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Our Humanity in a Time of Crisis: Part 1

By Dr. Julitta Onabanjo

How New Year commitments and resolutions can change in a matter of weeks!

The year began with the excitement of a new Decade of Action on delivering the SDGs and renewed energy brought about by the immensely successful Nairobi Summit on ICPD25, held in November 2019. Who would have guessed that, just ten weeks later, the world would mobilize on an unprecedented scale to confront the COVID-19 pandemic?

Last week, the pandemic gained ground in the East and Southern Africa region and cases continue to rise exponentially. On Sunday, 15 March, 9 out of 23 countries in the region had a total of 80 confirmed cases. As we start a new week, 17 countries in the region have more than 417 confirmed cases, with a significant community spread.

In a time of crisis, we are reminded of one thing: we are one big human family. It matters not where we are from or what we believe in. Crises are humbling as we realise that we are all vulnerable.

And yet, that vulnerability brings forth our humanity, our willingness to learn, and our ability to adapt in an effort to protect each other—even while we observe physical distancing!

Across East and Southern Africa, UNFPA staff are gearing up to respond to the impact of the pandemic on the people we are called to serve, especially the most vulnerable.

Our teams are rolling out business continuity plans that focus on the safety and wellbeing of our personnel, as well as the critical services that we provide in some of the most difficult and remote settings.

The postponing of all non-essential travel and events, and the transition to a new way of working through virtual platforms and telecommuting, has shown us just how adaptable, flexible and creative we can be.

Pregnant women, adolescent girls, young people and front-line health-care providers, including nurses and midwives, remain at the forefront of our minds as we reprioritize our programmes.

In the rapidly evolving context presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, we must reflect anew on our work and ask:   

  • How do we ensure the continuity of integrated sexual and reproductive health services?
  • How do we protect health-care providers who are delivering antenatal and postnatal care services and ensure women have safe deliveries?
  • How do we ensure an uninterrupted supply of sexual and reproductive health commodities, including a wide range of modern contraceptives?
  • How do we address what typically happens in crises – an escalation of sexual and gender-based violence?
  • How do we leverage our innovative apps for youth, and networks such as AfriYAN, the African Youth and Adolescents Network on Population and Development, to sensitize and mobilize communities and individuals, young and old alike, to adopt protective and preventive practices?
  • How do we carry best practices from the HIV pandemic into COVID-19 contact tracing and testing protocols, behaviour change communication, and addressing stigma and discrimination?
  • How do we mitigate against a widening inequality gap and serious socio-economic backtracking as a result of this new pandemic?

These questions form the focus of our current reflections, and our rethinking and re-strategizing the way we work. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that it is our compassion for one another that drives a higher level of thought leadership, ambition and action. We have learnt to think and act even faster, while juggling many complex and competing demands.

Are we feeling anxious? Yes, we are. Because like most people, we are very concerned.

Are we going to panic? No, we are not. Because we know that we are all in this together – and if we work together, we are stronger.

For me, last week was a week like no other. While telecommuting, I frequently heard the voice of my late father, saying: “Do your very best every day, as you don’t know what tomorrow may bring.”  

I know that tomorrow will bring more infections and more illness, and we still have a long way to go. However, as we rally to respond, it is certain that this pandemic will also bring forth our intrinsic humanity and our collective drive and know-how to beat it.

We are, and must remain, one united family. As part of the UNFPA family, I know for certain we are up to the task that now lies ahead of us. Together, we will succeed.