US Warns UN Session, With Over 110 World Leaders, Could Be A COVID-19 ‘Super Spreader’

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The United Nations, perhaps never in its 76-year history, has held a General Assembly session characterized by risks that could trigger the spread of a deadly disease in a city where Covid-19 Delta variant infections are on the rise.

In a letter to the 192 UN missions, the United States has warned it does not want the upcoming sessions, beginning September 21, where over 110 world leaders, foreign ministers and visiting delegations are expected to participate, to be a “super spreader” of Covid-19.

The letter says: “The United States, as the Host Country of the UN Headquarters, bears a significant responsibility and we need your support to prevent UNGA 76 High-Level Week from being a super-spreader event.”

The Covid-19 pandemic “continues to pose a significant health risk around the world, with the Delta variant necessitating enhanced mitigation measures given its virulence among fully vaccinated and unvaccinated persons alike”.

Cases and hospitalizations are increasing significantly in the United States, says the letter, addressed to heads of UN missions.

“All counties in New York City are currently rated as having the highest level of community transmission. We must continue to make every effort to protect health infrastructure here and abroad.”

But the crucial dilemma facing Secretary-General António Guterres is that he has “limited authority” on mandating Heads of States and delegations to get vaccinated before they enter the UN building.

That’s a mandate that could only be part of a resolution adopted by the 193-member General Assembly, even though the current President has already issued a warning.

New York city Mayor Bill di Blasio said on September 15 the city will be opening “a pop-up testing and vaccination site at UN headquarters next week and provide free Covid-19 tests, as well as the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccines” which will be made available to all visiting heads of state, delegations and even UN staffers based in New York.

But, according to diplomatic protocol, no one can compel a head of state or head of government to vaccinate before entering the UN building.

At a press briefing September 17, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield was asked whether she was worried about the visit of world leaders to the UN next week despite fears of the spread of COVID-19—and, in particular, the visit of the Brazilian president, who says he’s unvaccinated.

“Well, that’s exactly what our letter said, that we are concerned about the UN event being a super-spreader event,” the US envoy said, “and that we need to take all measures to ensure that it does not become a super-spreader event. Every single visitor coming into the United States, they’re all required to show proof that they’ve had a negative COVID test. We’re also putting mitigation efforts around the city, including, as I mentioned, a truck outside the United Nations building that will provide COVID testing and provide the COVID vaccine.

“But, look, leaders have to be responsible and they have to take responsibility for their actions and ensure that their actions do not lead to jeopardizing the health and safety of the people of New York, of all of the participants here at the United Nations, and that they don’t take COVID back to their home countries.”

“So we are urging that all countries take the necessary measures to follow all of the procedures that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the City of New York has put in place to keep them safe—and to keep all of us safe over the course of next week,” she added.

In a joint statement with International Affairs Commissioner Penny Abeywardena, de Blasio thanked the General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives for taking the critical step of “requiring proof of vaccination” for those entering the Assembly Hall during next week’s High-Level meeting which continues through the end of September.

But there could be problems of logistics in implementing this decision.

As an alternative, the President will depend on a “honour system” where no head of state or delegations will enter the building without vaccinations—or even masks. Both will be voluntary, not mandatory gestures.

According to a Cable News Network (CNN) report on September 16, one in 500 Americans have died from coronavirus since the nation’s first reported infection. The US population now stands at an estimated 333 million.

The number of confirmed cases in New York city is over 1.0 million, with more than 34,000 deaths.

UN Spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters: “We have taken a number of mitigation measures from the Secretariat point of view, smaller footprint, mandatory mask‑wearing, mandatory vaccination for staff, etc., and also limiting the delegation size to 1 + 3 in the GA Hall to ensure that the high‑level meeting is as safe as possible.”

There was a pilot project under the previous President of the General Assembly, which basically said that, by swiping a badge to enter the GA Hall, delegates attest that they are fully vaccinated, that they have not tested positive for Covid‑19 in the last ten days and have no symptoms.

“We’re working with the current President of the General Assembly on continuing this honour system in an appropriate and acceptable way for all concerned.”

“And, obviously, I think it bears repeating that we are cooperating… we have cooperated with the Host Country and the Host City on these matters and will continue to be discussing these matters with them. We fully expect to find appropriate solutions consistent with our respective requirements and status.”

Asked if Guterres will take a risk of shaking hands with all political leaders, Dujarric said: “I think he will greet them in the appropriate Covid manner, as you will see it from all the photo ops.”

Meanwhile, the US Mission, in its letter, also discourages all face-to-face bilateral meetings which were a staple of former General Assembly sessions.

The letter from the US Mission says: “We know the UN Secretariat has already communicated some modalities for High-Level Week, but the United States needs to make clear our call, as the Host Country, for all UN-hosted meetings and side events, beyond the General Debate, to be fully virtual.”

Parallel meetings and high-level events drawing travelers to New York needlessly increases risk to our community, New Yorkers, and the other travelers.

In light of current health concerns, heads of delegation should consider delivering their statements to the UN General Assembly’s General Debate by video.

If delegations choose to travel to New York for the General Debate, the United States requests delegations bring the minimum number of travelers necessary.

In addition to these restrictions, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended mandatory mask use by all persons in UN Headquarters, social distancing (six feet), fixed seating, confirmed negative Covid-19 status to enter UN Headquarters, and, if possible, vaccination.

A contact tracing plan for UNHQ meetings is also needed, the letter said.

The United States Mission to the United Nations facilitated a conversation between the UN Medical Team and the US CDC to discuss these issues in greater detail on July 29.

“We feel strongly that these measures need to be included in the UN’s UNGA 76 High-Level Week modalities. We continue to offer further coordination with our infectious disease experts at the US CDC as needed.”

The United States is particularly concerned regarding the possibility of the UN, through the auspices of the Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly, hosting several in-person high level events during High-Level Week—possibly to include events on climate change, vaccines, the 20th Anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action, the Food Systems Summit, and the High-level Dialogue on Energy.

“We feel strongly that the General Debate should be the only event held with in-person participation during High-Level Week; the United States is willing to make every effort to make these important events on shared priorities successful in a virtual format”.

“To ensure the safety of UNGA participants and New York residents, the United States will significantly limit our in-person delegation traveling to New York, should U.S. officials travel to New York, and we encourage other member states to do the same.”

“We must each do our part in reducing the number of activities that would draw travelers to New York City at this time. The United States Mission to the United Nations avails itself of this opportunity to renew to all Permanent Missions the assurances of its highest consideration,” the letter concludes.

Thalif Deen, Senior Editor & Director, UN Bureau, Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency has been covering the United Nations since the late 1970s. Beginning with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, he has covered virtually every major U.N. conference: on population, human rights, the environment, sustainable development, food security, humanitarian aid, arms control and nuclear disarmament.

Thalif Deen

Thalif Deen, author of the book “No Comment – and Don’t Quote Me on That,” is Editor-at-Large at the Berlin-based IDN, an ex-UN staffer and a former member of the Sri Lanka delegation to the UN General Assembly sessions. A Fulbright scholar with a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University, New York, he shared the gold medal twice (2012-2013) for excellence in UN reporting awarded by the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA).

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