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, the UN 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. As the spokesperson said, the UN is operating “with a different approach, but our essential services to serve member states and go to support staff in the field will continue.”
[Updates: As of noon March 16, the UN spokesperson said one person who works in the UN Secretariat building in New York has tested positive for the virus. 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. The same day, the head of the World Food Program, David Beasley, announced he had the virus.
Total reported cases of Covid-19 of UN personnel, as of March 20: 24. March 23: 39. March 26: 78. March 27: 86. Mostly based in Europe but also in Africa, Asia, Middle East and the United States. More details below.]
The Security Council postponed all of its meetings the week of March 15, but held “consultations” — a closed meeting — on March 24, by videoconference. Discussions are underway as to what will be done when the Council must vote on renewing mission mandates, including the one on Darfur, scheduled for March 26 but since delayed. [See details under March 25-26, below.]
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 this week (March 20) and 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.”
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).
Friday, March 27
• While some nations have proposed a draft resolution for the General Assembly to address the pandemic (see March 26 update, below), Russia proposed a declaration. Circulated late today, it promotes “solidarity in countering the coronavirus” and suggests abandoning “trade wars and unilateral sanctions.”
It also suggests “recognizing the leading role of the WHO in combating the pandemic; envisages consent of states to cooperate with each other and with the WHO, i.a. in order to develop methods that should stop the spread and ensure treatment of the COVID-19 disease; provide assistance to the most vulnerable states, especially developing countries; abandon trade wars and unilateral sanctions adopted in circumvention of the UN Security Council; prevent discrimination of states, peoples and individuals with regard to the pandemic; counter financial speculations in basic necessity items; recognize the need to spread only reliable and science-based information about the pandemic.”
• The 2020 review conference of the Parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty has been postponed, but to no later than April 2021, according to a UN announcement.
• For the first time ever, several UN top leaders held a joint briefing by videoconference from New York headquarters for member states and the public, detailing the latest status and work of the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council as well as the Secretariat (led by Secretary-General Guterres). The president of the General Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad Bande, originated the joint briefing.
Each speaker touched on various matters, from practical to technical to philosophical, taking questions from UN member nations, like a media briefing, with many diplomats asking about the Council’s current lack of transparency since the UN physically shut down in New York and the Council has been meeting by videoconference. For the full briefing, go here. Highlights:
Tijjani Muhammad Bande, the president of the General Assembly and a Nigerian, spoke about the landmark political declaration on universal health coverage, endorsed at last year’s annual session, in which most world leaders (except, for example, the US) “committed to scale up national and global efforts to build a healthier world for all.” He added: “Communities around the world are now experiencing at a deeper level the message expressed by world leaders in September: that health is an investment in human capital, social and economic development and the empowerment of all people.”
Ambassador Zhang Jun of China, president of the Security Council in March, discussed the disruption of the virus on the Council’s working methods and how the members have adapted technologically by holding informal meetings by videoteleconference, or VTC. Not all members, such as Russia, as has been reported widely, have relished the changes, but Zhang emphasized: “What’s true is that the new situation does create a lot of difficulties through maintaining transparency, but we are working very hard on that.” So far, the Council agenda has focused on hot spot issues, he added, such as Libya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Council also issued statements condemning recent attacks in Afghanistan and against peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. The Council is also readying to “act soon on several draft resolutions,” he noted, though the method, possibly by written letter sent by email, is being ironed out.
Mona Juul of Norway is president of the Economic and Social Council, which focuses mostly on the UN’s progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. Juul warned that although the Council has not stopped working, the pandemic poses threats to development gains, particularly in poor countries. “Beyond immediate humanitarian aid, developing countries will need support to lessen the overall socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis. In this, the UN must play a key role,” Juul said.
Secretary-General Guterres, who is from Portugal, noted that UN resident coordinators and country teams are working on the “frontlines,” engaging with national authorities to prepare response plans to the virus. He also reiterated his calls earlier this week for a global ceasefire, a $2 billion humanitarian response fund for poor countries and to stop hate crimes targeting people perceived to be associated with spreading the coronavirus.
He also announced a new communications strategy to fighting misinformation around the pandemic.
