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Coronavirus Claims its First UN Casualty

Credit: UN News/Li Zhang

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 2 2020 (IPS) - The deadly coronavirus COVID-19, which is spreading across China, Japan, South Korea, Iran, Italy– along with new cases in Asia, Western Europe and the Middle East– has claimed one of its first casualties at the United Nations.

The annual inter-governmental meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), due to take place March 9-20, is being described as dead on arrival (DOA).

But it is still likely to take place as scheduled— minus the participation of over 5,000 to 6,000 delegates from overseas.

The 11-day meeting, the largest single gathering of women delegates from 193 countries, is being significantly downgraded because of the threat of COVID-19.

The United States, meanwhile, has postponed its own summit of world leaders of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) due to take place in Las Vegas March 14.

“As the international community works together to defeat the novel coronavirus, the United States, in consultation with ASEAN partners, has made the difficult decision to postpone the ASEAN leaders meeting previously scheduled for mid-March,” a senior administration official was quoted as saying.

Ma.Victoria (Mavic) Cabrera Balleza, Chief Executive Officer, Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, told IPS the 64th session of the upcoming CSW session should not be cancelled because of the outbreak of coronavirus disease — but its methodology should be modified.

“It is a very important event that brings a big momentum to our advocacy for women’s rights and gender equality, especially this year as we are commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the most comprehensive global women’s rights agenda,” she pointed out.

In light of the outbreak of coronavirus disease, the UN Secretary-General’s suggestion to the Chair of the CSW that Member States consider amending the format and conduct of the session is a good idea, she said.

“However, I don’t think it should be limited to New York-based delegations only. The valued-added of CSW sessions lie on the huge participation of women’s rights activists and gender experts from around the world,” said Cabrera Balleza.

Such strong participation allows for discussions on diverse topics that impact on women’s enjoyment of their rights in political, economic, and social arenas, she noted.

UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters February 28 that given the fast evolving situation regarding COVID-19– and the need to balance the UN’s critical work and public health concerns—UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has suggested to the Bureau of the Committee on the Status of Women that they hold a scaled down meeting, limiting participation to New York based representation.

This, in effect, would bar delegates coming from their home countries preventing the spread of the virus through travel.

The limited participation, Dujarric pointed out, would still enable the CSW to adopt decisions and implement its mandate.

The final decision, which is likely to be aligned with the recommendation made by Guterres, will be taken by the 193 member states later this week.

Emergency room nurses wear face masks at Second People’s Hospital of Shenzhen in China. Credit: Man Yi/ UN News

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said his first priority “is to protect our homeland. We have imposed prudent travel restrictions and strong travel advisories to slow the spread of the virus in the United States.”

This could, in effect, prevent women delegates from some the US blacklisted countries from entering the US and participating in the CSW session.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the US National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said at a news briefing February 24: “It’s not so much of a question if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen.”

She said that cities and towns should plan for “social distancing measures,” like dividing school classes into smaller groups of students or closing schools altogether. Meetings and conferences may have to be canceled, she said. And businesses should arrange for employees to work from home.

Purnima Mane, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), told IPS the CSW session, like in the case of other large meetings and conferences, is under serious consideration on the part of the organizers of canceling the meeting due to the growing epidemic of the coronavirus COVID-19.

“As an advocate of women’s issues, I will of course be disappointed if the meeting is not held as planned but as a public health professional as well, I would advocate for caution.”

She said the situation of the virus is evolving rapidly and merits a careful assessment of the risks of any global meeting.

The meeting is next week and countries remain at different stages of preparedness to deal with the epidemic, said Mane, a former President and CEO of Pathfinder International.

She pointed out that the World Health Organization (WHO) has consistently advised against the application of travel restrictions.

However, several countries have imposed restrictions nonetheless, such as quarantine, visa restrictions or denial of entry of passengers.

In others there is far stricter screening of passengers on arrival and discrimination against citizens from certain regions of the world, even though the epidemic has spread to every continent except Antarctica, and cases are growing on a daily basis, she declared.

Cabrera Balleza told IPS: If most CSW participants will not be able to travel to New York, virtual conferences can be organized.

However, UN country teams and governments in developing and conflict-affected countries should open up their offices so grassroots women’s rights activists can go there, use the internet and participate in virtual conferences.

The UN should also provide transportation and interpretation support during virtual conferences, she noted.

As WHO has declared a global emergency over the coronavirus and has been lending support to China and other countries, the UN HQ in NY should ensure that it is taking all necessary precautions and its operations are not in any way contributing to the spread of the disease.

There are a number of logistical challenges in organizing a modified CSW session but they are not insurmountable.

If the UN and Member States are truly committed to women’s rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, they will mobilize necessary resources to ensure that the CSW session in 2020, will contribute to making this a pivotal year for the accelerated realization of women’s empowerment and gender equality for all women and girls around the world, said Cabrera Balleza.

The other key concern, she said, is the lack of “care planning” if participants catch the virus.

“What if they get sick when they are already in New York? Are there enough facilities that are equipped to handle coronavirus cases? Let alone the cost of medical care in NY. What if they get sick on the way back to their countries? Not having immediate access to care when traveling is a big problem,” she cautioned.

Mane told IPS that in a situation in which many countries are not in a state of topnotch preparedness for dealing with this epidemic, it is judicious to wait to hold a global meeting.

“And in a situation in which some countries are imposing travel restrictions despite WHO advice, it is obvious that not everybody who wants and should be present at this important meeting will be able to participate in person, anyway, reducing the impact of the CSW meeting.”

She said that each of the intergovernmental meetings is expected to be assessed on a case-by-case basis depending on the evolving situation.

But since the CSW is the first major intergovernmental meeting of 2020, the decision will undeniably impact other intergovernmental meetings to follow.

For the CSW, taking into consideration the pragmatic and public health considerations, it makes sense to give countries more time for building preparedness and to permit the presence of more delegates at the CSW.

It might be optimal either to organize country level meetings to feed into global recommendations for the CSW or an outright postponement of the date, so that when the CSW is held, it is a truly global event. In view of the vital subject of women’s status being dealt at the CSW, it would be prudent and ethical to do so.

UN Spokesperson Dujarric said the advice given by the Secretary-General is based on inputs from the Senior Emergency Policy Team and very close consultations between the U.N. Medical Services and the WHO.

“Forthcoming intergovernmental meetings at Headquarters and elsewhere will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the specificities of the meetings and evolving circumstances,” he added.

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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