Redefining global care: Duty, service and choices made in the time of COVID-19
When the WHO Representative to Oman was assigned her new duty station in Syria, traveling in the midst of the pandemic presented a formidable obstacle. All commercial flights were cancelled, and other options meant several days of travel, uncertainties and quarantines while crossing borders, and an increased chance of contracting COVID-19. “I was not content to start working on my new assignment from Oman. I am a person of duty,” she says of her desire to be physically present at her new post.
With its fragile health, political, and economic systems, Syria presented her with new challenges. Nine years of war and deep political division have taken a toll on Syria’s health care system. As of December 2019, according to WHO Health Resources Availability Monitoring System, only 50% of public hospitals run by Ministry of Health and Ministry of Higher Education reported fully functioning, 25% were partially functioning, and 25% were non functioning.
Handing over, taking over
Before leaving Oman and handing over her functions as WHO Representative there, Doctor followed the tradition for a farewell meeting with the people she had worked with for nearly 3 years. During her farewell the Minister of Foreign Affairs asked her how she planned to get to Damascus. “By camel route,” she replied, cheerfully, determined one way or another to get to her new post. The Minister of Foreign Affairs exchanged a glance with his staff, she says, and shortly seats were secured on the only repatriation flight that was taking off the next day from Muscat to Beirut, to later reach her duty station of Damascus, by road.
She packed all her belongings in storage but insisted on bringing one thing: the Turkmen carpet her mother had made for her some 50 years ago. “It’s my identity and refuge. It reminds me of my roots and values. It grounds my mind in an otherwise very volatile environment,” she says.
When COVID-19 cases began spreading globally in February, Doctor made the difficult decision to cancel her long planned flight from Oman to see her mother in her home country of Turkmenistan. Now she hopes this will be possible sometime later in 2020.
“To see my mom, I first have to be sure the pandemic is under control,” she says of her duty to stop the international spread of COVID-19. “Every day I call my mom she asks, ‘When are you coming?’ I answer ‘I will, as soon as the fight with corona virus is over,’” she says knowing she cannot risk infecting her mom and being stuck with the uncertain flight restrictions.
For over 22 years, Doctor has lived as a civil servant dedicating her time and energy to promoting global health and diplomacy for peace and sustainable development. Her work has placed her in her home country Turkmenistan, Lao PDR, India, Bangladesh, Maldives, DPR Korea, Yemen, Nepal, Oman, and now her 10th duty station of Syria. “My life is divided into many places and cultures, but my values are based on making choices for the collective good.
Dr is a medical doctor and researcher in maternal medicine and human reproduction. She is also the mother of two children. Her mothering instincts combined with her medical and diplomacy studies make her uniquely qualified to care for the people of Syria. “Safety and wellbeing of my staff is my top priority and a prerequisite for our top performance at times of need,” she says. is seeking out a separate room in their hotel to function as a kitchen in case they are forced into quarantine. “I’m trying to establish a home for my staff in the hotel – home to all UN international staff residing in Damascus. Two texts messages from close friends – WHO colleagues – had woken her that morning announcing the death of loved ones due to COVID-19. “I share personal experiences and testimonies with my colleagues to encourage them to remain healthy and determined.
Need to raise awareness and lead by example
When a Doctor arrived in Syria, she was struck by how little people of all social and educational backgrounds recognized the seriousness of COVID-19. There was little compliance to social distancing or other measures. She started to invest efforts, immediately upon her arrival, to work with country representatives of UN agencies to follow the WHO recommended measures for prevention of COVID-19. She believes all UN staff in Syria would be example for compliance with these recommendations.
“Overall, there is little recognition of the seriousness of COVID-19 in this country it seems. The risk communication messages sent via media have not reached people in such a way that they would adopt the recommended behaviours. After nine years of war, the sentiment here is that Syrians are strong and may be immune to disease.
This sentiment persists despite the effort made to educate Syrians on COVID-19. WHO and UNICEF have collaborated extensively to enhance risk communications and community engagement by conducting awareness training, providing more than 50 interim guidelines and disseminating more than 620,000 information education and communication materials. Some 12 million people have been reached by television and radio awareness campaigns and printed information materials. Over six million people were reached through social media – platforms that partners continue to actively utilize for awareness raising.
However, compared to war and starvation (9.3 million people in Syria are now considered food insecure, an increase of 1.4 million in the past six months), the pandemic seems benign to many Syrians. This wrong impression, D surmises, may be due to the few number of COVID-19 cases detected and announced so far by the Ministry of Health. As of the 19th of June, there were 178 confirmed cases (rural Damascus being the highest affected) and seven deaths.