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The virus claims a victim at the UN: personal diplomacy

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United Nations (United States) (AFP)

At the normally busy headquarters of the United Nations in New York, life is suddenly moving at slow speed -- very slow speed.

This temple of multilateralism, with its daily meetings both large and small on world conflicts and almost every other subject, is reeling from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, with sweeping disruptions to work that depends heavily on diplomats seeking consensus through human contact.

"Everything gets a bit more complicated," one diplomat said. Like a majority of the secretariat's 3,000 New York-based employees and the hundreds of their colleagues working in the missions of the 193 member states, he has been forced to work from home.

The first report of the virus in the UN community came Thursday, with a Philippine diplomat testing positive for COVID-19, prompting the closing of that country's mission.

A day later, the headquarters of the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), a short distance from the UN building, was abruptly closed after three employees developed flu-like symptoms -- even though there has been no confirmation of coronavirus.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres canceled a trip Friday to Africa and required all non-essential employees to telework until April 12.

In a letter to all UN employees obtained by AFP, he stressed the need for all to remain "calm and resolute."

"The United Nations is facing one of the biggest challenges in our history," he wrote, adding that the virus was having "a major impact on us and our work."

The UN Secretariat oversees roughly 100,000 blue-helmeted troops taking part in 15 regional peace-keeping operations, and provides daily aid and assistance to millions of people around the world.

- 'Technological failure' -

The Security Council -- with its mission as guarantor of global peace and security -- has been seriously affected.

Following a decision by China, which holds the council's rotating presidency this month, delegations may include no more than three people, and closed-door consultations are being held in the council's vast meeting hall to allow greater space between diplomats.

In the coming week, several planned sessions have been canceled, though a meeting on Darfur remains on the schedule -- as does a meeting on multilateralism.

A recent attempt to conduct a meeting of the 15-member Security Council by teleconference turned out disastrously.

One diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, called it a "technological failure."

Russia, which has a predilection for traditional methods, has said it is opposed to meetings not involving "physical encounters."

The UN Charter states that Security Council meetings may be held "at such places other than the seat of the Organization as in its judgment will best facilitate its work."

The reference to "places" does not cover "virtual" meetings, Russia's deputy ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, told AFP. But he added there is nothing to prevent a member from taking part by video link.

- 'Ghost town' -

No one can say how long the constraints on the work of the diplomats and of the UN itself will continue.

The organization has been planning a major celebration of its 75th anniversary in September, when the annual meeting of the General Assembly normally would bring scores of world leaders and government ministers to New York.

"It is very likely that (the pandemic) will have an impact of some sort on the General Assembly," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, while adding that it is "too early to give any more details."

The near-empty hallways of the vast complex in midtown Manhattan have the feel of a "ghost town," one guard sighed at a checkpoint, where he normally would be counting people passing through but now finds himself counting the hours until his shift ends.

"We come, but there are fewer and fewer meetings, and consensus is going to be more difficult to achieve," said one ambassador, standing outside the nearly deserted delegates' lounge.

In the building, closed belatedly to tourists, self-service in the cafeterias was recently banned, bottles of disinfectant are everywhere, and handshakes have given way to greetings at a proper distance.

The usually full social life around the UN -- normal times see one or several receptions organized nightly by the various missions -- has ground to a near standstill.

The coronavirus does hold at least one silver lining for the UN, Dujarric noted.

With people traveling less and holding fewer meetings, the world organization, with its never-ending budget problems, "will be spending less money."

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