19 March 2020 - United Nations staff members, from senior managers to personnel in the frontline, are quickly adapting to new ways of working – connecting teams virtually – in the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak, which now recorded more than 207,000 infections and 8,600 deaths.

This morning, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammad held a video conference with Resident Coordinators covering 162 countries and territories, along with key World Health Organization (WHO), Humanitarian Coordination and the Department of Safety and Security experts.

The Secretary-General said that “the United Nations is responding with determination and coordination, bringing the United Nations entities together to support governments, while also continuing our urgent response to humanitarian coordination, working for peace and prosperity for all.”

Virtual Daily Briefings and Press Conferences

New York-based press corps at the United Nations are now covering press conferences virtually. At a daily briefing on 17 March, conducted by Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General, a few journalists were physically present in the briefing room. “For all of my colleagues watching, wondering why I’m here, I’m still waiting to get my Internet at home fixed so it’s usable,” a correspondent said.

Asked how many people work in the Secretariat building, the deputy spokesman said that there’s normally around 3,000 people in the building and sometimes, on an average day, about 1,000 visitors. On 4 March, there were 11,033 swipes [of ground pass] into the building. More than 11,000 times that different pass cards were swiped. It's not the same thing as 11,000 people. As of about 10:30 a.m. on 17 March, there were 489 swipes, he said.

Stéphane Dujarric

On 18 March, Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General, gave his first virtual noon briefing from his home. “Good afternoon and welcome to a bit of a brand-new world here,” he said. “We’re testing out this system so we can do the press briefing remotely. I’m doing this from my home.”

Today, the Secretary-General himself held a video press conference. “This is, above all, a human crisis that calls for solidarity,” he said. “Current responses at the country level will not address the global scale and complexity of the crisis. This is a moment that demands coordinated, decisive, and innovative policy action from the world’s leading economies.”

Secretary-General

In response to a question, he said the United Nations is “ahead of the curve”, taking precautions earlier than they were prescribed by the authorities. He himself is working from Headquarters, but most of staff is working at home.

“We have created the conditions to do it in perfect safety,” he said. It is also essential to create the conditions for Member States to meet, he said, noting that the Security Council will meet next week more than once, and the Secretariat has provided conditions for virtual meetings to take place at any moment.

“I was just, today, in a virtual meeting with our 140 resident coordinators around the world,” he said, adding that he has been in contact every day with eight to ten of United Nations offices and its missions around the world.

“And I can tell you I'm very proud, because even in these very difficult circumstances, the UN everywhere is open for businesses,” he said.

Despite restrictions placed on them, United Nations personnel continued to support Governments in their fights against COVID-19 and protect the people it serves around the world.

The World Health Organization (WHO), supported by the World Economic Forum, convened a virtual briefing on COVID-19 in Africa connecting experts. As of 19 March, 33 African countries had reported more than 600 cases and 17 deaths due to COVID-19.

Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said that families sometimes live in houses where quite a few people must sleep in the same space, that do not have running water, “so the possibility of hand washing frequently and with soap is a challenge.”

Lucile Imboua-Niava, WHO Representative for Senegal, said the way of life in many parts of Africa could drive rapid transmission of the disease, with people living in close quarters.

Cecile Walschaerts

Staff members around the world are adapting to the new norm. Cecile Walschaerts, who works for the French-language Unit of the Web Services Section, the Department of Global Communications, helps keep United Nations’ French-language websites up and running from her home. She said her husband, also a UN staff member, reorganized a walk-in closet into her working space so that she can have some tranquillity.  As working parents, they equally share childcare responsibility.  Ms. Walschaerts said she keeps telling Katel and Madeline, who are staying home due to school closure, that “we need to be strong, we need to be kind, we need to be one family and work hard.”

It is the same for the United Nations, she said, adding that although she is busy, her situation is nothing compared with that of personnel fighting against the deadly virus in the frontline.  There are thousands of United Nations personnel on missions around the world who are performing their duties while not knowing when they can see their families and friends again.  

In Vienna, the United Nations Security and Safety Service reported that more than 95 per cent of 5,000 personnel based there are working remotely. 

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), headquartered in Vienna, has field offices around the world. “We are all working from home using WhatsApp, video conferencing and email. We had a two-hour meeting yesterday where we agreed on a protocol and deliverables for the week ahead,” explains Manuel Albaladejo, the UNIDO Representative at the Regional Office in Uruguay. (Read this story on UNIDO’s website).

For helpful tips on how to retain psychological wellbeing during full-time telecommuting, visit https://www.un.org/en/coronavirus/wellness.