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A UN Diplomat From the Philippines Has the Coronavirus as It Hits New York


A Filipino diplomat sent a letter to fellow diplomats on March 12 that a colleague at the country’s mission to the UN had tested positive for the coronavirus. The UN says it is following up but has not said it is closing the building. The scene above, March 11. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO

As the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus keeps rising in New York City this week, the United Nations remains open for business for diplomats and for staff members who are not telecommuting, while tourists were banned as of March 10.

Yet as of early evening on March 12, it was revealed by the Philippines mission to the UN that one of its diplomats had tested positive for the virus earlier in the week, the first case to be reported at the UN.

The information about the diplomat came from the Philippines mission to the UN in a letter sent to fellow UN colleagues on March 12. It was also mentioned in an online chat forum used by UN delegates on the same day in the late afternoon, confirming that a Filipino diplomat has the coronavirus.

The UN spokesperson said in a late-night email to reporters that the Filipino diplomat “visited only one meeting room, which has gone through three cleaning cycles since then.” In addition, the spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, said: “The delegate did not have contact with UN staff but met two delegates from another mission. UN Medical services is reaching out to them. More information will be issued as it becomes available.”

The letter sent by the Filipino diplomat said, in part: “A colleague at the Philippine Mission tested positive today for COVID-19. Our colleague handles 6th Committee matters [related to host-country relations]. She last visited the UN last Monday, March 9, for about 30 minutes — from 12.50 to 1.20 pm. . . . I have advised the UN medical director’s office of this development, as well as the NYC health department. The latter’s advice was to self isolate.” The woman who tested positive was prescribed Tamiflu, the letter said.

The UN’s partial shutdown this week occurs as President Trump announced the United States was banning people from Europe into the country — excluding Britain, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Turkey and Ukraine — for 30 days, as of Friday midnight. European officials reacted angrily.

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At the UN, all of its “side events” have been canceled — that is, nonmandated meetings — as a three-phase response system has been instituted, said the UN spokesperson. The headquarters is in Phase 2, “active risk-reduction mode,” which includes recommendations of “social distancing” to potentially slow any spread at the UN in New York. Phase 3 is a shutdown of the UN headquarters, which is based in East Midtown Manhattan.

Dujarric said that the organization takes its cues on how to manage the Covid-19 outbreak in New York — whether to stay open or to close — from New York City health officials. As to whether the UN is requiring member state missions, staff members and nongovernmental organization people who can still enter the UN to test for the disease, Dujarric said in an email: “We encourage staff to follow the guidelines from the NY Public Health in regards to testing.”

A person working for the UN who was not feeling well on March 11 was sent home, according to a person familiar with the situation. A memo from the UN Office on Counterterrorism read as follows: “All staff and consultants located in DC-18 [building] are requested to immediately leave the office and go home. We strongly encourage not to leave your home until further notice.

This is just a preventive measure as we have been informed that a colleague is not feeling well, but it does not necessarily mean that the colleague has been affected by the COVID-19. So please remain calm and wait for further instructions. We are working with UN medical services and will keep you informed.”

Dujarric said that as of Thursday afternoon, no positive cases of the coronavirus at the UN have been confirmed, although in the evening he confirmed the Filipino case as news surfaced about it on Twitter.

Other steps the UN has taken to cope with the coronavirus include the Security Council testing an online simulation meeting, in case the UN closes. But the Council, the most important body in the UN, still needs to meet, many delegates insist. The idea to meet online, however, has been dropped, a UN official said.

As of Thursday afternoon, March 12, New York City, in a state of emergency, confirmed 95 cases of the coronavirus, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking at a news conference. Statewide, 328 people have tested positive so far, but there have been no “related deaths” at this point from the virus, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office said. De Blasio said that he did not plan to shut down the subway system and would “do his damndest” to keep the city’s public schools open. (Two public schools in the Bronx have been closed.)

The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, which signifies the disease’s geographical spread and not its deadliness.

Paradoxically, as the world now looks to the World Health Organization for guidelines on how to coordinate a response to the epidemic, last month Trump proposed in his 2021 budget that the US halve contributions to the UN organization, to $59 million in 2021 from $122 million in 2020.

The UN General Assembly president, Tijjani Muhammad Bande, in consultation with other UN entities, issued guidelines for the UN headquarters to mitigate “the risk of spreading the virus” for meetings under General Assembly auspices in March and April. “I am still considering some large-scale meetings in the period of March-April and will revert to Member States with proposals, by the end of this week,” Bande said in a message to the UN member states on March 11.

So far, the current guidelines are:

    • Reduce the number of people at gatherings on the UN premises. Delegations are encouraged to limit participation at meetings to no more than two New York-based delegates;
    • Hold meetings in large conference rooms; when possible, allow for adequate space among participants;
    • Refrain from inviting non-New York area residents to be panelists, speakers and participants at meetings;
    • Refrain from inviting visitors into the UN building;
    • Cancel side events;
    • Postpone or scale down national days (which celebrate a country’s “birthday”).

The General Assembly has postponed the follow conferences: the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea session on marine biological diversity, March 23; and the youth plenary for the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the UN, March 31.

Two other events are no longer scheduled: one on antimicrobial resistance, April 14; and the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace, April 24. In addition, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, from April 13-24, has been postponed.

A notice to UN personnel sent on March 9 said, “While we know the outbreak has created a great deal of anxiety amongst UN personnel in New York, you should be assured that the situation is being actively monitored and UNHQ has been extensively planning with local authorities to ramp up preparedness plans as needed.” The goal is to have about half of its personnel telecommute.

The UN has also recommended that UN personnel who have recently returned from China, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Iran “should remain at home and self-monitor for symptoms of fever, cough or shortness of breath for 14 days after their return.”

And UN personnel who are at “increased risk for COVID-19 complications due to age or a severe underlying medical condition are now permitted under ‘exceptional circumstances’ to work from home full-time until further advised,” the UN recommended.

Outside New York, the UN has asked nine countries to delay the rotations of their UN peacekeeping forces by three months because of the coronavirus outbreak, Agence France-Presse reported on March 6. The countries are Cambodia, China, France, India, Italy, Germany, Nepal, South Korea and Thailand, all of which have experienced significant outbreaks of the Covid-19 virus.

On a minor note, some cafes in the UN headquarters will be closed or have shorter hours as of March 16, because of the “reduced demand as many staff are now telecommuting,” the UN said.

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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