact it could have among populations with high HIV prevalence or malnourished children. We’re calling on every country & individual to do everything they can to stop transmission,” Dr Tedros Adhanom said.
* A statement from Secretary-General Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council is “urging world leaders to do more to support refugee and displaced communities from the spread of coronavirus.” For more information or interviews, contact the media adviser, Catriona Loughran: +47 909 25528 or email email@example.com.
* The Global Network of Women Peacebuilders is holding a “Beijing+25: Where Are the Women and Youth Peacebuilders?” panel with online participation only, March 17, 12:30 to 2:30 p.m.; rsvp: yps-wps-beijing.eventbrite.com.
* In Geneva, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, “urged States to avoid overreach of security measures in response to the Coronavirus outbreak, and remind them that emergency powers should not be used to quash dissent.” As a medical doctor, she added, “I understand the need for a range of steps to combat COVID-19, and as a former head of government, I understand the often difficult balancing act when hard decisions need to be taken. However our efforts to combat this virus won’t work unless we approach it holistically, which means taking great care to protect the most vulnerable and neglected people in society, both medically and economically.”
* The Security Council is expected to postpone all its meetings this week. Much commentary has already ensued on Twitter about it, including how the Council would vote on renewing mandates. Security Council Procedure, an independent organization that tracks Council work in detail, tweeted in response to the question: “Actually, it wouldn’t have to be done thru a virtual meeting, so long as sufficient support was formally registered with the Council President by the SC members. And it would not have to be merely a technical rollover, but could be a regular resolution.”
Richard Gowan, a UN expert based with the International Crisis Group in New York, tweeted in the above thread: “The will not meet next week thx to . But then the Council only formally met 5 times in all of 1959 (when it only passed 1 resolution, an all time low). Two of those meetings were on one day (a painfully busy 7 September). It can survive a week off.”
* The much-anticipated Commission on the Status of Women — the UN’s annual women’s rights meeting with 11 days of hundreds of events — was cancelled by UN member states in early March. But a virtual “consultation” meeting, to be held on March 16, is being led by the NGO-CSW organization.
Sunday, March 15
* Security Council Report, an independent research organization, says the Security Council is expected to continue meeting this week, although two sessions scheduled for March 17 have been postponed, one on Resolution 1701 (implementation of the 2006 ceasefire between Hezbollah and Lebanon), and the other on the 1540 Committee, on nonproliferation.
On March 18, the Council is expected to hold a briefing on the drawdown and exit of the UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Sudan; on March 19, it is planning to hold an open debate, led by China, on multilateralism, but it may be a short session. All subsidiary body meetings of the Council planned for the week have been postponed.
The Russians, at least, are not comfortable with holding Security Council meetings online but won’t rule out allowing members to participate by video link, said a March 15 news report. (Russia is a permanent member of the Council, with Britain, China, France and the United States.)
Saturday, March 14
While some European missions to the UN are repatriating some temporary staff members, other missions are figuring out how to operate remotely.
* As Louise Blais, Canada’s deputy permanent representative, tweeted: “Permanent Delegations to the UN have taken protective measures to curb the spread of #COVID19. But that doesn’t mean we stopped working to advance our common goals, including how we are managing this crisis.”
She added: “Moving forward, we’ll have to be creative & nimble to keep diplomacy working because we depend on this globally. At @CanadaUN w/@blanchardCanada, we’ll continue to reach out & try to be a force for good and positive outcomes in these challenging times.” For now, most of Canada’s mission staff is working from home.
* The UN in Geneva tweeted that staff members are going to work from home: “In light of some #COVID19 cases at international organizations in Geneva, from 16/3 all UN staff based at the Palais des Nations will work remotely, unless their presence in the building is necessary. @UNGeneva & other UN agencies will continue to deliver for the people we serve.”
Friday, March 13
The day started in New York City with people wanting answers from the UN Secretariat: after the first official case was reported by a Filipino diplomat on March 12, what was the UN’s response?
* The announcement finally came at 6 p.m.: The UN was significantly cutting the amount of people on the ground while keeping everybody at work: “Given recent developments in the wider United Nations family in New York, and based on extensive consultations with senior management, including the Medical Director, I have decided to step up measures at United Nations Headquarters to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” a letter from Guterres to staff members read.
