Far from United Nations headquarters in New York and its offices in other cities around the world, many thousands of UN staff members are adjusting to new, more disturbing and dangerous realities in the era of Covid-19. Daily life is taking a psychological toll in both humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, prompting more focus on the mental health of staff.
It is a campaign introduced by Secretary-General António Guterres. In a video town hall held in April with UN health care professionals, he urged them to include plans “for self-care focused on mental health and well-being.”
Calling the pandemic “an emergency on top of an emergency,” Kelly Clements, the deputy high commissioner for the UN Refugee Agency, said in an interview with PassBlue that although the organization — one of the UN’s most nimble logistical arms — was prepared for the spread of Covid-19 after it erupted in Asia, “We don’t know what is going to come next.”
“We’re used to working in war zones, seeing refugees flee across a border without anything,” Clements said. She was United States deputy assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration in the Obama administration when she was appointed deputy head of the UN agency in 2015.
“It’s not that it’s ever easy,” she added. “The distress that our team members are under in the best of circumstances is already quite severe, and we have really beefed up over the last few years our mental health and our psychosocial support to our colleagues.
“If we just think about the 26 million refugees that we’re serving, protecting and aiding, most of them, I think three-quarters, are in low and middle income countries where there are places that have very weak health systems, fragile environments.”
In these circumstances where staff are trying to help others, she said, “You’re also dealing with your own stress and worried about your own health, your family, your friends, your colleagues. All of that really takes a toll. It has become very difficult for colleagues to balance work and life.”
The agency has reinforced some of its supportive measures, especially in communications. “You can’t communicate enough,” Clements said, “because people ask, What if I get sick? We have access to doctors in many, many languages through a telemedicine app where if one needs support and advice, you can find a doctor any time day or night basically using your phone.”
The Refugee Agency and other UN entities — including the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Development Program, Unicef, the World Bank Group and the World Food Program — tap the expertise of the Rome Institute, an Italy-based group of counselors and coaches.
Like other agencies, the UN refugee operations also find welcome support from volunteers in refugee camps whose innovative ideas fill gaps and act as sources of data and general information. Clements said that, for example, she can count on about 2,000 volunteers among the Rohingya who fled from attacks in Myanmar to camps in Bangladesh.
Partners like these can also help teach refugees in camps and ad hoc settlements (where social distancing is practically impossible) about prevention, such as frequent hand-washing and wearing face masks. When masks became hard to obtain, the refugee agency called on a group of artisans in a camp in Turkey who were looking for ways to support themselves. They got to work making masks for sale to the UN agency.
In the huge Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where many well-educated Syrians are living, some technology experts formed an innovation hub and invented a robot, made mostly of LEGO bricks, to dispense hand sanitizers.
Early on, the UN Refugee Agency began to prepare and stock commodities for a pandemic. “It was probably January when we started serious work on this, and then in February and early March we knew things were happening quite quickly,” Clements said. “We immediately started to do the support function. How were we going to support operations in this remote working world?”
As of early May 2020, the agency has not reported any confirmed serious infections or deaths among its staff, she said.
“It’s not all about Covid,” Clements said. “We still have a very large operational responsibility — huge protection issues that we’re looking at — and we have wanted, to the extent possible, to keep operations going with those critical emergencies and protracted situations because we did not want disruptions in operations to exacerbate Covid.”
“We have an emergency on top of an emergency,” she added. If a disruption occurs, “a Covid infection on top of that makes the refugee population suffer doubly.”
Peacekeeping life and the virus
Peacekeeping is a different world for UN personnel working in the field, but stresses are rising there too, with concerns about psychological issues and mental illness as Covid-19 alters the lives of civilian staff attached to a mission, said Nick Birnback, the chief of strategic communications for UN peacekeeping, in an interview with PassBlue from New York.
“Peacekeeping is tough to begin with because peacekeepers go, hopefully, to execute a series of tasks, and now their lives have just changed really dramatically,” Birnback said. “They were prepared for one thing, and suddenly that wasn’t the thing they were told they were going to have to deal with, because all of a sudden we’re all having to deal with Covid essentially full time.”
More than 14,000 civilians now serve in peacekeeping missions worldwide, and 3,623 of them are women. Civilians work in human rights, political reconciliation, public affairs and a range of administrative tasks.
“In some ways, civilians and peacekeepers all deal with the same fight, but the rules are different,” Birnback said. “For example, the military would probably still go on patrol in their vehicles and maintain some contact with their mission, whereas it would be less likely that there would be civilians traveling around. The military, following orders, are either on their base or deploying into the field. The civilians don’t get orders in the same way.
