By Thalif Deen
Amid fears of the current General Assembly sessions in danger of being a “super spreader” of the Delta virus—among hundreds of delegates attending a two-week long meeting through end September—the United Nations has alerted its staff about an unnamed delegate testing positive.
“We were informed that in yesterday’s plenary meeting of the General Assembly, a Member State delegate was present between 8 am and 11 am, who tested positive for COVID-19 later in the day. The Permanent Mission informed the Division of Health Care Management and Occupational Safety and Health (DHMOSH), in accordance with the protocol.”
DHMOSH has examined the circumstances of a potential exposure to UN staff present in the General Assembly hall area while contact-tracing is being finalized.
The letter to staffers from the UN’s Department of Operational Support says UN staff who might have been in contact with the infected person will be notified individually and guided through next steps.
For all other UN staff, a potential virus transmission is very unlikely. At present, no close contacts amongst UN staff have been identified, the letter said.
“In addition, all UN staff servicing yesterday’s meeting are vaccinated and therefore have a low risk of being infected. The Member State has confirmed and that the complete delegation has decided to self-quarantine for fourteen days.”
“Please continue masking at all times on UN premises and inform DHMOSH in case you experience symptoms,” the letter adds.
According to Cable News Network (CNN), the Brazilian Minister of Health Marcelo Queiroga, part of President Bolsonaro’s delegation in New York City, has been identified as the delegate who has tested positive for COVID-19. He previously said he had been vaccinated with the Chinese-made CoronaVac vaccine.
CNN said a so-called “honor system” calling for foreign delegations to be vaccinated before entering the Assembly Hall was broken on the very first day of the General Assembly.
“Unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro kicked off the UNGA by doubling down on his defense of using “off-label” medications against COVID-19—adding that he had been among those to recover after using an anti-malaria medicine that has been found ineffective in treating the disease.”
“History and science will hold everyone accountable,” said Bolsonaro, whose handling of the pandemic in Brazil been widely criticized. The South American country has the highest death toll in the world after the United States, according to CNN.
In a live social media broadcast before the event, Bolsonaro said he would only decide whether to get vaccinated “after everyone in Brazil gets the vaccine”—a dissonant voice as the General Assembly pushes this year to increase vaccination rates around the globe, cajoling wealthier nations to share more doses with poorer ones.
According to the Wall Street Journal September 23, President Bolsonaro “was self-isolating” after a member of his delegation tested positive for the virus during the Brazilian leader’s trip to New York.
Brazil’s health authority, Anvisa, sent a written request to the presidential palace September 22 that the president and the rest of his delegation go into isolation after Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga announced on Twitter that he had tested positive for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the UN’s attempts at contact-tracing will help identify both staffers and diplomats who interacted with the Brazilian delegate on September 21, the opening day of the high-level session of the General Assembly.
Asked about the “honour system”, UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters September 17: “The honour system, as laid out by the President of the General Assembly, says that, by swiping a badge to enter the General Assembly Hall, delegates attest that they are fully vaccinated, that they have not tested positive for COVID‑19 in the last ten days, have no symptoms”.
In a letter to the 192 UN missions last week, the United States warned it does not want the UN sessions to be a “super spreader” of COVID-19.
The letter said: “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.”
The US Mission also discouraged all face-to-face bilateral meetings which were a staple of former General Assembly sessions.
But several delegations continued with face-to-face meetings in defiance of the US warning.
The letter from the US Mission said: “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.”
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour September 22, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said it was incumbent on every leader attending the UN sessions “to take this pandemic seriously”.
Question: So, it’s your first UNGA, and it is the first one face to face, by and large, since COVID. And you mentioned that you were worried it might become a super-spreader event. Sure enough, true to type, the president of Brazil publicly announced that he refuses to be vaccinated. Then his health minister says he’s got COVID. And then he’s shaking hands with everybody. How worried are you? I mean, what kind of message does this send from one of Latin America’s biggest countries on this serious issue?
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield: Look, it is incumbent on every leader from every country in the world to take this pandemic seriously. The United Nations has taken some mitigation efforts that we know will help improve the situation. They’re doing intensive cleaning after each speaker. We worked with the city to put a van right outside UN Headquarters to do testing and provide vaccines to those who wish to have vaccines. And we will continue to work with the UN and with the city to ensure that this does not become a super-spreader event.
Question: Would you urge the President (Joe Biden) not to shake hands with Bolsonaro? And not just as a petty gesture, as a diplomatic gesture to show that enough, enough on this?
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield: Well, you will notice if you see pictures of us in—at the United Nations that we’re doing elbow bumps. We’re doing fist bumps. We’re putting our hands on our hearts. There is very little shaking of hands, but if we do somehow shake hands, there is hand sanitizer everywhere, and people are being encouraged to use it.