“I have therefore decided that from Monday, 16 March to Sunday, 12 April 2020, all staff will be required to telecommute and work remotely, unless their physical presence in the building is needed to carry out our essential work in New York and around the world,” he continued. “This will happen in line with the business continuity plans that departments and offices have prepared and tested recently. After three weeks, we will assess the necessity of maintaining the reduced level of staff in the building.”
* Earlier in the day, Unicef, which is located across the street from the UN headquarters, announced it was closing its building and “strongly encouraging all our New York-based staff to work remotely for the next four weeks.” The decision was made after three people working in the Unicef building developed flulike symptoms.
Thursday, March 12
The day after the coronavirus officially became a pandemic, the UN gave more details on the precautions being taken at the headquarters, including canceling most events.
* At 10:29 p.m., the UN spokesperson confirmed that a Filipino diplomat tested positive for the Covid-19 virus. “Earlier today, the Permanent Mission of the Philippines informed the UN Medical Services that one of its delegates has tested positive for the Covid-19 virus,” his statement said. The Filipino diplomat last visited UN headquarters on March 9, for about 30 minutes around midday and stayed in only one meeting room, which has gone through three cleaning cycles since then, the statement added. The diplomat “did not have contact with UN staff but met two delegates from another mission. UN Medical services are reaching out to them.”
* Just hours earlier, at 6 p.m., PassBlue first learned that the information about the Filipino diplomat had just been announced by the country’s delegation in an online chat forum used by UN delegates. The Filipino diplomat had attended a Sixth Committee meeting of the General Assembly, which focuses on host-country relations.
* In the afternoon, the UN announced numerous cancellations and/or postponements of meetings and conferences: the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea session on marine biological diversity, scheduled for March 23; the youth plenary for the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the UN, March 31; an antimicrobial resistance event, April 14; the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace, April 24; and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, April 13–24.
* At noon, Dujarric announced the UN had “noticeably increased the overnight staff to clean all public surfaces, elevators, escalators, doors,” adding that more people had been hired to clean. The UN upgraded the cleaning fluid used by cleaners to “hospital-grade” and hand‑sanitizing stations had been added.
* After President Trump announced Wednesday evening that Europeans from the Schengen zone countries would be banned from the US for 30 days, the UN confirmed that the ban did not apply to G-1 visa holders, or diplomatic visas, as specified in the US proclamation. The ban, it notes, does not apply to anyone “whose travel falls within the scope of section 11 of the United Nations Headquarters Agreement.”
Wednesday, March 11
* The World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. In New York City, Secretary-General Guterres said: “Together, we can still change the course of this pandemic — but that means addressing inaction. The best science tells us that, if countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in response, we can go a long way to mitigating transmission.”
* At the UN headquarters in New York, the Office of Counterterrorism was evacuated, as an email notice went out, saying: “All staff and consultants located in [DC-1 building] are requested to immediately leave the office and go home. We strongly encourage not to leave your home until further notice. This was due to a possible case of the Coronavirus, but nothing has been confirmed yet.”
Monday, March 9
* The UN entered into Phase 2 of its response-system, or “active risk-reduction” mode, recommending social distancing and working partly from home for UN personnel.
* Le Monde reported that the UN was closing to visitors and encouraging employees to work from home three days a week.
* The Security Council ran a digital simulation, in case the coronavirus outbreak forced the UN headquarters to shut down completely. The experiment, done with the Council members’ political coordinators, was carried out by the UN Secretariat. If the plan is carried out, meetings could be livestreamed, so the public can still track the Council’s work, but some reported glitches could shelve the idea.
* The UN asked nine countries, including China, South Korea and France, to delay by three months the rotation of their UN peacekeeping forces due to the virus outbreak.
* A short version of the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women took place, after UN member states agreed to cancel the March 9–20 conference. The one-day meeting, held in the UN General Assembly, adopted a political declaration to assess the status of women’s rights globally, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Initially, 12,000 delegates were supposed to travel to New York City for the conference. It is unclear if it will be rescheduled.
Originally published at https://www.passblue.com on March 15, 2020.