IPS UN Bureau Report
(IPS) – The United Nations is planning to host a high-level “in-person” General Assembly session, September 20-26, with over 190 world leaders and delegates listed to speak, including heads of state, heads of government, high-ranking ministers and senior officials.
The world body is apparently on a risky path, with hundreds of delegates due in New York for the opening of the 77th session—and, most worryingly, at a time when a new Covid-19 variant BA.5 is sweeping across the United States, including New York.
In a letter addressed to the President of the General Assembly, E. Courtenay Rattray Chef de Cabinet, says “while there is strong support for the return to a pre-pandemic General Debate, as reflected by the level of inscriptions by Member States in the provisional list of speakers– and an improvement in the environment as compared to the last two years– we also recognize that we are not free from the Coronavirus and its impact.”
“As such, there is a need to be prudent in our facilitation of the General Debate and High-level Week.”
Under a business-as-usual scenario, occupancy at UN Headquarters will increase significantly this September, particularly in meeting rooms and in the General Assembly and Conference buildings.
“With a view to mitigating this impact, our planning assumptions reflect an emphasis on basic protective measures and a decrease in the number of attendees, as much as reasonably possible”, the letter said.
On July 21, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre formally announced that US President Joe Biden, who is scheduled to address the General Assembly on September 20, tested positive for COVID-19.
“He is fully vaccinated and twice boosted and experiencing very mild symptoms. He has begun taking Paxlovid. Consistent with CDC guidelines, he will isolate at the White House and will continue to carry out all of his duties fully during that time,” she added.
In a July 20 report, Cable News Network (CNN) said “in the United States, BA.5 has become the dominant strain and is driving a significant spike in cases — more than 120,000 a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), though experts say that number may be more like 1 million, given the underreporting of home test results.
Europe, meanwhile, has seen a tripling of new Covid-19 infections over the past six weeks, with nearly 3 million reported last week, accounting for almost half of all new cases worldwide. Hospital admissions in Europe over the same period have doubled.
“The end of the last remaining restrictions on international travel and return of large gatherings, like music festivals, are among the factors helping the virus to spread, experts say. And the number of cases may actually be higher than data shows because countries have significantly pared back testing and surveillance, making it difficult to judge the true extent of the current surge’, said CNN.
Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that the spike in infections was a harbinger of an even worse situation to come, calling on countries to urgently reintroduce mitigation strategies before it was too late.
“It’s now abundantly clear we’re in a similar situation to last summer — only this time the ongoing Covid-19 wave is being propelled by sub-lineages of the Omicron variant, notably BA.2 and BA.5, with each dominant sub-lineage of Omicron showing clear transmission advantages over the previously circulating viruses,” WHO’s regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, said in a statement.
Though intensive care admissions remain relatively low, as infection rates rise among older populations, deaths are mounting — almost 3,000 people a week are dying from Covid in Europe.
But in order to protect delegates and staff alike, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, having considered the recommendations of the UN’s Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Committee, has decided on the following guidelines:
** As a condition of entry to the compound, all persons will be required to attest that they have not had symptoms of, or been diagnosed with, COVID-19 in the last 5 days.
** Masks are to be worn by all attendees at all times when indoors, except when directly addressing a meeting or consuming food/beverages.
** Apart from a limited number of high-level side events, for which preparations are well under way, side events are to be conducted virtually or off-site.
** United Nations departments and offices will not be hosting or co-hosting in-person side events or luncheons during the high-level week.
** Bilateral booths will be available with seating for 2 principals and 6 advisers (3 per side).
** Permanent Missions are encouraged to manage COVID-19 cases and determine any subsequent action regarding case exposures among their own attendees and guests, including notification to other delegations or to the President of the General Assembly.
** United Nations staff who are not required to be on-site to support the proceedings will be mandated to work remotely for the full week.
Further information, including the number of access cards provided for the General Assembly Hall, will be contained in an Information Note for delegations that will be issued as A/INF/77/4.
“The Organization will continue to closely monitor the COVID-19 metrics in New York City. Therefore, the steps outlined above remain subject to modification should conditions change, as the Secretariat continues to ensure that the work of the Organization is conducted as safely and effectively as possible,” letter said.
After several on-again, off-again pandemic lockdowns, the United Nations returned to near-normal beginning March 2022.
A circular from Guterres said “based on the new guidelines, we are now able to institute associated changes in our workplace, returning to full operational capability while still prioritizing the health and safety of personnel, and balancing the operational needs of the Organization”.
Guided by the Senior Emergency Policy Team and the Occupational Safety and Health Committee in New York, mask use was voluntary throughout the UN building and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), mostly denied entry since March 2020, were given access to the UN premises.