The coronavirus has all but halted the world of international diplomacy, derailing major summits and leaving diplomats stranded as governments temporarily ban international travel.
The World Trade Organization on Thursday joined a raft of United Nations agencies, financial institutions, and international organizations that have been forced by the virus's spread to cancel, suspend, or postpone conferences on everything including human rights, the Law of the Sea, and antimicrobial resistance.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres sought to assure anxious staff that he was doing everything possible to protect them, telling them "your health and well-being remain my greatest concern."
"Our world is facing an unprecedented threat, and the United Nations is facing one of the biggest challenges in our history," Guterres wrote Thursday in a letter to staff, which was obtained by Foreign Policy. "The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is having a major impact on us and our work, both at headquarters and in many of our field offices and duty stations."
Guterres said he has instituted a policy that would allow staff to telecommute three days a week, five for high-risk employees, to reduce the population density at UN headquarters. He also said he canceled all side events at UN headquarters from March 16 to the end of April and has urged member states to do the same.
"These are difficult times for everyone," he said. "My message remains: be safe, be smart, be kind."
The trade agency announced Thursday that it would suspend all of its meetings until March 20, following confirmation that one of its staff members tested positive for coronavirus. It is also expected to postpone a June 8-to-11 meeting of health ministers in Kazakhstan, according to a senior diplomatic source.
The WTO staffer, who has not been identified, had been in contact with a group of some 30 ambassadors at a conference on plastics, hosted by the Chinese government and the Graduate Institute Geneva on Feb. 19, according to a senior diplomat. At the time, the staffer was showing no symptoms of the disease.
The revelation comes as the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, the world's parliament, have announced plans to reduce the number of diplomats they bring to meetings and refrain from inviting visitors into the UN headquarters building. The UN's International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace, scheduled for April 24, has been canceled.
It's hard for the machinations of international diplomacy to act on big decisions without these summits, noted Thomas Wright, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "The summits are forcing mechanisms for action, and in a crisis they take on an added importance. If you don't have that, you're more likely to just have more inertia," he said.
"It is our firm belief that we should not panic," China's UN Ambassador Zhang Jun, who is serving as this month's president of the Security Council, told reporters on Wednesday. But he said, "we should take all precaution[ary] measures to prevent the spreading of the coronavirus in this building."