Feature story

Five UNAIDS country directors taking the lead in the COVID-19 response

11 June 2020

The experience of the UNAIDS Country Director for El Salvador, Celina Miranda, a trained medical doctor, has been very useful during the COVID-19 outbreak. When the United Nations Resident Coordinator nominated her to be the COVID-19 response team leader within the United Nations in the country, she was honoured.

“I accepted the challenge, since the experience of working at UNAIDS on HIV has given me the skills needed to handle these types of situations,” she said.

To date, she has handled six confirmed COVID-19 cases of United Nations personnel from different agencies. “Some went to hospital, while others self-quarantined, and all are already emerging from the acute stage,” Ms Miranda said.

A main task for COVID-19 coordinators is to determine whether local hospitals could admit and treat United Nations personnel and their dependents. El Salvador was not ready for the pandemic, she said, which added to the pressure.

Ms Miranda, along with four other UNAIDS country directors, has been nominated by the United Nations Country Teams as COVID-19 coordinators in their respective countries.

Vladanka Andreeva in Cambodia, Yafflo Ouattara in Chad, Job Sagbohan in Burkina Faso and Medhin Tsehaiu in Kenya have all felt honoured to take on such a responsibility.

Ms Andreeva explained how in early March the United Nations in Cambodia set up a United Nations Internal COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Team, and she was asked to lead the efforts in ensuring that more than 2500 United Nations staff and their dependents have access to the latest COVID-19 information, treatment, care and support. She developed a contingency plan for the United Nations family and supported the establishment of a medical evacuations process and mental health support services for staff.

Mr Sagbohan, a trained medical epidemiologist who has worked for the World Health Organization during Ebola and yellow fever outbreaks, said he spent a lot of time reassuring employees in order to overcome stress and fear. “Staff were scared, so during the lockdown period I got up to 300 calls a week despite the regular virtual town hall briefings for staff across Burkina Faso.”

He explained that despite UNAIDS’ size and lack of resources compared to other agencies, knowing about infectious diseases has helped greatly. He quickly requested focal points from different organizations and set up a United Nations taskforce against COVID-19. “I have been able to tap into a solid group of motivated people to help me and it has made all the difference.”

For Yafflo Ouattara, the COVID-19 coordinator role suits UNAIDS country directors perfectly. “We are used to getting buy-in from our Cosponsors, so joint teamwork is part of our DNA,” he said. His main task in Chad has been expanding intensive care units and setting up a strong referral system for the management of severe cases. Nearly 7000 United Nations employees and dependents are spread out across the country, some in places where there is no overnight care.

Like others, he also helped out with the national COVID-19 contingency plan to ensure that people living with HIV have access to treatment and care.

He said that the pandemic highlighted gaping holes in the country’s health system. “Not only were key investments in intensive care never made, some of the basics, like gloves, masks, soap, have been missing all along.”

Living in a COVID-19 world means a lot of readjustments. “We have an opportunity to step in and make our voices heard to overhaul systems,” Mr Ouattara said.

Medhin Tsehaiu agrees. She has been proud to see UNAIDS be part of the greater discussion.

“We are present and we are very actively and willingly doing our share,” she said. But she believes that COVID-19 has forever changed how people work.

All the virtual meetings and no travel has meant that people were much more available, so there was non-stop communication, but it was very time-consuming, she explained. “The crisis brought us together, whether we like it or not, and that has required a lot of collaboration,” Ms Tsehaiu said.

Aside from her long list of tasks as a COVID-19 coordinator, she and a few others started the United Nations Kenya solidarity fund. After much back and forth, they opened a bank account where staff can choose to contribute money during a three-month period that will be dispatched to people in need.

“It’s a way for employees to show empathy and support to the Kenyan people during these difficult times,” she said.

Speaking of solidarity, Ms Andreeva said that the pandemic really tested United Nations reform at the country level, not just in terms of responding to the pandemic but also regarding duty-of-care issues. According to a survey in May, 90% of the staff in Cambodia said that the United Nations leadership at the country level is making the right decisions managing the crisis.

During a virtual town hall meeting of 300 United Nations staff members in El Salvador recently, there was also positive feedback. Ms Miranda said she doesn’t ask for accolades or additional thanks. “I just enjoy helping people and seeing them recover, living their lives fully.”