76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly
“We need your help to prevent UNGA 76 High-Level Week from being a super-spreader event.” –Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in a letter to UN Member States on August 13th 2021
The 76th Session of the UN General Assembly is set to open on Tuesday, September 14th, 2021. Although the General Assembly always features vital high-level debates about world politics, this year’s General Assembly will also be the latest setting for the global debate on safety protocols during COVID-19. If the session remains as proposed, the event would be held in a hybrid model in which world leaders attend the annual gathering in-person unless restrictions prevent them from traveling. However, the eagerness of UN member states to return to the headquarters is at odds with many UN staff members’ interests, as well as those of the host country’s Mission to the UN. In a diplomatic note sent to her counterparts in the 193-member world body, U.S. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield highlighted concern over an in-person meeting citing that drawing travelers to New York, “needlessly increases [the] risk to our community, New Yorkers, and other travelers.” Proposing a virtual alternative, similar to the 75th-anniversary gathering in the previous year, the U.S. Ambassador reflected the United States government’s recent caution in response to the rapidly spreading Delta variant.
Another point of concern for many UN personnel is the status of vaccinations for coworkers. Due to inequity in global vaccine distribution, the UN system cannot mandate vaccines. This leaves New York City staff forced to be in spaces exposed to unvaccinated colleagues, even if they’re required to wear masks and socially distance. Furthermore, the current honor system in place only has visitors declare themselves virus-free; there has been a push for visitors to provide a confirmed COVID-19 negative test.
This new tone in regard to the pandemic is a shift from conversations from earlier in the year. In July, as New York witnessed a significant improvement concerning COVID-19 numbers, UN General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir from Turkey allowed the number of delegates to increase from one to two, and for high-level speakers to be joined by three delegates in the vast chamber. It’s unclear how Bozkir’s office is responding to the recent climate.
As of the beginning of September, it is unclear whether the leader of the host country, U.S. President Joseph Biden, will be making his first General Assembly speech in person.
The conversations that are happening over the feasibility and safety of in-person sessions in the halls of the United Nations are no different than those happening in classrooms around the world. As we direct our attention towards a post-pandemic world, it is important to consider the ways in which the global community can respond united to a world in crisis and how these steps can be translated to sustainable solutions for global equality.