Well this is something new. Sitting at the kitchen table having my breakfast of toast and coffee while participating in a virtual meeting with UNICEF colleagues from around the world. Some were at lunchtime, others were having dinner, a few should have been asleep. This is the new reality of working in a global organization at a time of global lockdown.
We were all together to get an update on UNICEF’s COVID-19 work. And what can I say? It was inspiring to hear these impressive global leaders speak about our work in these unprecedented times.
“We are working in four areas,” said Dr. Carlos Navarro, who is our medical expert in this response. “First of all is public health. This is what we do with the science from the WHO. This is communicating about the risks and how to overcome them – good hygiene and supporting improved water and sanitation measures and of course supporting health clinics and health workers.
“Second it is the social and economic impact. With schools around the world closing and people losing their jobs there will be an increase in gender-based violence and violence against children. And some of this will be long term. Some people call this ‘collateral damage’ – I hate that term.”
You’re right, I thought. It is not right to use a term which implies this real human suffering is a mere side effect of a disease, when we may well find out that it is the primary long-term result.
“Then,” Carlos continued, “there is our humanitarian response. We have to be ready for outbreaks in refugee camps. How will we get supplies? How will we continue our work?”
Manuel Fontaine, our head of Emergency Response, had more insights here: “Everything we have seen in the countries of the North will be worse in the South. When ten people live in one room, how can they practice social distancing? When borders close, when airlines stop flying, how can we ship supplies to people and places who need them now? And then there’s our ongoing emergency work. We must not drop the ball for severely malnourished children in the Sahel, the measles outbreak in the Congo or education in Venezuela.”
When I type these words it sounds like panic, but Manuel’s voice was matter of fact and firm. He was just stating the challenges that this pandemic presents for UNICEF and the children and families we serve. “And here’s another thing. Usually we send people to [emergency situations]. But we cannot do that if they need to be quarantined when they arrive in a country. How can we be on the front lines when we cannot be present? We will have to adapt our emergency response to this new reality.”
Our head of Supply Division, Eva Kadilli, was also on the call. “We started to move out supplies back in January before the borders started to close” she said.
“Therapeutic food, education supplies, water and sanitation supplies. But getting the gowns and the masks was hard. It still is. China produces half of the masks in the world, so when production stopped there we looked elsewhere. Then other major producers banned the export of masks and protection apparel. So we are looking everywhere for them.”
Because if the virus takes hold in refugee camps, in Africa’s crowded city centres, in countries where there are already high rates of HIV and TB, then…
The call drew to a close. Surprisingly, I was not overwhelmed with anxiety by the dire words of my colleagues. Even though we don’t know enough about this virus yet, even though the prognosis is ominous, I felt hope. Hope because I know that UNICEF colleagues around the world are working hard to overcome or get around these challenges. Hope because so many good people are doing so much to protect the most vulnerable children and families.
And the fourth area we are working in (of those four areas Carlos mentioned at the beginning)? Keeping our own staff and their families safe and sane while they are working in what may well be the most difficult time in our lives.
Manuel signed off – he had another virtual meeting to attend. “I am reminded,” he said, “that this is a time filled with solidarity, with kindness, with reaching out.”
Those very human traits will be the foundation for us all to build on as we face a global challenge we have never seen before.