Whatever I can do, I’m always at (their) disposal – Secretary-General António Guterres

6 April 2020 — As the world grapples with COVID-19, the United Nations is strengthening its preparedness and capacity to address the spread of coronavirus within its own workforce to ensure the Organization can continue delivering on its life-saving mandate around the world.

At a recent townhall meeting, Secretary-General António Guterres paid tribute to UN healthcare personnel who are working to ensure the well-being of UN personnel during the COVID-19 crisis.

As of March 2020, the United Nations has 763 healthcare personnel working in various medical facilities around the world, including in headquarters and field offices delivering services to support UN personnel in their vital work.  

“They are facing an enormous difficulty … whatever I can do, I’m always at (their) disposal,” Mr. Guterres told the townhall meeting, adding that while he appreciates their noble work, he is also concerned about their own health and well-being. This was an historic occasion, being the first global healthcare townhall attended by a Secretary General.   

The townhall meeting, organized by the Division of Healthcare Management and Occupational Safety and Health (DHMOSH) in the Department of Operational Support,   and attended by members of UN medical offices, hospitals and clinics around the world, was designed to provide the UN system healthcare workforce with information on tools available to them during the COVID-19 crisis, including plans for self-care focused on mental health and well-being, as well as an opportunity to discuss emerging and leading medical issues.

Secretary-General António Guterres on screen

The Secretary-General said that like any other healthcare professionals outside the Organization, UN healthcare workers are “the bravest warriors in this battle,” emphasizing that they ensure the world body remains able to carry out its work during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Mr. Guterres expressed his continued support for their efforts, stressing: “I’m entirely behind you.”

As of 2 April, there were 111 confirmed cases among UN personnel worldwide.

UN healthcare workers generally provide primary care as well as occupational safety and health services. DHMOSH has been engaging with UN medical services around the globe for weeks to ensure preparedness and response capabilities for the ongoing outbreak. Many duty stations have agreements with local or regional hospitals for care requirements that cannot be provided by the respective UN medical service.

Readiness surveys have been conducted and individual engagement with duty stations to fill potential gaps is ongoing. Guidance documents have been developed to increase individual response capacities.

According to Dr. Jillann Farmer, the UN Medical Director, current challenges are mostly related to the local set-up of an appropriate response capability; including medical evacuations. Most UN field operations are in countries with limited local medical capabilities. Generally, the local duty stations have fewer physicians, nurses, specialists, and other health care workforce.

Dr. Jillann Farmer, UN Medical Director

She said that the pressure on the global healthcare workforce continues to intensify, and this pressure takes two forms. The first is the potentially overwhelming burden of illnesses that stresses the health system capacity, and the second is the adverse effects on health care workers, including the risk of infection.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare systems globally could be operating at more than maximum capacity for many months. Unlike ventilators or hospital wards, healthcare workers “cannot be urgently manufactured” or “run at 100 per cent occupancy for long periods”, she emphasized.  It is vital that the Organization sees healthcare workers “not simply as pawns to be deployed, but as individuals who must be protected”.

While healthcare workers often accept the increased risk of infection as part of their chosen profession, they often exhibit concern about family transmission, Ms. Farmer noted, especially involving family members who are elderly, immuno-compromised, or have chronic medical condition.

In addition, like many of the UN personnel deployed to field duty stations, healthcare workers are living far from their home countries. They face isolation and loneliness, while continuing to provide care to UN personnel and their families.

UN healthcare workers, including support staff and administration, will be stressed by the challenges of a prolonged response to COVID-19.  This is why self-care is important as the centre of the response.

Under the Department of Operational Support (DOS), DHMOSH has been engaging with all UN medical services. DOS has strengthened its efforts with its dedicated medical evacuation taskforce and increased its air ambulances services. The Office of Supply Chain Management (OSCM), together with DHMOSH, is assessing COVID-19 testing options, and has undertaken centralized procurement of equipment, including personal protective equipment (PPE), and its distribution to field operations.

DHMOSH strongly advises and encourages UN healthcare workers to work closely with the Ministry of Health of the host country, as well as with the local representatives of the World Health Organization (WHO) at their duty station.

Guidance documents for UN healthcare workers are available here

Meanwhile UN staff in New York continue to support their local community with donations: