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Transcript of video statement to UNHCR colleagues on the COVID-19 Crisis

Speeches and statements

Transcript of video statement to UNHCR colleagues on the COVID-19 Crisis

24 March 2020

I speak to you in the midst of a crisis unmatched in UNHCR’s history. It is a global emergency that affects all our operations and Headquarters; one that affects our own health and well-being, and that of those dear to us; and at the same time presents very grave threats for the people we help protect and serve.

We at UNHCR are not strangers to emergencies. We know how to come together to respond to crises. But this is different. It calls for enormous resilience, professionalism and courage from all of us. It calls for self-care, taking care of each other, and caring for our people of concern.

And it calls for resolve and determination; as we all work together, in our different roles, to sustain and adapt our operations. Already, the risks are very visible - to the health of people in overcrowded camps and settlements; to urban refugees plunged into destitution as their income disappears; and to asylum itself, as borders close and resettlement is placed on hold.

And there is more. In many operations, this new emergency comes on top of existing ones, or is taking place in high risk environments, with very fragile health systems. Our paramount objective is to ensure that refugees and the internally displaced are included in national responses, and that governments get the additional support they need to make this happen. In many operations, however, we have no choice but to step up our own crisis response, working with the government, our partners and refugees themselves to prepare to meet the extraordinary challenges ahead.

It is more crucial than ever that we also work very closely with our UN and other partners, in country teams, in regional and global contexts. I want to thank all of you for your remarkable discipline and commitment at this time of uncertainty. Every day, we are having to take difficult decisions, relying on the best information available, but recognizing that there are still many unknowns.

We need to take all the necessary precautions regarding ourselves and the communities around us. Please follow WHO guidelines, please respect host country advisories, please restrict movements. I know that travelling back and forth to the field, going on mission and (for some) taking R&R breaks are all essential aspects of how we work. I am calling on your patience, your understanding, your creativity to adapt to the circumstances as they evolve. In many operations, for example, teleworking is already in place - as indeed it is here in Geneva. Many of you have been involved in updating business continuity plans, and programme criticality assessments. These will help us continue to deliver by adapting our ways of working.

I am asking a lot of you, I know. I know that this is very hard, especially for those in stressful and difficult duty stations, and those who are apart from families and loved ones. As the crisis continues, for as long as it continues, we will need to call on our inner resources, and ask for help from those around us. Many of us have lived for years in hardship and insecure duty stations; our resilience is part and parcel of who we are as an organisation, and what we are appreciated for. 

The coronavirus does not discriminate; all of us are at risk. There have already been some suspected cases among our staff, and one confirmed case at our Geneva Headquarters. That colleague is recovering well, at home, with no risk of exposure to other colleagues. But we have to anticipate that this number may grow, as in any other community.

This situation nonetheless affects us in different ways. Many colleagues in high risk duty stations, or places without adequate medical support, are especially concerned about what happens if you or a family member gets sick.

Remember - most of us are likely to have only mild symptoms and recover smoothly. We have put in place telemedicine support, so that you and your family members can consult with a medical professional wherever you are. We are now making this service available in multiple languages, and more details will be shared with you very shortly.

If you have an underlying medical condition, or are especially vulnerable, we have already taken action to reduce your exposure. Our Staff Health and Wellbeing Service has been following up with each one of you on this, and continues to review our records to see if there is anyone in need of special support that may not yet have come forward.

In cases of extreme illness, where treatment is not available locally, we will work to secure medical evacuation. This also applies, by the way, to other medical conditions, aside from the coronavirus. This will be a big challenge in circumstances where borders are closing, air travel is restricted, and hospitals globally are overstretched. But we are determined to find solutions and are working closely with partner agencies and with governments on this, and on reinforcing and equipping medical services where you are. We are already making progress and will update you in real time.

I am also conscious of the particular concerns of national staff, and colleagues on affiliate workforce arrangements. We are working to make sure that you are equally heard and supported.

In some operations, economic upheaval, inflation, disrupted banking systems are also a big problem. We are taking action to support colleagues who may be affected.   

Anxiety and fear are normal under these circumstances, but let’s not keep them to ourselves. And remember, we are stronger together, so rely on your networks; reach out to colleagues who may need support; make time to be in contact with your families, as technology today allows us to do. In addition, on our side, we are stepping up our psychological support and counselling.

Over the last days, I have seen how many of you are adapting to the extraordinary circumstances that we are facing - calmly, constructively and concretely. This is the UNHCR that I recognize and love, and to which I have devoted so much of my life.

I want to thank you for all that you are doing to continue to help refugees, the internally displaced, the stateless and other people of concern. Responding to this crisis - personally and professionally - will be an extraordinary test of our resilience. I am confident that, all together, we will be up to the task.