UNMISS staff adapting to COVID-19: breaking habits, keeping a distance, intensified hand washing

unmiss south sudan juba coronavirus awareness adapting prevention social distancing handwashing greetings

Norwegian police officers serving with UNMISS in Juba practice friendly social distancing as a precaution against the Coronavirus.

20 Mar 2020

UNMISS staff adapting to COVID-19: breaking habits, keeping a distance, intensified hand washing

Filip Andersson

For social creatures of habit, it is a big ask to break away from routine behaviour to keep ourselves and others as safe as possible from the invisible threat, the Coronavirus. Yet adapting to an unwanted reality and heeding expert advice is essential.

“I think we are all doing our best to prevent any disease from spreading. We just have to make the best of the situation,” says Chief Inspector Emma Audunsdottir, a Norwegian police officer serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.

She is, of course, referring to the new ways of behaving towards others that are required to keep the very contagious COVID-19 at bay.

While frequent hand washing may already be part of our everyday way of life and covering one’s mouth (preferably with one’s elbow) when sneezing or coughing is likely to be part of most people’s courtesy towards fellow beings, other habits are proving harder to change.

Our normal way of greeting each other, the universally most common and instinctive of human interactions, is one example. Refraining from hugging, cheek-kissing or shaking hands with dear or at least cordial friends and colleagues takes some doing but is turning out to be entirely possible.

A bit of people-watching at UN House in Juba reveals that enthusiastic and robust elbow-bumping, with or without contact and often performed with a smile on one’s face, is gaining traction as the most fashionable way of caringly acknowledging the presence of colleagues.

“The virus can spread through physical contact, so avoiding handshaking and hugging is crucial,” says Noel Wai Wai, a South Sudanese national working for the peacekeeping mission as a driver, touching on a key issue: social distancing.

Keeping the recommended distance of at least one metre between yourself and others may sound easy, but in reality, it isn’t.

Some places, like markets and restaurants, are naturally more crowded than others, and what is considered to be a polite personal space varies between cultures and is deeply ingrained.

For people from some cultural backgrounds, keeping the kind of recommended distance may be perceived as cold or even rude, but Noel Wai Wai reckons that health precautions must override concerns over breaking with social etiquette.

“It can be difficult, but it has to be done. If a colleague or friend of mine comes too close to me, I tell him or her to please keep a safe distance. If done in a polite way, and if you explain the reason, you don’t offend anyone and no harm is done,” he says.

To some, maintaining a COVID-19-appropriate distance to fellow humans comes easier than to others. The group of Norwegian police officers that Emma Audundsottir belongs to demonstrates this by spacing themselves around a couple of cafeteria tables while chatting away with each other.

“It’s difficult because we are a lot of people in a small space,” the Chief Inspector concedes, “but I try to keep my distance to others as well as I can. That means no handshakes, no hugs, no kissing on the cheeks. Use your elbows [to greet others]. It’s hard, but we can do this.”

It may not be our preferred way of interacting with each other, but learning how to be polite or even affectionate at a distance will go a long way towards taking us through these testing times together.