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Senior UN official abandons Myanmar colleagues over virus

The Myanmar Times Sat, Mar 21, 2020

Bijay Karmacharya, the Myanmar programme manager of UN-Habitat, speaks at a consultation workshop on June 4, 2018 at Thingaha Hotel in Nay Pyi Taw. Photo: Facebook/ UN-Habitat Myanmar

Exclusive: The top official in charge of UN-Habitat in Myanmar fled the country earlier this week amid concerns about COVID-19 infections while not allowing his staff to work from home, despite ongoing efforts across the country to minimise the risks of virus spread.

Bijay Karmacharya, the Myanmar programme manager of UN-Habitat – officially known as the United Nations Human Settlements Programme – flew out of Yangon for fear of the coronavirus outbreak in the country, according to internal communications made available to The Myanmar Times. The incident took place when the UN country team and its security management team – the chief units responsible for an emergency response – have yet to make a decision on relocating their staff or home-working.

This newspaper learned that Mr Karmacharya told his team to work at the office and in the field as usual after he had returned to his home country Nepal. But he did not provide the option of working remotely to his staff. As of the week of March 16, all UN employees are still required to be present in the office or on duty at the field.

Mr Karmacharya informed only one administrative member of staff before he hopped on his outbound flight, it is learnt. Afterwards, his colleagues and members of staff were shocked to find out about his departure and are left in the front line.

The standard practice for a country head of a UN agency to evacuate requires certain procedures, including informing their deputies and the resident coordinator – the top UN official in the country. It is unclear if Mr Karmacharya informed the coordinator prior to his departure.

A high-ranking manager evacuating while demanding his team to go to work as usual amounts to a “serious infringement of their [employment] rights,” said a UN official on the condition of anonymity.

Mr Karmacharya’s actions also risk sowing discord between national and international staff as well as eroding the hard-earned trust between the people in the country and the UN system at large, the official added.

The UN-Habitat’s international office and Myanmar office are not immediately available for comment. The agency serves as the UN’s settlement agency with a mandate to tackle housing, environmental management, post-disaster reconstruction, post-conflict rehabilitation and other urban challenges. It has a wide portfolio of projects supporting communities in Rakhine and Yangon.

Myanmar has confirmed no COVID-19 cases since the outbreak was first reported in Wuhan, China, on December 31, raising suspicions that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is under-reporting or involved in an outright cover-up. Until now, fewer than 200 people have been tested out of a population of 53 million.

The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on March 11, following confirmed cases saw exponential growth in early March, especially in Europe and America. Cumulative confirmed cases have climbed to over 263,000 and killed more than 11,000.

In a March 15 televised broadcast, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi urged citizens to cooperate and donate to the fund set up by her administration to fight the pandemic. Mass gatherings are banned and cinemas are closed until the end of April, while next month’s annual Thingyan water festival is cancelled.

This is breaking news. We will update you as we hear more.

From: THE MYANMAR TIMES, MYANMAR Sat, Mar 21, 2020

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