• The UN spokesperson told the media, among other topics: there are no plans for now for the UN headquarters to return to in‑house meetings and the number of swipes into the building today was 140. In Geneva, the number of people coming to the Palais des Nations has dropped from around 4,000 people on a regular day to about 70 yesterday. In UN offices in Vienna, more than 97 per cent of staff are working remotely. In Addis Ababa, most of the UN staff are telecommuting.
Thursday, March 26
• Guterres’s call for a global cease-fire on March 23 was heard by leaders and others in Yemen, the Philippines, Syria and Cameroon. Guterres had asked the world “to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives”– the pandemic:
- On Tuesday, March 24, Communist guerillas in the Philippines said they would observe a cease-fire in compliance with Guterres’s demand.
- A day later, the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen decided to support the cease-fire as well, a moved that the rebel Houthi leaders “welcomed.” The UN envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said he was heartened to see the positive responses to Guterres’s call for a cease-fire from government of Yemen and the Ansar Allah (Houthis).
- A few hours later, the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (Socadef) in Cameroon announced a similar decision. Guterres said he “reiterates his call for renewed dialogue that will address all relevant issues in the North-West and South-West regions of Cameroon and that will put an end to the violence and human suffering. He reiterates the readiness of the United Nations to assist the authorities and the people of Cameroon in this regard.”
• The UN reports that systemwide, there are now 78 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The first reported case by the UN was announced on March 16, with a staff member who works at the New York headquarters confirmed with having the virus. The UN says it has stopped tracking the numbers of personnel geographically. Previously recorded cases of UN personnel systemwide: March 23: 39; March 20: 24; March 16: 1.
• The Chinese mission to the UN announced that the Security Council was meeting by videoconference on March 26 to discuss the UN mission in Libya, but it also said: “As of now, the system is not accessible to media and public, as limited number of people can be online at the same time.” It turns out that is not true, as the UN spokesperson confirmed that the meetings can be done live-streamed.
• Meanwhile, the Russian mission to the UN tweeted about the Council’s virtual meeting today, which remained a closed session and therefore unavailable to the public. Russia says, nevertheless, “Security Council remains active.”
• The clamor for action by the UN Security Council to respond to the potential threat of the pandemic on global peace and security heightened today on social media. As our op-ed essay called on the Council to take up its duty to act and a similar call was made in an essay on Just Security, news broke by NBC News that the Council was fighting over producing a possible declaration or resolution addressing the pandemic.
But the demand by the US to insert language on the origins of the virus, in Wuhan, China, was rejected by the Chinese diplomats. Diplomats from three nations on the Council told PassBlue today that the French-led resolution and/or declaration was now dead. An earlier resolution, drafted by Estonia, was rejected by some member states because, as one diplomat said, “It was going into areas that are the purview of other UN bodies.”
• Meanwhile, some members of the General Assembly are working on a draft resolution on the coronavirus. A diplomat told PassBlue that there are many initiatives underway by member states to address the issue. PassBlue obtained an exclusive copy of a draft General Assembly resolution that “calls for international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat the pandemic, including by exchanging information, scientific knowledge, and best practices, and by applying the relevant WHO recommended guidelines.”
The resolution does not name China as the country of origin for the virus, the language pushed by the US in the Security Council on a draft document. Instead, the General Assembly draft resolution emphasizes “the need for full respect for human rights and stresses further that there is no place for any form of discrimination, racism and xenophobia in the response to the pandemic.”
• UN spokesperson Dujarric held another virtual media briefing, focusing on, among other topics, Secretary-General Guterres’s remarks to the G-20 virtual summit meeting today (see below); the situation in Syria, where the WHO is shipping ventilators and other goods to people in the northwest; confirmed the first case of the virus in Libya, where fighting continues in and around Tripoli; and though there are no confirmed cases of the virus in South Sudan, UN agencies are helping people to prepare for it.
• Secretary-General Guterres participated in the G-20 summit virtual meeting on the pandemic today, in the UN’s status as “observer.” The meeting of the most powerful nations in the world produced a statement saying they are “committed to do whatever it takes to overcome the pandemic,” noting they would work with the World Health Organization, the UN and other related bodies to do so. Guterres said the meeting “was an important step in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go for a truly concerted and effective global leadership in response to this pandemic and its impact.”
