Workplaces and schools may never be the same again following the changes imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But what of the UN during that period of dramatic upheaval? A rare insight into the impact the pandemic had at the Palais des Nations can be gleaned from an audit conducted by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).
The point of the of the investigation, published on June 3, was to assess the adequacy and effectiveness of the measures implemented by UNOG to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure continued operations. The review covered the period from 1 January 2020 to 31 December 2021.
The audit largely focuses on the lessons to be learned from UNOG’s response. But it is the data it presents that offers a glimpse into what might be the “new normal” at the Palais des Nations.
Comparative figures show that in 2018 and 2019, over 12,000 in-person meetings were held at the UN in Geneva. An enormous and consequential number—for many, in-person meetings are key to the UN’s work.
The organization insists operations were maintained through 2020, the year the virus hit globally. The numbers, however, tell a profoundly different story: that year, the UN held just over 4,000 meetings in total—a third of those organized before the pandemic. Fewer than 3,000 of these were in-person events, with 466 virtual meetings and 893 in a hybrid format.
It was a situation that extended into the following year, despite the push for vaccinations. In 2021, just over 5,000 meetings were held, out of which around 2,300 were in person and 2,400 in a hybrid format. Geneva came close to a shut-down.
At the time, some Western countries were openly worried that the regulations—both those of the UN and of Switzerland, the organization’s host country—were too stringent, and might give ammunition to those members who engage with the UN reluctantly on issues such as human rights and disarmament, whilst also allowing them to escape media scrutiny.
AS WHO EXHORTED THE WORLD TO GET VACCINATED, SOME OF THE UN'S STAFF IN GENEVA FAILED TO HEED THE CALL
The audit also offers some revealing insights into the behavior of the Palais’ staff.
All Geneva-based secretariat staff was required to report their vaccination status confidentially by 15 November 2021. However, “[d]espite UNOG’s numerous requests[…], by 31 December 2021, more than 40 percent of the staff it administered were yet to report their vaccination status,” the report says.
Furthermore, statistics provided by UNOG indicate that a mere 43 percent of those who had reported their status by 31 December 2021 were fully vaccinated—at a time when the World Health Organization was urging the world to get jabbed. “UNOG had, however not provided […] details of the staff who had not reported their status and was therefore not able to follow up with individual staff,” the audit concludes.
Release of further data to the auditors was prevented by confidentiality rules—a response that was also given to The G|O after it asked for updated numbers. The United Nations Information Service (UNIS) told us that “this information is considered internal to UN, and is usually not shared with external partners,” explaining that “the previous figures were made public as they were part of an UN internal audit.
“This being said, we can safely assume that the number of staff who have reported their vaccination status has indeed increased,” according to Alessandra Vellucci, director of UNIS Geneva.
Vellucci further stated to us that “the information regarding vaccination status is used by the Organization for risk management. We consider that at this juncture of time the risk is low. The level of immunity reached by UN Geneva staff is similar to [that in the] local population. The higher risks are managed by mandatory vaccination for certain occupational groups, such as interpreters, [with] special protective measures still in place. The low risk is [evidenced by the] decreased number of reported COVID-19 cases.”
"DE-DENSIFICATION"–THE UN'S NEW NORMAL
The risk may have subsided, but business at the Palais has not returned to its pre-pandemic state.
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, there had been no requirement for the secretariat to facilitate virtual or hybrid conferences. To enable continued operations under COVID-19 conditions, UNOG needed to technically upgrade conference rooms, as well as making other sweeping changes. In 2020 alone, UNOG spent $1.6 million in its pandemic response; this included additional cleaning services, installation of plexiglass barriers, equipment to enable meetings with Remote Simultaneous Interpretation (RSI), and operational support for RSI.
As of January 2022, the organization had prepared 13 conference rooms capable of hosting virtual or hybrid conferences. It seems clear that this new technical capability will continue to find a use in the coming years. The fact is, this “de-densification” of the Palais has become a reality.
Some diplomats are still adapting to the new situation and the challenges of negotiating remotely. Others, however, see a silver-lining in the new normal: it contributes to reducing the carbon footprint of the organization.