UNMISS and the Coronavirus: Everyone pulling together to prevent an outbreak

22 Apr 2020

UNMISS and the Coronavirus: Everyone pulling together to prevent an outbreak

Filip Andersson

An international travel freeze, drastically reduced domestic flight schedules, self-isolating staff members, personnel telecommuting from within or outside the country, only essential travel outside of UN bases, enforced physical distancing, psychosocial support available online or on the phone: the actions taken by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to prevent the global pandemic COVID-19 from gaining a foothold in the country are many and varied.

Just ask Edward Wrobeh, an administrative officer from Sierra Leone based in Juba who managed to return to South Sudan from holidays before the country closed its borders on 23 March. We spoke to him while he was becoming excessively familiar with every square millimetre of his accommodation.

“When I returned from leave in Sierra Leone, a country which like South Sudan had no recorded cases of COVID-19 (as of 16 April, four infections have been confirmed in the country), I was transported to my accommodation, with strict orders to not even dream about the outdoors, let alone step outside. Sure, I’m restless and bored out of my mind, but in the grand scheme of things spending two weeks by myself is a small price to pay for the greater good,” he said on Day 10 of his self-quarantine.

On a daily basis, colleagues delivered food and fruits at his doorstep. Approximately 314 times per day, Mr. Wrobeh secretly pondered all the things he would be doing were he to pop out for a wee bit. But, as a courtesy to his fellow peacekeepers and the population he is here to serve, he did not, and not just because he would have faced disciplinary measures had he done so.

“To me, it’s the obvious thing to do. If the virus arrives, it is likely to spread quickly. We are all responsible to do all we can to stop this from happening,” he said on the phone as he took a break from the intricate Excel document he was reviewing.

His advice to anyone facing a spell of isolation is simple: maintain regular work and eating routines, make sure to exercise a bit as well, and take time to get in touch with family and friends on the phone or by other means.

As a seasoned desk jockey, Edward is fortunate enough to be able to while away some of his abundance of time performing his professional duties from home. That is a work mode which is rapidly becoming both fashionable and the right thing to do for peacekeepers who are not rehabilitating roads, monitoring speed limits or engaged in other activities not suitable for indoor trials.

“We need to make decisions ahead of developments to manage the risk to our staff as well as the communities we serve. With that in mind, we immediately made moves to reduce the physical presence of staff in our offices,” says David Shearer, head of the peacekeeping mission, as he explains the proactive and robust, yet nimble measures being put in place.

Other UNMISS staff, who happened to be abroad when travel restrictions made it impossible to return to South Sudan and whose tasks are feasible to do from anywhere in the world, continue to contribute to the fulfillment of the mandate of the Mission. Currently, more than 200 civilian staff are in their respective home countries or elsewhere, most of them working from their current locations across the globe.

One of them is Papa Malick Diakhate, an administrative officer with almost six years’ experience in South Sudan under his dapper Senegalese robe. He is approaching one month of telecommuting from his family’s residence, near Geneva. Relatively small Switzerland, with a population of 8.5 million people, 26,359 confirmed infections and 1,254 deaths at the time of writing (16 April), is hardly a safe haven, but observing government guidelines keeps him sane and sound.

“The streets of normally bustling Geneva are virtually deserted. The government has requested everyone to stay at home, save for the odd necessary trip to the supermarket or the pharmacy, and thankfully most people accept and heed these instructions,” he says.

Like most other things in life, telecommuting has its pros and cons.

“Professionally, it’s been a productive experience so far. I turned our attic, usually the play room of our 6-year-old son, into my office, and I get a lot of things done. Sure, there is a bit of noise as our children are homeschooling, but it works. The most challenging aspect of working remotely in partial confinement is limited opportunities for physical exercise and not being able to share jokes and good laughs with colleagues. I definitely miss the banter.”

Perhaps paradoxically, Papa Malick has noted that he is discovering new and positive things about his admin team, despite being far away from Juba.

“I have learnt to rely more on my colleagues and it’s actually good for teambuilding as coordination becomes crucial. During the past couple of days, I have accomplished a few tasks related to salary disbursement, acquisition plans and the 2020-2021 budget where I needed input from my colleagues on the ground to be able to progress. Their support and commitment have been essential and have brought us closer together,” he acknowledges.

Despite the marvels of telecommuting made possible by modern technology, a peacekeeping mission will always need personnel, both uniformed and civilian, on the ground. The United Nations Mission in South Sudan is no exception, with essential staff still required to be physically present.

While close contact with the internally displaced people staying at UNMISS protection sites around the country is avoided to the highest extent possible, they and other vulnerable civilians must still be protected. Following directives by the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, however, troops currently in South Sudan are not allowed to be replaced by new contingents from their home countries until 30 June.

Coordination meetings can be held with the help of video teleconference systems, but senior management still need to make big and difficult decisions, based on their close observation of developments in their physical surroundings. Meals have to be cooked, offices kept clean and basic commodities and services made available to staff, who are only allowed to leave their bases for strictly necessary trips to grocery stores and pharmacies.