Guterres’s remarks to the G-20 focused on three “critical areas for concerted G-20 action”:
¶ Suppressing the transmission of Covid-19 as quickly as possible through a “coordinated G-20 response mechanism guided by WHO”;
¶ Calling for a global stimulus package to help developing nations, by providing “greater resources for the International Monetary Fund and other International Financial Institutions” and waiving unilateral and other sanctions;
¶ Promoting global recovery through the Sustainable Development Goals.
Wednesday, March 25
• The International Civil Aviation Organization announced it was helping humanitarian flight operations of the UN during Covid-19 to deliver “relief staff” and supplies to areas in need through a new app. As airports close globally, the app monitors government aeronautical information for up-to-the-minute airport updates.
• The saga of the UN Security Council meeting virtually — for the first time in its history and having not met physically since March 12 — goes on. Although it met on March 24 by videoconference to informally discuss the status of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there were hitches galore, including no simultaneous translators (everyone had to speak English) and Internet drops, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.
The Security Council is meeting by videoconference next on March 26, on Libya (Unsmil). It remains to be seen how the Council will vote on three outstanding mandates (nonproliferation-North Korea; Darfur peacekeeping mission; and Unsom, the Somalia mission), which was supposed to happen tomorrow but appears to be delayed. Russia reportedly refuses to allow a vote in a virtual session. So the current proposal is for the Council president (this month, China) to send a letter by email to each of the 15 members to “indicate that the resolutions in blue are to be voted on,” according to one diplomat. The members send letters back to the Chinese ambassador, by email, indicating their country’s vote. After the vote has ended, the results are announced, by another letter!
• In other Security Council business, Agence France-Presse also reported that an Estonia-led declaration on the pandemic has kept the Council at odds, particularly with China and the US blocking the statement. Our op-ed published today argues that the Council is “missing in action” in acting on the crisis as it poses a threat to international peace and security.
• The UN launched a $2 billion global humanitarian emergency response plan for Covid-19, with Secretary-General Guterres joined virtually by Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization; Henrietta Fore, Unicef’s executive director; and Mark Lowcock, the under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs. The press conference was moderated by Melissa Fleming, who heads UN global communications.
“At the United Nations, we are especially concerned about the impact COVID-19 will have on fragile countries with weak health systems and vulnerable populations, particularly in camps or camplike settings and on malnourished children and on those with chronic diseases,” Fleming began the videoconference. “With only a small number of cases so far having been reported in countries already facing humanitarian crises, we expect these numbers to rise. So, next, the United Nations is focussed on ensuring that essential humanitarian relief operations continue while we also respond to this pandemic where WHO is in the lead.”
Highlights of the humanitarian appeal, if “properly funded,” Guterres said: “will save many lives and arm humanitarian agencies and NGOs with laboratory supplies for testing, and with medical equipment to treat the sick while protecting health care workers”; and will provide more measures “to support host communities that continue to generously open their homes and towns to refugees and displaced persons.”
Dr. Ghebreyesus outlined additional benefits of the plan, including increasing surveillance and lab testing so that people with the virus can be identified quickly and isolated safely – helping to break the chains of transmission; prioritizing treatment for those at highest risk of severe illness; slowing, suppressing and stopping transmission to reduce the burden on health care facilities; and protecting the health and humanitarian supply chain so that front-line workers are protected and can travel freely as they work.
The full press briefing, with media questions, is here.
• UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called on governments “to take urgent action to protect the health and safety of people in detention and other closed facilities, as part of overall efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Covid-19 has begun to strike prisons, jails and immigration detention centres, as well as residential care homes and psychiatric hospitals, and risks rampaging through such institutions’ extremely vulnerable populations,” said Bachelet.
“In many countries, detention facilities are overcrowded, in some cases dangerously so. People are often held in unhygienic conditions and health services are inadequate or even non-existent. Physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible,” she added.
• PassBlue published an op-ed essay by Mona Ali Khalil, a former a legal affairs expert in the UN Office of the Legal Counsel, on the Security Council missing in action on addressing the pandemic’s threats to international peace and security. Khalil now operates Maklaw.org, an international legal advisory and consulting service.
• A notice from the UN Conference on Trade and Development said the global maritime industry has called on “all governments to keep maritime trade moving by allowing commercial ships continued access to ports worldwide and by facilitating the rapid changeover of ships’ crews should not go unheeded.” Around 80 percent of global trade is transported by commercial shipping, which moves the world’s food, energy and raw materials, as well as manufactured goods and components, according to Unctad statistics.
