Covid-19 era: Peacekeeping through uncharted waters

UNAMID peacekeepers use speakers mounted on cars to interact with host communities during COVID-19. Courtesy

There is no doubt that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on peacekeeping operations, Dr Ashraf Eissa, the spokesperson of the AU-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), told The New Times on Wednesday, July 29.

Among others, he said, interaction with local populations is minimized to lessen chances of the virus being spread.

 

Operating from Darfur, a region the size of France, UNAMID has a contingent of 1,131 Rwandan peacekeepers.

 

Asked how peacekeeping duty is different now compared to before the pandemic, Eissa first noted that in the case of UNAMID which he speaks for, "our mandate is primarily the protection of civilians" and that includes escorting humanitarian assistance and curtailing inter communal conflicts.

 

He added: "And all these activities require close interaction with the vulnerable population in various localities of Darfur. Darfur is the size of France, the largest European country.

"So, of course these activities which require close interaction expose our peacekeepers to the risk of contracting Covid-19. To deliver on our mandate, our peacekeepers are required to operate observing stringent precautionary measures to minimize the risk of infection."

These measures, he explained, are the WHO guidelines and the internal Mission guidelines "because we have a medical section" which, since the start of the pandemic set up a crisis management team, that gives updated guidelines to peacekeepers from different parts of the world.

From Bangui, in Central African Republic (CAR) where a Rwandan Police unit serving under the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the CAR (MINUSCA) recently helped residents to access clean water, Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Safari Uwimana said the context is totally different.

Uwimana said peacekeepers are now working in an unfriendly environment and need to take more precaution in whatever they do so that they do not get infected or infect others, thus endangering everybody's lives.

Besides police personnel, Rwanda also has a contingent of military personnel deployed under MINUSCA.

"They take all the necessary precautions while implementing the UN mandate," Uwimana said.

Despite these measures put in place, Eissa said, some UNAMID peacekeepers contracted the Virus and, "of course when that happens we lockdown the full camp."

"We have small operating camps across Darfur. Once there is an infection we immediately take care of the patients; we isolate them, we give them medical care, and make steps to evacuate them when it gets more complicated," he said.

Depending on how complicated a confirmed case is, he noted, it can be evacuated from remote areas to a higher level and best hospital in Khartoum in line with the WHO protocol being followed globally.

"And then we lockdown the whole camp for two weeks and we also do trace and track activity which is basically seeing who got infected and we isolate them as well and monitor them," Eissa said.

Patrol personnel minimised

The challenges are, Eissa explained, that basically once you have an infection and you identify an infection among the population to be quickly quarantined, that of course affects the delivery of mandate "because you would have less peacekeepers available to carry out the mandated tasks we are expected to perform."

"So it definitely, to an extent, puts a limit on our capability to deliver some tasks but we try our best of course."

To deal with these challenges, Eissa said that UNAMID's medical team works with the Sudanese local health authorities and WHO to try to identify the risk.

"I will give you an example. When the pandemic started, it started in Khartoum, and we immediately, as a precaution measure, imposed a 14-day self-quarantine on all our flights coming from Khartoum. That was an inconvenience because, say, you have an aircraft coming with 50 people, they can work from home but they cannot actually conduct active patrols."

One of the other measures they undertook to mitigate this was to reduce the number of people on patrol.

Previously, patrol numbers, normally ranged between 75 and 100 but now they try to minimize and deploy in between 40 to 60 personnel in a patrol "and that minimizes contact with possible agents and also protects the Darfuri community from transmitting any infection to them if the infection is from our side."

In CAR, Uwimana noted, the new challenges are related to the prevention of Covid-19 infection. They include measures like upholding social distancing in a situation where peacekeepers (police officers) have to work as a team and are required to interact with civilians.

"The worry of getting infected or infecting others is very stressful," Uwimana said.

To deal with these challenges, the police officer said, "we always stick to respecting Covid-19 safety measures in whatever we undertake."

"When we suspect some people to be infected, we put them in isolation, in order to fully contain the virus and protect others from being infected."

Lessons learned

As regards lessons learnt, Eissa observed that one of the important things they did also in terms of mitigation measures is that they have a communications and public information section that works closely with the medical team and issues to all UNAMID personnel, regular updates and guidance on the use of preventive measures like social distancing, hand germs, wearing of masks and others.

"We also now have all our patrols going out with personal protective equipment gear like masks, and try as much as possible to maintain social distance between them and their beneficiaries.

"It's not ideal but it's working. And, you know, we have been very lucky so far, thanks to these measures, that the infection among UNAMID personnel is very limited."

Eissa explained that from the onset of the pandemic, they have had only 15 confirmed cases and most recovered. Unfortunately, he said, there was one fatality which is "one too many and we regret that very much."

"We are talking about 15 people in a population of over 7,000 thousand personnel that includes peacekeepers, international and national civilian staff working with us in the Mission."

"But this is the nature of Covid-19. Nobody is totally immune from Covid-19 as even the rich western countries have not been spared the suffering.

In June, Rwanda started mass testing and sampling for Covid-19 targeting its peacekeepers serving under the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

The testing started in Malakal where a Rwanda Formed Police Unit-One (FPU-1) hybrid contingent of 239 officers is based.

The move came after the Rwandan police unit lost one of its members—Police Constable Enid Mbabazi—who succumbed to the virus on June 2, at the King Faisal Hospital after she was evacuated back home for further treatment.

One of the Rwandan police officers in South Sudan, CIP Emerthe Uwitonze, told The New Times that there challenges include handling new directives in order to fulfill their mandate.

An example, she pointed out, is avoiding contact or practicing social distancing which under normal circumstances brings the community closer to peacekeepers.

Uwitonze said: "Handling this situation is not only a challenge to peacekeepers but everyone. But to be able to protect the force and implement the UN mandate, you have to be disciplined in all your undertakings.

"This is what we endeavor to do and see to it that all contingent members adhere to guidelines and Mission SOPs (standard operating procedures)."

She said that interacting with local communities in times of Covid-19 is "extremely challenging and has affected our daily operations."

"The Covid-19 pandemic is an addition to usual peacekeeping challenges and we have to double our efforts to overcome it."

Despite all the obstacles, Eissa only has words of praise for Rwanda's representatives.

He said: "The Rwandan contingent has been among the best UNAMID has had in terms of their commitment, and service to the community. This is the truth."

Rwanda has so far lost two peacekeepers; beside Mbabazi, another one is a 51-year-old military officer, to Covid-19-related complications.

Currently, Rwanda is the third largest UN troop-contributing county in the world, with more than 6,000 military and police personnel deployed to different peacekeeping missions in the world.

jkaruhanga@newtimesrwanda.com

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