Staff are, in short, needed, and their lives in Corona-imposed confinement must be made as bearable as possible while ensuring that necessary health precautions are religiously adhered to.

“We have to strike the right balance, and that can be tricky,” says Jennifer Anderson, a member of the Staff Welfare team. “To give you one example: staff must be able to exercise to stay healthy, but we are only allowing five people at a time in the gym, with everyone required to stay at least two metres away from each other as particularly vigorous physical exertions can send sweat flying far and wide.”

Takeaway meals from staff restaurants are strongly encouraged, but to allow for a minimum of social contact, they are still open for customers preferring to linger on a seat. This privilege can, however, be revoked at any moment should adequate physical distancing not be practiced by all.

Another fine example of toeing the correct line between humaneness and vital restrictions is the fact that local fruit and vegetable vendors, contracted by the Staff Welfare team, are still allowed to sell their produce inside the UN House and Tomping bases, thus reducing the need for trips outside. For staff based outside of Juba, the Welfare team also sends food and other supplies that can be hard to come by outside of the capital.

Now, being mostly confined to relatively small bases, cancelling much-needed visits to family and friends and knowing that South Sudan, generally speaking, is ill-equipped to handle a major COVID-19 outbreak can take its toll on the best of us.

Increased anxiety or irritability, feeling blue or finding good sleep hard to come by are some common and completely normal symptoms, yet they must be taken seriously and be properly dealt with.

Enter the peacekeeping mission’s staff counsellors.

We are available for all staff members at all times, as much as we can be on a 24/7 basis," says Chief Staff Counsellor Nebojsa Rankovic, who acknowledges an increased demand for their services. “We are fully prepared to provide a wide scope of psychosocial support and counselling services”.

 Mr. Rankovic and his colleagues in Juba and in field offices across the country know a thing or two about how to remain as sane as possible in difficult times, and how to best support more crisis-sensitive colleagues.

"I strongly advise staff to keep positive communication with family and friends, and to be there for and kind to colleagues in quarantine. Mutual support and solidarity will help all of us overcome this unprecedented situation,” he says, adding that the UN intranet has a special section dedicated to mental wellbeing, including meditation sessions and other psychosocial tools.

Even with all precautions taken and preventive measures duly observed by all and sundry, there is, however, still a risk of someone becoming infected. The Mission’s medical preparedness may not be up to world class standards and supplies of critical equipment is limited, but a concerted effort to meet an unwanted demand has been made.

“We are as prepared for this situation as we possible could have been, under the circumstances,” says Dr. Ghulam Farooq, Officer in Charge of Health Services. The medical section has been distributing flyers on COVID-19 prevention, set up hand sanitizing stations outside accommodations and offices, made sure that staff undergoing a self-quarantine regime are indeed sticking to it and provided personal protective equipment made available to everyone working at the mission’s various clinics as part of its preparations.

Furthermore, anyone in self-isolation, craving the company of soothing human voices or desperate to find out the latest news is well advised to tune in to Radio Miraya, the mission’s flagship Coronavirus communication channel in South Sudan, a country where internet access is still the privilege of a (growing) minority. Its personnel consist of approximately 90 per cent national staff.

Almost every morning, the station hosts representatives from the World Health Organization and the Ministry of Health for the latest COVID-19 updates. Public service announcements produced by the UN Communication Group are being aired in nine different languages, various stakeholders are being interviewed and listeners are often invited to call the station with their questions and concerns.

"As the widest-reaching radio station with the largest number of listeners in the country, we have an essential role to play in providing the general public with accurate and timely information related to the prevention and mitigation of COVID-19," says Irene Lasu, a veteran South Sudanese presenter and a familiar voice across the country. She feels rightfully proud and honoured to contribute to the well-being of her compatriots.

Since the early days of the COVID-19 threat, Radio Miraya staff have noticed a significant increase in audience-initiated interactions with listeners, who frequently get in touch with the station on the phone, on Facebook, Twitter or other social media platforms.

"Restricted movements, reduced staff and other necessary protective measures obviously limit our work somewhat, but by conducting more interviews on the phone we are still managing to deliver reliable quality radio material and be a friendly, supportive voice in these testing times,” says Irene’s colleague Gabriel Shadar, who also points out that the benefits of communicating with listeners are mutual.

“They definitely help us staying informed about what’s going on outside the confines of our UN base. Without their eyes and tips we would be much worse off as a radio station dedicated to the heartbeat of the nation.”

UNMISS continues to collaborate with national authorities and the Agencies, Funds and Programmes to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in South Sudan as it keeps carrying out vital work across the country, including protecting civilians, providing humanitarian and development assistance and supporting peace-building efforts as much as possible despite COVID-19.

Other measures include ensuring that all non-critical national staff, cleaners and security guards are staying at home on full pay; strict physical distancing to keep people two meters apart whether at work or while socializing, and frequent hand washing as well as the use of hand sanitizers. Additionally, the UN is supporting the work of the Government’s National Task Force and the Ministry of Health to respond to COVID-19 in the country.