“In a pandemic lockdown, international civil servants who are used to certain freedoms and of that, are probably the ones who have to make more of an adjustment,” he said.
For peacekeepers during the Covid-19 pandemic, there are three basic tasks, Birnback said: “One is to do everything we can to keep our people safe, to protect ourselves, and that’s done through isolation and quarantine, the provision of PPE [personal protective equipment] and other health measures. This also helps to ensure that we’re not a contagion vector as well.
“Second is to do what we can to support the local authorities — whether we’re mandated to do so specifically that or not. If you’re there, and the health authorities are not well funded and they’re stretched and underresourced, you do whatever you can to provide support and assistance, regardless of whether or not the Security Council mandates that. We’re responding to a public health emergency, all of our missions are doing just that. This includes providing direct assistance and donations to help stand up local capacity and help them figure out how to do certain things, such as preparing health facilities and getting more PPE and ventilators and things like that.
“But that’s not true if you work in, for example, the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Birnback said. “There, your life just changed incredibly dramatically. Suddenly, movement has become difficult or impossible. Just meeting with local contacts and direct outreach to the local population is now exceptionally challenging. This while armed groups continue to threaten local populations.
“Everyone is already dealing with the stress of peace operations, but now on top of that, you’re dealing with the fact that you can’t expect, for example, to go to the capital city and fly out and go on leave, go to a restaurant or be able to do the things on mission that give our personnel a sense of normalcy. Like all that was normal, that’s all changed. This has provided a good deal of stress. There’s a real emphasis right now on trying to address the mental toll this pandemic is taking on everyone.”
In Mali, a personal story of adjustment
The story of Samantha Buonvino may not be unique among the civilians committed to life and service on a peacekeeping base, but it is a remarkable tale of ingenuity and adjustment to life on the edge.
Buonvino, a multilingual Italian who once worked in advertising in London but was repelled by the ethos of the industry, which she described in an interview with PassBlue by telephone from Mali has “too aggressively imposing new needs on a society already saturated with ads.”
She became a UN volunteer and was sent to the Central African Republic in 2004 as a gender program officer. She then worked in peacekeeping-mission assignments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Haiti (after the 2010 earthquake), followed by an interim year with Unicef in the Congo before returning to peacekeeping as the chief national outreach officer and regional public information team leader in Gao, in northeastern Mali, under the UN mission there, called Minusma.
None of those jobs was easy or offered a life of luxury, as critics of the UN often assume. Her favorite memory of the Congo was taking a Congolese theater troupe on an 11-day boat trip along the Congo River to explain presidential elections to riverside villages in areas with almost no roads.
She was resouceful, and that helped prepare her for the rigor of Mali, a dry, primarily flat, landlocked country bridging the Sahara and Sahel regions, where she has been living in shipping containers on a military base since 2014. Several jihadist groups have been operating in the Gao region, and living quarters on the base have bunkers in which to hide when sirens go off, Buonvino said.
“The regional terrorist threat is tangible . . . the vastness of the country and the Gao region itself, bordering the desert, determine security, logistics, human resources and imperatives; the climate is inclement (an average of 110 degrees Fahrenheit nine months out of 12); food could be worse, but it is what we have.”
Buonvino said that the base on which she lives is now on a total lockdown because there have been 13 confirmed Covid-19 cases in the mission and no one wants to spread the infection to the local population.
“When I was deployed to Gao, I was given a corimec (prefab container) with a single bed, a gray blanket and a couple of plastic chairs. Toilets and showers were shared,” she said. “But within a month’s time, I managed to make my tiny corimec even more beautiful than the house with a garden in Bamako. (Mali’s capital, where she stayed before moving to Gao.)
“Sure, it’s small, but I brought in my Malian king-size bed and ballet barre, and had mirrors installed,” she said. “Windows are covered with antiblast filming to prevent explosions due to rockets — it happened a few years ago. My mirrors, ballet barre and sport equipment set up my in-house fitness and ballet studio. That is all I need while I work. It is my space and I am comfortable in it. It’s my little oasis.”
“Life in the lockdown is not suffering,” she wrote to PassBlue in a follow-up email. “It’s just an extra challenge, and each challenge is an opportunity to evolve, in my view. Yet this situation added significant challenges on the professional level. While we had to discontinue some activities, we had to urgently implement others, which drew no complexity away from the already very complicated environment we deal with on a daily basis, with or without covid19.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.