Our experiences interning at the Permanent Mission of Finland in Geneva during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our internship abroad at the Permanent Mission during the COVID-19 pandemic gave us a truly unique and valuable experience of working during a crisis situation. We learnt a great deal about crisis management and were able to experience the work of UN agencies during a crisis from “front row seats”. In such challenging times, cooperation and solidarity is more important than ever.
Working in Geneva under normal circumstances
The three of us began our internships at different times. Eve, who is interested in human rights issues, started working at the Permanent Mission in mid-February, when coronavirus headlines were still a rare occurrence. At this point, it was impossible to imagine how the crisis caused by the virus would develop. The UN Human Rights Council meets in Geneva three times each year, and Eve was able to participate in the March meeting as a member of the Finnish Delegation. The four-week long meeting gathers representatives from almost every state around the world to discuss and further human rights on a global level.
Sonja began her internship in the Permanent Mission’s humanitarian affairs team. News stories concerning the novel coronavirus were now increasing steadily, but the general atmosphere was still very calm. Sonja was still able to experience a sliver of the “everyday” work of the Permanent Mission, and attend a number of humanitarian sector meetings in person. In many contexts, COVID-19 was only an additional dimension on top of already existing crises.
Elina arrived in Geneva in mid-March to work for the Permanent Mission’s global health and labour issues divisions and follow the work of the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO). Elina was already familiar with labour issues and the ILO’s work as she is writing her Master’s thesis on the future of work, and expected to spend a significant portion of her time in Geneva working on labour issues and attending the ILO’s International Labour Conference. However, as Elina’s scheduled departure to Geneva approached, the WHO declared the COVID-19 epidemic first a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, and then officially a pandemic. Her previously less well known, but now extremely topical and important, new work portfolio on global health became an even more exciting prospect.
Two things all of us had in common despite our different work portfolios were the view of Geneva as one of the best cities to work as an intern in international affairs, and a desire to learn as much as possible during our internship. The COVID-19 pandemic meant that our experiences took on new significance, as we were able to witness global governance in a time of global crisis.
Our work before and during the pandemic
Already during the first Human Rights Council meeting in late February the attendees began to discuss the coronavirus epidemic. As the days went on the epidemic began to feature in conversations more and more often. Gradually the effects of the virus began to be felt also in Geneva, as people in Europe began to fall ill. Multiple countries demanded action to slow the spread of the virus, also in the Human Rights Council meeting. Eventually, the decision was made to move the Human Rights Council to the largest meeting hall in the UN’s Geneva Headquarters, in order for people to practice physical distancing. A few days later, the unprecedented decision to suspend the Human Rights Council was taken, after only three weeks of the scheduled four-week meeting. The intention is to resume the council when conditions improve, but for now the fate of the final week remains unclear. The hope is to conduct the last week of the meeting in a virtual format in June.
Like in the human rights sector, many humanitarian sector meetings were also cancelled, and meeting guidelines were tightened. The attendee numbers of meetings and conferences were restricted and the attendance of those with flu-like symptoms was strictly forbidden. The atmosphere changed also at the Permanent Mission office. Discussions became increasingly focused on the coronavirus and the situation was followed closely. Finally, the situation for the Permanent Mission staff changed drastically as we were offered the option of working remotely. From an intern’s perspective, the third week of March began in much changed circumstances. The office became quiet as many staff members elected to work from home and meetings at the UN were cancelled.
As Elina began her internship the effects of the pandemic could be seen clearly in the work of the Permanent Mission. At her very first meeting, Elina found herself taking notes at a COVID-19 situation briefing for representatives of countries’ Permanent Missions in Geneva. Director-General of the WHO Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reported on the current pandemic situation and technical experts at the WHO discussed the scientific and technical details of the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus. She describes hearing the insights of such heavyweights of global health and international governance as surreal, but fascinating.
The work tasks of an intern focus on attending conferences, meetings and briefings and reporting on these; writing internal memos and situation reports, and articles to be published on the Permanent Mission website; as well as following seminars and press briefings. In global politics, the pace of work is always high-speed, but now during the global health crisis there has been a great amount of work with tight deadlines to send reports containing up-to-date information on the pandemic and the state of global health back to the capital. On the humanitarian side, the evolution of the health crisis into a hunger crisis has been central.
Elina’s two work portfolios became combined in an unforeseen way, as the pandemic brought with it an unprecedented socio-economic crisis and a steep increase in global unemployment. The human, social and economic effects of the crisis disproportionately affect those who are already vulnerable. The ILO’s role in leading a system of social justice norms and its work with labour rights is, for many people, becoming more critically important than ever before. The vulnerabilities and special needs of already disadvantaged people, such as children and people with disabilities, is highlighted also in Sonja’s work on the humanitarian side. In Eve’s work, the crucial importance of maintaining protecting human rights also in force majeure situations is emphasised.
Progression of the Covid-19 pandemic
In the third week of March, the Permanent Mission officially transitioned to telework and, as the situation in Geneva escalated rapidly, Elina and Sonja moved back to Finland to continue their internships remotely. Many meetings and consultations were arranged remotely. Despite teleworking, Sonja was able to learn about several topical humanitarian crises and was able to expand her internship to also work with the Foreign Ministry’s humanitarian aid department. Elina’s work continued surprisingly normally, as now if ever it is important that the world of the WHO, which plays a crucial leadership role in responding to health emergencies, continues. Elina was able to be a part of the negotiations for the WHO’s COVID-19 pandemic response resolution, as well as attend the historic virtual World Health Assembly in May. It is certain that each of us has wished for the pandemic to be over sooner rather than later. It is difficult, near impossible, to evaluate exactly how devastating the effects of this invisible threat will be. Despite the pandemic, Eve decided to work remotely but remain in Geneva for the last couple of weeks of her internship, hoping that the return to normality would come swiftly.
Silver linings of working during a global pandemic
It is good to look at the situation also from a positive point of view. Our internship abroad at the Permanent Mission during the COVID-19 pandemic gave us a truly unique and valuable experience of working during a crisis situation. We learnt a great deal about crisis management and were able to experience the work of UN agencies during a crisis from “front row seats”. In such challenging times, cooperation and solidarity is more important than ever. We have all gained a great deal from our internships and feel privileged to have had the chance to observe international cooperation in times of crisis, at the very centre of global governance. We found ourselves in wide-ranging and diverse virtual meetings and conferences, enabling us to witness UN and EU diplomacy up close.
We are grateful to have been able to share this experience together and to have had support from each other during these unprecedented times. We would like to thank all the staff at the Permanent Mission, for making sure we had an unforgettable learning experience and taking care to ensure our internship was as valuable to us as possible. We gained a great deal of invaluable knowledge and experience from our time with the Permanent Mission.
Intern, Permanent Mission of Finland in Geneva (global health, labour issues)
Master’s Degree Student in International Business, Aalto University
Intern, Permanent Mission of Finland in Geneva (humanitarian affairs)
Master’s Degree Student in Theology, University of Helsinki
Intern, Permanent Mission of Finland in Geneva (human rights)
Master’s Degree Student in Law, University of Helsinki