In light of the continuing spread of the coronavirus, the UN has stepped up measures to safeguard staff and all those using its offices around the world, while at the same time ensuring that the critical work of the Organization continues to deliver on key mandates, and provide lifesaving support to those in need. 

In an email to all UN staff as the weekend began, the Secretary-General António Guterres, emphasized that the Organization “remains open for business”, but “our work will be done from different locations, using different technologies”.

The UN chief outlined the need to “reduce our physical presence” at UN Headquarters, through implementing fulltime telecommuting, unless a staffer is needed within a UN office to carry out essential work. He said the reduced staffing level would be reappraised after three weeks. 

He added that Headquarters staff in New York would continue to provide critical support to the other main offices in Geneva, Nairobi and Vienna, as well as missions in the field, and to the array of intergovernmental processes that must continue, such as the work of the Security Council. 

“Over the next days and weeks, we will depend on each other’s sense of responsibility and professionalism more than ever”, said the UN chief on Friday night. “I have the utmost confidence in the commitment of staff to keeping each other safe, while continuing to deliver for the people we serve.” 

The UN Spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, briefed journalists in New York hours before the extension of remote working advisory, and said there were two chief concerns, firstly, keeping everyone safe who works in the UN complex, or who visits under normal times, and helping New York City to flatten the curve of COVID-19 as it spreads. 

“The second priority in parallel is to make sure that the UN’s work continues.  We have 100,000 peacekeepers out in the field, tens of thousands of humanitarian workers that will need to be supported.  And I can assure you that, whether it’s Ms. [Rosemary] DiCarlo, Mr. [Jean-Pierre] Lacroix, Mr. [Mark] Lowcock…All the other senior managers are fully focused on ensuring that the work will continue and that the support will continue.” 

He said humanitarians in the field had a special duty of care to put mitigating measures in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus, into some of the most vulnerable populations on earth: “The same thing goes with our peacekeeping operations…And that’s why we’re changing the rotations of troops, trying to limit the rotations, delaying some rotations.  We want to ensure that those who are most vulnerable are protected for the longest possible time.” 

The Palais des Nations, which houses the UN Office at Geneva, with more than 1,600 staff, is the biggest duty station outside New York, and on Saturday, Director-General Tatiana Valovaya, reiterated the UN chief’s call for effective telecommuting, noting that “annexes will remain open for business, but the work will be done differently.” 

The Director of the UN Information Service in Geneva, Alessandra Velluci, said staff had heard the Secretary-General’s message clearly, that the UN would be there to “do our part” in difficult times, as COVID-19 continues to spread. 

“In light of some COVID-19 cases at international organizations in Geneva, from 16 March all UN staff based at the Palais des Nations will work remotely, unless their presence in the building is necessary”, she said.  

“But the UN family in Geneva will continue to do its part by working on migrant and refugee crises, implementing sustainable development projects, discussing human rights issues and trade-related measures and above all, supporting the strenuous efforts of WHO and its partners in the fight against the pandemic.”

In Vienna, which houses the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Industrial Development Organization UNIDO, and UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and others, telecommuting is also in place from Monday.  

“These measures are taken on clear medical advice and with the welfare of staff and their families as the central priority”, said a joint statement from the heads of the main Vienna-based organizations. “As part of the community in our host country, Austria, we can all play our part in helping to try to contain the spread of COVID-19 and reducing the risk of transmission”. 

In the UN’s Africa headquarters, UNON, in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric, said on Friday that managers there too were implementing remote working “to the full extent compatible with business continuity, in order to substantially reduce personnel exposures to transit and other crowded areas.”