• Echoing his appeal on March 24 to all warring parties across the globe for a ceasefire, UN Secretary-General Guterres calls on those fighting in Yemen to immediately cease all battles and focus instead on a negotiated political settlement and do everything possible to counter a potential outbreak of Covid-19. The current fighting in Al Jawf and Ma’rib threatens to further deepen human suffering.
Tuesday, March 24
• Members of the UN Security Council met today in an informal consultation — that is, a private meeting — on the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It appears to have been a successful meeting, and China, as president of the Council this month, released “press elements” by email to journalists. But tensions have been rising as to whether the Council will hold its March 26 meeting by videoconference or by meeting physically, either in the UN or at another location, one diplomat said. It is the first time the Council will be meeting openly in almost two weeks. (It postponed all of its meetings last week.) Russia, one source familiar with the debate, is insisting on holding the March 26 meeting physically. But another diplomat said that won’t happen. The Council has until Wednesday evening to decide, another source said.
• Secretary-General Guterres sent a letter to the G20, who are holding a virtual emergency meeting on March 26 to respond to the pandemic, outlining three “critical areas for discussion and decision-making” at the meeting:
• Several members of the UN Security Council have been tweeting about its testing a videoconferencing method to meet, including Dmitry Polyanskiy, the deputy permanent representative of Russia, who pinned a tweet on March 19:
Other countries that are keeping the public informed via Twitter on the Security Council’s work are Indonesia, Belgium, Germany and France. The USUN Twitter account has been silent on the topic. China is mostly tweeting about the country’s progress in fighting the virus and helping other countries with equipment and other services. The UK mission to the UN retweeted Secretary-General Guterres’s appeal for a “global ceasefire.”
• Geir Pedersen, the UN envoy for Syria, echoed UN Secretary-General Guterres’s appeal on March 23 to warring parties globally for an immediate cease-fire to tackle Covid-19. “Today, I am appealing specifically for a complete, immediate nationwide ceasefire throughout Syria to enable an all-out-effort to suppress COVID-19 in Syria. Syrians are acutely vulnerable to COVID-19,” Pedersen said in a statement.
• We wrote about the sticky question of what happens to the top UN leadership should the secretary-general become sick or otherwise disabled. The line of succession is already established, but it wasn’t always the case. Two nuggets in the piece: the number of UN personnel with Covid-19 has climbed to 39 systemwide, from 24 on March 20. And Secretary-General Guterres, who is still going to the UN headquarters to work, has not been tested.
Monday, March 23
• Jeffrey Laurenti, a former analyst with the Century Foundation and UN expert who is on the board of PassBlue, has been stranded in Tunisia — until today — amid the coronavirus pandemic, unable to get a flight back to the US. He has been posting his travails and adventures on his Facebook page. We published his odyssey just as he told us by email that he finally got a flight out of Tunisia to Madrid and onward to home: Trenton, N.J.
• UN Secretary-General Guterres held his second virtual media briefing in the last week. This time, he took a few more questions, mostly from mainstream media, to announce he was appealing for a “global ceasefire.” This is crucial, he noted, “To help create corridors for life-saving aid. To open precious windows for diplomacy.”
• The Norway mission to the UN announced the country is taking the initiative to create a multidonor fund at the UN to help developing countries with weak health systems to address the coronavirus crisis. The fund, the Norwegian ministry of foreign affairs, said, “will better equip the UN to help developing countries to tackle the long-term consequences of the coronavirus crisis.” It added: “The initiative was well received by UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed. The UN has responded quickly and is aiming to launch the fund shortly, perhaps within the next few days.”
Norway is running for a Security Council seat for the 2021-22 term, vying with Ireland and Canada for the two open seats in the Western and Others Regional Group. The election is scheduled for June.
Friday, March 20
• Diplomats for UN member states are still working, despite the lockdown in New York City. In our newest podcast episode, we interviewed four diplomats, from Costa Rica, Lebanon, Norway and Russia, by Zoom to see how they were faring as they held meetings online, in the throes of the pandemic. Although they remained optimistic about the new mode of working, the Norwegian ambassador said that diplomats meeting virtually “can never really completely replace the interaction we have across the table.”
