As outbreaks of Covid-19 cases spike again in many places worldwide, the United Nations Secretariat in New York City faces reopening decisions that pit some staff members’ interests against those of UN member states.
Pressure is coming from UN member states that want the headquarters to reopen fully with a significant number of staff in place to satisfy national delegations, who must prove the value of the UN to their home countries, say diplomats and others in the UN system.
Planning for the UN General Assembly’s annual opening session in mid-September heightens tensions. UN personnel need to be available onsite and remotely to manage the meetings of world leaders who may attend, especially during the high-level week, starting on Sept. 21.
“The UN has to respond to member states,” said Aitor Arauz, the president of the UN Staff Union. “What needs to happen is a balancing of the mandate of the organization with the need to keep everybody safe.”
He added: “New York City and Geneva are the hub for so many operations; it’s important that we are seen to be here. However, there are ways to do that with flexibility and understanding.” (Geneva and New York City are the two largest hosts of the global organization.)
Yet Covid-19’s Delta variant, affecting case numbers and related problems globally, has resulted in a waiting game for the UN and its member states regarding the format of the General Assembly high-level week — namely, how many world leaders will attend physically. New York City was the epicenter of the virus for several months at the start of the pandemic, but the number of cases began to drop once vaccines became widely available; by June this year, the numbers hit a record low in the city but are rising again in August.
In late June, after UN personnel received two different plans from the Secretariat about returning to work onsite, UN officials met with member state delegates. The result was a decision to hold a limited in-person opening session of the General Assembly this year but also allow world leaders to send videos presentations, instead of making live appearances. Health guidance was last issued by the UN to personnel on July 2, but since then, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reversed or tightened precautions and restrictions because of the Delta variant. New York City recently asked that residents resume wearing masks indoors in public spaces, though it is still not mandated.
While their Geneva counterparts are following a progressive plan to return to their offices, the direction given to UN staff in New York City, including its entities, agencies and programs, could be clearer, some personnel have told PassBlue.
[Update, Aug. 13: UN Secretary-General António Guterres messaged UN staff outlining “additional precautionary measures to ensure a safe work environment for our personnel and delegates.” These include all personnel in New York City headquarters must wear masks indoors on the premises; must report their vaccination status immediately; proof of vaccination must be given for “seated meals” at cafeterias and other dining facilities on the premises. “Further guidance on full return to work is being developed and will be issued in September,” his message also said.]
The latest development comes after two earlier directives from Guterres regarding workplace guidance on Covid-19 and UN staff. In April, he wrote to personnel based in New York City: “Although we do not yet know for certain when we will enter our Next Normal, it is not expected to be before September. You should therefore feel comfortable to plan accordingly. I am deeply aware of the impact the prolonged pandemic is having on mental health and well-being, which we continue to address.”
In early June, a revised plan came from the Secretariat, signed by Guterres. This communication requested UN staff’s partial return to office in July instead of September, assuring no reversion to what Guterres described as “pre-pandemic work patterns.” That is, practices that in light of Covid-19 may put staff at risk or disrupt previously agreed-on remote work arrangements.
Personnel were asked to return to office at least one day a week by July 6, but implementation of this request was left to the discretion of departmental leaders. Guterres also hinted at member state pressure, writing that a “gradual” return “will enable us to provide the necessary support to Member States, who are keen to resume work in the United Nations building.” (The UN has 193 member states.)
There has been pressure from some countries to have in-person presences during the high-level session of the General Assembly, although expectations are conditioned on threats by the Delta variant, a diplomatic source said. Certain member states are eager for the UN to be more visible after last year’s high-level session was nearly virtual, showing an almost-empty compound to the world in an equally quiet city.
Visibility is crucial as the UN agencies and programs rely on donations, sources say. In late July, the UN launched, for example, an appeal of $1.3 billion for humanitarian aid for Afghanistan. An appeal of $86 million to fight hunger in Myanmar was made in the first week of August.
The request that UN personnel return in July left some staff scrambling, according to Arauz and others who work at the UN. Many issues arose, from finding child care suddenly to canceling summer plans. Others hesitated about returning to New York City after riding out the pandemic in their home countries or elsewhere in the US.
An additional point of concern for personnel is the status of vaccinations for co-workers. Vaccines cannot be mandated across the UN system globally. This leaves staff in New York City possibly exposed to colleagues who may not be vaccinated, even if they are required to wear masks. While strongly suggesting all eligible staff get vaccinated, Guterres has refrained from issuing a mandate, partly for staff equality purposes. As Arauz told PassBlue, such a mandate would be unfair to colleagues who are based outside the US in regions with lower access to vaccines.
“We need to be aware of subjective perceptions,” Arauz said. “After a very tough year and a half, we don’t just need to closely track the objective dimension surrounding variants, etc, but also take into account the psychological dimension of people’s fears.”
This article was updated on Aug. 15, 2021.
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Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.