UN downsizes annual assembly despite New York's Covid-19 ‘rebirth’

Big shows in Central Park are in stark contrast to the UN’s annual event a few blocks away

epa08687564 A handout photo made available by UN photo shows Teodoro L. Locsin Jr. (on screens), Secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of the Philippines, speaking during the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations, in New York, USA, 21 September 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations most of the meetings will be held virtually.  EPA/Manuel Elias / UN Photo / HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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Sport arenas and concert halls have opened up and New Yorkers are enjoying a largely post-coronavirus summer, but the UN is not taking any chances when it comes to hosting gatherings in a pandemic.

The annual UN General Assembly, which ordinarily draws large delegations of world leaders and diplomats to midtown Manhattan, has been scaled back this September, with Covid-19 and its variant strains making travel for international events risky.

The latest rules state that world leaders can deliver speeches in the General Assembly Hall flanked by up to three delegates during the high-level part of the summit, which runs from September 21-30. Yet many will avoid the risk, stay home and send pre-recorded video messages instead.

UN representative Amy Quantrill on Tuesday said an “honour system” would operate, meaning presidents, princes, prime ministers and their entourages would be taken at their word that they have been vaccinated or are Covid-free upon entering the building.

Arriving delegates should “adhere to the restrictions” placed by the US government on foreign arrivals and follow the UN’s own rules, Ms Quantrill said in answer to a question from The National.

Meanwhile, the many meetings and side events that typically cram diplomats’ calendars during the UN’s high-level week have been nixed and will “be held off-site or virtually”, Ms Quantrill added.

Volkan Bozkir, who holds the ceremonial role of General Assembly president, says the lack of facetime between leaders carries a diplomatic cost, especially in a world with widening geopolitical rifts between the US, China and others.

As such, Mr Bozkir has made booths available at UN headquarters for leaders, foreign ministers and others to hold “bilateral” sit-downs with their counterparts from overseas, the latest guidance from his office said.

Last year, Covid-19 kept world leaders away from midtown for their annual meeting for the first time in the UN’s 75-year history. Instead, pre-recorded speeches from leaders of the body’s 193 member countries were shown in a largely empty General Assembly Hall.

The headquarters building has been eerily quiet ever since. Only some 1,700 people swipe their security passes into the building nowadays, compared to more than 5,000 before the pandemic reached New York in early 2020.

Mask-wearing remains mandatory at UN headquarters, but that is in contrast to the coffee shops on the other side of First Avenue, where most Covid-19 restrictions were lifted more than a month ago.

In March 2020, New York was the global epicentre of the pandemic, but a successful vaccination campaign has led to nearly three quarters of the state’s residents having received at least one shot, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday that the “greatest city in the world” was enjoying a summer of “rebirth”, including an August 21 concert in Central Park featuring Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen.

Still, the same day, he tightened rules on more than 300,000 city personnel, including police officers, firefighters and teachers, requiring them to be vaccinated or take a weekly coronavirus test, as the Delta variant fuels an increase in cases in the metropolis.

Updated: July 27, 2021, 6:32 PM