• Some members of the UN Security Council announced on their Twitter accounts that the Council tried out a videoconference meeting to possibly put into play next week, a first for the august body. The diplomats are shown arranged in the grid alphabetically, below, starting with Belgium, top left. For close observers of the Council and the members themselves, this is a new era.
• The UN will keep what it considers its essential staff at work next week, starting on March 23, despite New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new executive order today to keep all workers at home because of the coronavirus. At the UN in New York, located on about 18 riverside acres in East Midtown, the building is still open and will remain so for essential personnel, the UN spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, told PassBlue.
The UN started taking precautions last Friday, March 13, when Secretary-General Guterres ordered all of its personnel, with some exceptions, to work from home, so it is already compliant with most of Cuomo’s new order, Dujarric said. Right now, only some security and cleaning staff as well as some high-level personnel are working at the headquarters. Guterres still comes in from time to time, when necessary.
Cuomo’s order listed the essential businesses that can stay open, including grocers and restaurants, health care providers, pharmacies, gas stations, convenience stores, banks, hardware stores, laundromats and cleaners, child-care providers, auto repair shops, utility companies, warehouses and distributors, delivery services, plumbers and other skilled contractors, animal-care providers, transportation providers, construction companies and many kinds of manufacturers.
Yet the executive order, which takes effect Sunday at 8 p.m., does not refer to the UN. Does that leave the world body, which is technically international territory, in a legally gray area?
The UN Headquarters Agreement states: “The Secretary-General and the appropriate American authorities shall settle by agreement the channels through which they will communicate regarding the application of the provisions of this agreement and other questions affecting the headquarters district, and may enter into such supplemental agreements as may be necessary to fulfill the purposes of this agreement. In making supplemental agreements with the Secretary-General, the United States shall consult with the appropriate state and local authorities. If the Secretary-General so requests, the Secretary of State of the United States shall appoint a special representative for the purpose of liaison with the Secretary-General.”
The Agreement signals there may be space for negotiations between the UN and US authorities.
One independent expert on UN protocols and procedures says the development of the new directive may be “very unchartered territory,” but that “I’m rather sure this will be worked out informally between New York State/New York City authorities and the UN, in the event the UN wants to keep the premises partially accessible to diplomats and UN staff.”
New York State, which has 6 percent of the US population, currently accounts for around half of all Covid-19 cases nationwide, totaling 7,800 as of March 20.
• According to a statement from the UN spokesperson: The president-designate and the bureau of the 2020 review conference of the parties to the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) are “closely monitoring the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the United Nations Headquarters.”
It added: “Following the guidelines suggested by the Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance, the bureau completed a risk assessment of the review conference. On that basis, the president-designate on March 13, 2020, wrote to the NPT political groups to propose the postponement of the 2020 review conference to a later date after a short, procedural meeting on April 27, conditions permitting. This proposal is currently under a silence procedure.”
• The UN spokesperson held his noon briefing remotely, from his home in New York. Highlights: 24 reported cases of UN personnel with the virus so far systemwide, with 2 of those in the UN Secretariat in New York. (The UN is not releasing specific departments’ numbers.) David Beasley, the head of World Food Program, has reported positive for the coronavirus; and traffic into UNHQ in New York has dropped to 247 “swipes” today; normal day (including tourists): 11,000.
• The Italian ministry of foreign affairs just launched a campaign, using the hashtags #WeAreItaly #StayTunedOnIt, “to promote the most creative and vital Italy in the world in the days of the Coronavirus has just started,” a statement read from the Italian mission to the UN. The death toll from the coronavirus rose to 3,405, overtaking the total number of deaths so far registered in China, officials said on March 19.
• Alessandra Vellucci, the director of the UN Information Service in Geneva, said that the Swiss government had not yet declared full containment of the country, so for the time being, the Palais des Nations remained fully open and functional. The building houses the UN agencies based in Geneva. The media were briefed remotely:
• At the media briefing in Geneva, Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization, said that as of the evening of March 19, the number of coronavirus cases worldwide had exceeded 200,000; it had taken three months to reach the first 100,000 cases and only 12 days to reach the next 100,000. This was a typical curve of the pandemic, Lindmeier said, and it showed where the focus of action had to be: “on reducing the number of new cases to give everybody time to adapt, cope and treat as many patients as possible. Additional time was needed to catch up with the production of the necessary medical materials and equipment, and to search for the vaccine.”
