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U.N. audit shows staff dodged virus disclosures

More than 40% of U.N. Geneva staff didn't report their vaccination status despite having to do so, and most of those that did weren't fully vaccinated.

Flags of United Nations members outside the Palais des Nations in Geneva
Flags of United Nations members outside the Palais des Nations in Geneva (AN/J. Heilprin)

GENEVA (AN) — A significant portion of staff with the United Nations Office at Geneva failed to report their vaccination status despite a requirement to do so, and the majority of those that did share that information said they were not fully vaccinated, a new internal audit shows.

After the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic on March 11, 2020, the Swiss-based office for the U.N. secretariat spent US$1.6 million that year to respond to the health crisis and by the end of last year more than 400 of its staff had contracted the virus, all of whom recovered, according to an audit released on Monday by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services, or OIOS.

UNOG, as the office is known, is one of the world body's four main branches of its secretariat, along with New York headquarters and offices at Nairobi and Vienna. More than 1,600 Geneva staff work at the Palais des Nations overlooking Lake Geneva. More broadly, Geneva hosts about 8,500 U.N. employees among its various agencies. The Swiss city's community of professionals working for international organizations and causes extends to about 40,000 people.

All of the Geneva-based secretariat staff were required to confidentially report their vaccination status — whether they were vaccinated or not — but less than two-thirds did so, OIOS' audit says.

"Despite UNOG's numerous requests to staff, by 31 December 2021, more than 40% of the staff it administered were yet to report their vaccination status," it says.

Among those that did reveal their vaccination status before the end of that year, the audit says, the responses "showed that 43% of those who had reported their status were fully vaccinated. UNOG was, however, not provided with details of the staff who had not reported their status, and was, therefore, not able to follow up with individual staff."

Confidentiality rules do not permit the release of staff details about those who had not reported their vaccination status, it says, but the U.N.'s medical services could provide information about staff at "functions where vaccination is mandated."

Vaccinations for staff seen as 'boost' to work performance

Efforts were made throughout the U.N. to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines were available to staff and their dependents in the belief it would "provide a significant boost to the ability of personnel to stay and deliver on the organization's mandates, to support beneficiaries in the communities they serve, and to contribute to our ongoing work to recover better together from the pandemic, the U.N.'s System-wide COVID-19 Vaccination Program says.

With the imposition of the Swiss government's measures to combat the spread of the virus and a broad shift to home office-based work, the number of in-person meetings hosted by UNOG fell sharply to 2,915 in 2020 and to 2,381 in 2021, down from the pre-pandemic levels of 12,073 in 2018 and 12,371 in 2019.

In 2018 and 2019, no virtual or hybrid meetings were held. Once the pandemic hit, UNOG hosted 466 virtual and 893 hybrid meetings in 2020 and 436 virtual and 2,480 hybrid meetings in 2021.

Compared to the 26% of pre-pandemic meetings in both 2018 and 2019 that had interpretation services, that number fell to 23% in 2020 but rose to 41% in 2021.

Due to renovations of its more than 80-year-old headquarters through the end of 2024, UNOG's conference rooms that can accommodate simultaneous interpretation in the world body's six official languages "would be reduced by half, if the COVID-19 related physical distancing requirements (one interpreter per booth) continue," the audit says, noting that at least another conference room would be needed to fill the gap.

Overall, UNOG had "sufficient measures to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure continued operations," it says, but it needed to prepare an action plan to apply lessons learned and establish a documented plan to better host conferences requiring interpretation in the six "official" languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. The two "working" languages of the U.N. secretariat —  English and French — are used in day-to-day professional exchanges.

In response, UNOG's management said that as of early April it had put in place a new conference plan and since early May, when most virus restrictions were lifted, it was identifying lessons learned and transitioning to the "Next Normal."

UNOG says all available conference and meeting rooms have reverted to their full capacities, and masks are still required in conference rooms until further notice. Visitors on guided tours are asked to wear masks, UNOG says, and everyone on the premises is "encouraged to observe safety and hygiene measures, such as regular hand washing, cough/sneeze etiquette and keeping safe distances."