UNESCO and the Coronavirus Pandemic

The year 2020 marks the 75th anniversary since the founding of UNESCO. This historic date is closely linked to another landmark event of the year — the 75th anniversary of the victory over fascism in the Great Patriotic War. After all, it was this immense tragedy, the greatest and deadliest war in human history, that led to the establishment of the international humanitarian organization, aimed at “building peace in the minds of men.”

However, this anniversary year, UNESCO, and the international community as a whole, find themselves facing a new global challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. As can be expected, some of the most damaging impacts of this international crisis have been felt in the fields of education and culture.

Moreover, UNESCO itself has encountered unprecedented difficulties in the continuation of its important work. Due to the quarantine and self-isolation regulations imposed in France, the Organization’s headquarters were forced to close, leaving daily operations almost completely paralyzed. UNESCO, which serves as an international intellectual forum, lost one of its most primary and essential functions: the ability to hold scheduled international meetings on a wide range of humanitarian issues.

Thankfully, this forced hiatus did not last long. With the help of advancements in modern information technology, the Secretariat soon took proactive measures to monitor and analyze the situation and develop a strategy for immediate action. Before long, Member States became actively involved in these efforts as well. Of course, the transition to remote communication was far from easy. Although modern communication technologies are inestimably valuable, it became obvious that nothing can replace face-to-face contact.

Nevertheless, these technologies made it possible for UNESCO to continue operations, despite the extraordinary conditions of the pandemic. Online meetings between ministers of education and culture were promptly held, thereby providing a forum for the exchange of views regarding the impact of the pandemic on social and economic life. Online seminars on education were conducted on a weekly basis, during which representatives of Member States shared their experiences and ideas concerning the fight against the consequences of the pandemic. A series of conferences on learning cities was also organized.

UNESCO conducted a comprehensive assessment of the educational disruption caused by the pandemic. The assessment revealed that nearly 1.6 billion young people were affected by school closures this April, making up 94% of all students in over 190 countries. Worse yet, 24 million students may not return to school at all in 2020. Furthermore, the economic recession will exacerbate the existing $148 billion education funding gap in low-income countries by a third.

This analysis underpinned a report by UN Secretary-General António Guterres titled “Education in the Era of COVID-19”. The document identifies specific challenges that have been aggravated by the crisis, including the lack of equal educational opportunities, fiscal retrenchment, inadequate technical facilities in educational institutions, and teachers unprepared for remote working. 

To improve the situation, the UN Secretary-General promoted a plan to open educational institutions in close collaboration with parents, teachers, and scientific experts, as well as allocate budget funds for education, take measures to support and aid the professional development of teaching staff, and improve access to ICTs for educational institutions. The implementation of these measures will, of course, require time and considerable resources.

The project “Culture and COVID-19: Impact and Response Tracker” was launched to monitor the rapidly evolving situation in the cultural sector, which, according to ILO, employs 5.4% of the world’s labor force. This initiative provides a weekly overview of the immediate impact of the crisis and explains how countries around the world are adapting to the situation.

Speaking at the July session of the Executive Board, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay noted that “90% of countries closed or partially closed their World Heritage sites, over 90% of museums, theaters, cinemas, and galleries stopped their activities, and festivals were cancelled.” According to a study by the International Council of Museums, more than 10% of museums may never open their doors again. Illicit trafficking in cultural property has also increased significantly.

There has been a particular focus within the Organization on combating misinformation. A global radio campaign dedicated to this problem is currently in the works. The #dontgoviral and #coronavirusfacts projects were launched to raise awareness on curbing the spread of coronavirus in Africa and the Caribbean. In August, the conference “Access to Information in Times of Crisis” was organized by the Russian Committee for UNESCO Information for All Program. 

In order to reach a wider audience, especially youth, UNESCO initiated a number of major social media campaigns, including #learningneverstops, #youthofunesco, and #shareourheritage, which are aimed at promoting access to cultural heritage education and demonstrating the role of culture in promoting peace. 

The Organization is also dedicated to providing direct assistance to states. On March 26, 2020, UNESCO established the Global Education Coalition and brought together 130 partners — large companies, primarily leaders of the digital services market, inter- and non-governmental organizations, etc — to combat the pandemic through the potential of the private sector. The coalition’s primary focus is the introduction of distance learning technologies in education.

The global ResiliArt movement was established to support cultural professionals and analyze trends in cultural evolution. Russia, in turn, initiated an International Marathon in Support of Culture, which was endorsed by the UNESCO Secretariat and numerous cultural figures.

The mandated role of Member States on the Executive Board in guiding operations has become a question of fundamental importance for UNESCO, particularly in these conditions of self-isolation. The debates during the special online session of the Executive Board and its regular 209th session demonstrated the desire of Member States to collaborate on constructive responses to new challenges.

The Executive Board made several important decisions on topical issues. In the decision on the item “Influence of COVID-19 on UNESCO programs and activities”, which was adopted on the basis of a draft by the Russian Federation, Member States voiced the need for international cooperation in addressing the challenges posed by COVID-19. It was noted that all decisions related to COVID-19 should strictly comply with the intergovernmental nature of the Organization. As UNESCO increasingly interacts with other international bodies to respond to the pandemic, the Director-General has been asked to submit agreements with these organizations to the Executive Board or the General Conference. In addition, the Director-General will be required to submit an updated report on the crisis response efforts at the upcoming 210th session.

Overall, UNESCO’s activities during the pandemic have confirmed the relevance of its unique mandate within the UN system. At the same time, it is evident that the implementation of this mandate is only possible through the joint efforts of all Member States. As noted by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chairman of the Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO Sergey Lavrov, “the pandemic has affected everyone, once again showing that most threats in today’s world have a transboundary projection and that it will not be possible to sit on the sidelines. Common actions must be taken against a common calamity.” In fact, this is a matter of the modern-day implementation of one of the key provisions of the UNESCO Constitution, which states that “peace must be founded upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind”. This covenant of the founding fathers of the Organization remains as relevant as ever.

Alexander Kuznetsov, Permanent Delegate of the Russian Federation to UNESCO