He added: Testing, treating and tracing contacts remained of utmost importance.
• Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, highlighted the concern for the 100 million people living in war zones and other emergency settings who depended on the UN humanitarian assistance. “As the virus reached the places, the consequences could be devastating. The humanitarian imperative was to keep getting the life-saving help to people in need and take action to avoid the potentially catastrophic impact of COVID-19,” he said.
• The head of the World Food Program, David Beasley, announced he tested positive for Covid-19. An American from South Carolina, where he had been a governor, Beasley wrote to the staff at the agency: “I began feeling unwell this past weekend after returning to my home in the United States from an official visit to Canada and I took an early decision to go into self-quarantine, five days ago.”
He added: “So far, my symptoms have been relatively light, and I am in good spirits. I am lucky to be close to my family and I have access to excellent medical support. I am now urgently working with my team at WFP to trace back anyone, who I might have been in close contact with at a time when I was unaware of my infection. We have already started the process of reaching out to alert each and every one of them so that they are made aware that there is a risk that they too may be infected with the virus.”
Kelly Craft, the US ambassador to the UN, tweeted:
Nikki Haley had recommended Beasley for the UN job when she was US envoy to the UN.
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
• 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.
• 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:
And a titillating detail captured here, from the above screen shot:
• 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.
• 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
• China, as president of the UN Security Council in March, sent a letter to the UN saying all Council meetings this week are postponed; that the Council is considering a “physical” meeting next week to adopt resolutions; and that Council members are being encouraged to prepare for VTC meetings.
• The Cuban mission to the UN sent a notice saying, “Last March 13, the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland requested from the Cuban authorities that MS Braemar, a member of the Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, be authorized to dock in a Cuban port and that its passengers, a small number of which have been affected by the novel coronavirus (SARS CoV 2/Covid-19), be cleared for repatriation by air.” It said:
• Despite having to cancel its annual St. Patrick’s Day event, the Irish mission to the UN asked colleagues across the institution to ask their children to decorate their windows with St. Patrick Day’s artwork.
• The Security Council Report, an independent research group, revised the latest news on Security Council business: At the moment, the only mandate renewal that needs to be adopted by the end of the month is that of the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), which will expire then. The adoption is currently scheduled for 25 March.
The 16 March program of work of the Council also indicates an adoption for the extension of the mandate of the Panel of Experts assisting the 1718 Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Sanctions committee, on 26 March. This mandate does not expire until 24 April, however.
Finally, in accordance with resolution 2495, the Council expressed its intention to “decide by 31 March 2020, courses of action regarding the responsible drawdown and exit of UNAMID…and…to adopt a new resolution at the same time, establishing a follow-on presence to UNAMID.
This has been planned for 26 March, but it is possible to delay this decision without affecting UNAMID’s current mandate, which expires on 31 October 2020.”
• The noon briefing with the UN spokesperson touched on numerous Covid-19 related topics, noting that the UN will continue as much as possible to do in-person briefings at the headquarters. In addition, worldwide, “UN teams are also working with authorities to support national preparedness and response plans around the COVID-19, including immediate health priorities and broader social and economic impacts.
In several countries, UN teams are temporarily providing full-time staff members to support Governments, providing additional expertise in areas such as public health, humanitarian and emergency response, as well as community awareness and risk communications. Different UN entities are fast-tracking procurement of essential items for the national response, while upholding international transparency standards. Our teams are also supporting Governments to get emergency funding for their COVID-19 plans, including from the World Bank.”
In the question-and-answer part of the briefing, the spokesperson said: “A staff member who has tested positive is well and has not had any contact with any other UN personnel since before the onset of symptoms.
We do not expect this or any other infections amongst UN personnel in New York to have a critical impact on our business because of the very strong risk mitigation measures we’ve been taking for more than a week now, including reducing greatly our footprint.”
For his full remarks, go here.
• The US State Department announced that Mark Green, the administrator of Usaid, the development arm in the State Department, is leaving the job next month to work in the private sector. “Since his tenure as Administrator began in August 2017, he has worked to make USAID a stronger, more responsive agency – one that is defined and driven by the deep compassion of the American people,” Secretary of State Pompeo said in a statement.
• 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
• 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 #UNSC will not meet next week thx to #COVID19. 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.