One month ago, the first COVID-19 case was detected in Lebanon. Two weeks later, crisis mode was in effect and UN personnel started working remotely. Priorities became clear for all people in Lebanon: Food, health and family, but for UN staff, humanitarian assistance and response must go on especially in times of crisis and emergency. All UN agencies have united under one goal: Helping the country overcome the pandemic.
Hala Habib, who works as a Communications Consultant for WHO Lebanon, highlighted the vital role played by the Organization in this regard: “We recently launched #BeReady Campaign and we are currently preparing a daily brief on COVID-19, while monitoring and responding to people’s queries.”
At the governmental level, Habib pointed out that WHO was the first Organization to provide testing kits and personal protection equipment to state-run Rafik Hariri University Hospital (RHUH). According to Habib, WHO also asked RHUH to get ready for the potential outbreak of the disease and offered its assistance way before the first case was detected on February 21.
“I believe that we have multiple heroes at WHO, because I can clearly see how they are working seven days a week, day and night, from the bottom of their heart, despite the high risk,” she said.
Inviting everyone to follow WHO’s guidelines - that is to stay at home and not go out unless absolutely necessary - became one of Habib’s latest concerns. “Protect yourself not only for your sake, but for the sake of people around you,” she kept on repeating to her family, friends and colleagues who are exercising home-confinement amid this crisis.
It is true that the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed a lockdown and has led to major UN events being postponed, but it has not halted the work of Mona Fattah, Sustainable Development Officer and Chair of Staff Council at ESCWA, who finds herself working on her laptop round-the-clock: “Every time you use your laptop, you find yourself working. It is truly disturbing!”
“We were about to launch a learning interactive page related to SDGs and Agenda 2030 that contains a lot of learning material and quality control. I’m still working on this project, but it has been taking so much time from home, this is why I can’t wait for the day when I go back to the office,” she asserted.
“Despite the pressure I’m under, I feel safer at home, but for how long will we be staying like this especially that the public is being driven by fear, anxiety and uncertainty?” she asked.
Containing the spread of misinformation is very important at this stage; therefore, Amira Alameddine, Communications Officer at UNICEF, who monitors the rumors that are spreading very fast via social media and WhatsApp, considers this daily activity an essential task.
“Hedging against such news, contributing to appeasing people, identifying the proper technical guidance that people need to receive, producing it in a friendly format and pushing it through the needed platforms is what we’ve been doing around the clock,” she said. “Through this entire process, my biggest fear lies in sometimes realizing that the scale of this emergency is bigger than what we all expected it to be,” Alameddine added.
On the southern borders of the country, UNIFIL Spokesperson Andrea Tenenti stationed there, said that it’s not the time to speculate or increase apprehensions, but to act responsibly.
“Despite the challenging situation, UNIFIL continues to carry out its operational activities 24/7, while taking all needed precautionary measures to ensure the safety of everyone. In accordance with UNIFIL’s mandate to protect civilians, the doors of our UNIFIL hospitals are open to civilians,” he said.
“This is not the time to panic but to be more vigilant and follow all the precautionary measures in order to prevent the spread of the virus among the mission and the people that we have been serving in south Lebanon for 42 years,” Tenenti added.
Halim Nader is one of the staff members whose position is labeled as critical at ESCWA in Beirut and needs to be physically present in the office due to the nature of his work to ensure that essential support and building services, as well as utilities are made available with no interruption.
Under normal circumstances, his 10-member team headed to work on a daily basis and joined hands to serve the Organization. However, during the current health emergency, Halim said that he has asked staff members to work remotely in a safe environment, while he continues working with minimal staff at the office and is coping with additional tasks despite pressure.
For her part, Stephanie Koury, Principal Political Affairs Officer at UNSCOL, is adjusting to a different way of working. She said: “UNSCOL is a special political mission and as most of its work is done through holding meetings in person with Lebanese interlocutors, it is a new way of work to have all of your political discussions by phone, particularly in such a warm society as Lebanon where most of the work is done in person.”
As a UN employee appointed to a critical position, Koury is trying to fulfill de facto the role of chief of staff, despite all the various challenges, while making sure that UNSCOL team remains informed of latest developments and maintains good morale.
“I think they are doing a good job under the circumstances in maintaining their work, the contacts with interlocutors and their good spirits, particularly, as all of us are concerned about our families, based here or abroad. We have to remember that we are all coping with something which was never planned to have such a world-wide impact,” she said.
“I try to stay optimistic, to keep asking myself is there more we can be doing to help support Lebanon and our UN staff because we need to support each other in the most ways possible,” Koury concluded.
UN personnel in Lebanon clearly did not expect to be facing such a pandemic but are mobilized to face the crisis. At the same time, Lebanese people remain resilient: Citizens are sewing masks to help with the shortages, local companies are rushing the production of critical medical equipment and supplies, and social media users are organizing fundraisings to support vulnerable communities.