UN Secretary-General António Guterres gets vaccinated against COVID-19 at Adlai Stevenson High School in the Bronx, New York. January 2021. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe


UNITED NATIONS, Aug 16 2021 (IPS) - As New York city struggles to cope with the widespread outbreak of the deadly new coronavirus Delta variant -– which has claimed more than 100,000 cases per day in the US— the United Nations is laying down strict guidelines at its headquarters (UNHQ) for staffers, diplomats and visiting delegates.

In a letter released August 13, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says the Delta variant “is posing some challenges to our planning, and we will be taking additional precautionary measures to ensure a safe work environment for our personnel and delegates. “

The UN will continue to follow all restrictions imposed by New York, the host city for the world body. Under new restrictions announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio, proof of vaccination is mandatory to go to restaurants, bars, nightclubs, concerts, theatres and gyms—with more restrictions to follow. Those unvaccinated will be barred from these premises.

Conforming to city guidelines, the UN is expected to insist on proof of vaccination to use several of the dining facilities in the Secretariat building and also mandatory in-house mask-wearing.

“In order to align UNHQ’s approach to indoor dining with that of NYC’s guidance, we will soon require proof of vaccination for seated meals at cafeterias and other dining facilities on premises.,” says Guterres.

Further guidance on full return to work is being developed and will be issued in September.

To ensure adequate protection for all colleagues, effective August 13, all UN personnel must wear masks when indoors on premises. “We will reassess this requirement as conditions warrant.”

The letter says the most significant driver of COVID19-related risk is vaccination status. Accurate information on the vaccination status of staff is therefore essential to determine risk and appropriate mitigation strategies.

Aitor Arauz, President of the UN Staff Union in New York and Vice-President, UN International Civil Servants’ Federation (UNISERV), told IPS: “We are dealing with simultaneous crises in Haiti and Afghanistan, where the UN has a lot of staff currently in danger.”

“What I can say on the issue of dining facilities at UNHQ is that, as a general principle, since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, the Staff Union has supported close alignment with host city and NY State guidelines; an approach that provides staff a sense of coherence and consistency”.

However, he cautioned, enforcement of these particular measures may prove a challenge given the particularities of our working environment.

Ian Richards, former President of the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (CCISUA) told IPS requiring proof of vaccination in duty stations where all have had a chance to get jabbed is a sensible way to get things up-and-running again while keeping staff and diplomats safe.

“We’re looking forward to similar measures in Europe and in due course elsewhere,” said Richards, who is based in Geneva.

Meanwhile, the UN has placed several TV monitors outside committee rooms, primarily aimed at diplomats and visiting delegates, with warnings that read: “No face to-face meetings unless individually risk-assessed; 2 people per elevator; Lower your mask and present your valid UN ID when requested by Security: By swiping your valid UN ID you confirm that in the past 14 days you have no Covid-19 symptoms, no positive Covid-19 rest result; and no close contact with a confirmed or suspected Covid-19 case.”

In several US cities and businesses, the ultimatum is more severe than the UN: “Get Vaccinated or Get Fired.”

At the Winchester Medical Center, nurses were told: “Get the shot or face termination”. In Sacramento, California, the Mayor has insisted that all new hires and current city employees should get vaccinated, or face being terminated. Both proposals are getting major pushback from unions, who say workers have the right to choose.

In Washington state, Governor Jay Inslee announced that some 60,000 employees will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 if they want to keep their jobs.

The governor’s proclamation has given state workers until Oct. 18 to become fully vaccinated, with few exceptions. And employees who do not provide proof of vaccination will be dismissed from employment, unless they qualify for a medical or religious exemption.

Since December last year, more than 353 million doses have been administered, fully vaccinating over 167 million people or 50.4% of the total U.S. population.

The rest remain unvaccinated– either for personal, political or medical reasons. But the UN does not have a head count as to how many of its more than 3,000 staffers in New York have been vaccinated.

Dr Palitha Kohona, a former Chief of the UN Treaty Section, told IPS that as a vital member of the New York community, the UN also has a responsibility to contribute to the city’s efforts to contain the spread of the dreaded Covid19.

“The UN enjoys wide immunities under international law but the virus does not recognize rights and immunities invented by man,” he pointed out.

Many of the staff members, he said, live in communities scattered in places far from the Head Office and travel to work. They could be exposed to the virus.

“The restrictions imposed by the Organization are for the protection of all. Most importantly, the Organization must further refine options for working from home”.

“With modern technology, this should not pose too many difficulties”, said Dr Kohona, a former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations.

Meanwhile, the letter from Guterres also says all staff at UNHQ, in consideration of the need to protect one another, will be required to report their vaccination status including through EarthMed with immediate effect.

In addition, any personnel who has been on site and has a positive COVID-19 or Antigen test result must report the results immediately to the Division of Healthcare Management and Occupational Safety and Health through the confidential self-reporting portal (medical.un.org) in order to ensure effective risk mitigation at the workplace.

“I continue to be very grateful to those staff who have been working on premises throughout the pandemic, either because their functions could not be performed remotely or when remote work would have impacted their effectiveness and efficiency,” says Guterres.

“I particularly commend those who did so when we did not have the protection of vaccination. As the presence of unvaccinated staff potentially increases the risk for other staff members, whether vaccinated or not, vaccinations will be mandated for staff performing certain tasks and/or certain occupational groups at UNHQ whose functions do not allow sufficient management of exposure.”

This mandate may be waived where a recognized medical condition prevents vaccination.

Those staff members who will be required to be vaccinated must receive the final dose of a vaccine no later than 19 September 2021.

Any COVID-19 vaccine that is recognized by the WHO, or under routine approved-use by a Member State’s national health authority, is accepted. Affected staff will be notified by their respective offices during the week of 16 August.

“As personnel serving in New York, we are privileged to have access to effective vaccines through local vaccination programmes. In addition to requiring certain staff to be vaccinated, I strongly encourage all personnel who have not already done so to take advantage of this opportunity to be vaccinated to promote your safety and health and all those around you.”

“The situation continues to be monitored and the possibility of additional measures announced will remain under consideration and will be reviewed and adapted as needed,” says Guterres.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that United Airlines, Amtrak, Capital One, McDonald’s, Facebook, Disney, Netflix and Google, among others, have joined a growing list of companies to mandate vaccines for all or some workers.