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"With great responsibility comes great honour": responding to COVID-19 in Afghanistan

Like many countries across the world, Afghanistan is facing the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic. UN Volunteers serving with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) are supporting UN personnel in Kabul in their efforts to ensure the safety of communities. 

View the below photo story for more insight into their contributions.

Currently, 63 international UN Volunteers and 26 national UN Youth Volunteers support the work of UNAMA in Afghanistan, 20 of these medical personnel. They are part of the Joint Medical Services (JMS) and the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT). Dr Bantar Tawe is the Chief Medical Officer of the mission in the Joint Medical Services and Medical Emergency Response Team. A former UN Volunteer himself, he highly values the contribution of the UN Volunteers, particularly in the face of COVID-19.

In challenging moments, cohesion and teamwork are primordial in planning, coordinating and executing response. Pandemics require extraordinary efforts during uncommon times. Having a team of UN Volunteers so dedicated and committed to helping UN staff and their families go through these crises together is one of the biggest assets UNAMA has, and for this, I express my heartfelt appreciation to all my colleagues. --Dr Bantar Tawe, Chief Medical Officer, Joint Medical Services & Medical Emergency Response Team


Photo: UN Volunteers with JMS and MERT UNAMA preparing for MEDIVAC ©UNV, 2020

UN Volunteer Raffy Tuloganan (Philippines), Head Nurse, Joint Medical Services and Medical Emergency Response Team

In January, I was called to attend a patient with flu-like symptoms. I found a nervous patient, complaining of a runny nose, cough and sneezing. She was fearful that she might have COVID-19 and would die. I tried to calm her down and reassure her that this was unlikely; she hadn’t travelled in the last month, her vital signs were normal and she didn’t have a fever. I advised her to consult a doctor, take medication and rest for a few days.

After this incident and the rapid spread of COVID-19, we intensified our awareness drive under the guidance of the Chief Medical Officer. We distributed information, education and communication material and put up posters in strategic locations. The Medical Section conducted virtual town hall meetings to inform staff members on COVID-19 and answer their questions. As everyone was worried about this new illness, we felt it was important to provide infection prevention and control advice to patients visiting the clinic and disseminate information widely to all international and national staff and contractors, including cleaners and food handlers.


Photo: Raffy Tuloganan (centre) and fellow volunteers posting COVID-19 posters in English, Dari and Pashtu. ©UNV, 2020

In anticipation of the influx of potential COVID-19 patients, I conducted demonstrations on how to properly don and doff personal protective equipment. I arranged essential medical equipment and consumables and refreshed our awareness of how to use these, including mechanical ventilators and endotracheal intubation kits.

We continue to strengthen our staff capacity through regular updates on COVID-19 from the Division of Healthcare Management and Occupational Safety and Health, daily briefings by Chief Medical Officer and strengthening our collaboration with the World Health Organization and local authorities for support during worst-case scenarios.

As a UN Volunteer Nurse/Paramedic, I am inspired to empower our national colleagues. I conduct refresher courses on the use of ventilators, defibrillators and other relevant procedures, such as intubation, IV transfusion, and more. I aspire to help flatten the COVID-19 curve by increasing awareness among UN personnel, friends, relatives and community regarding the prevention and control of COVID-19.


Photo: UN Volunteers during a don and doff exercise ©UNV,2020

UN Volunteer Dr Mohammed Said Heriza (Egypt), Medical Doctor, Joint Medical Services

As a medical doctor, I am part of the emergency response team, providing clinical care and health-related information. This includes correct approaches and best practices based on WHO guidelines, updated daily, to ensure optimum results and avoid complications. In the current crisis, I also conduct risk assessments and manage surge capacity.

In such overwhelming situations, commitment, resilience, teamwork and flexibility are essential, as well as honouring the trust placed in us. It is my duty not to let anyone down, and I always say with great responsibility comes great honour. 

No health professional can perform tasks independently at this crucial time; we rely on each other as a team. In our medical section, everyone understands their roles, feels their contributions are valued and has a sense of belonging. The Medical Team, including doctors and nurses serving as UN Volunteers, are in constant communication. Having a common goal and a cohesive effort enables us to deliver optimal patient care.

This situation is challenging and different from our regular duties, but I believe that with courage we can win this fight against COVID-19.


Photo: UN Volunteer Dr Mohammed Said Heriza training hospital staff on handwashing techniques, as part of infection prevention and control ©UNV, 2020

UN Volunteer Dr Sittileyla Twaha Kibayasi (Tanzania), Medical Doctor, Joint Medical Services and Medical Emergency Response Team

As a Medical Doctor being well informed with precise and updated information is essential. COVID-19 being a new disease, I dedicated time to reading about it and engaging in online training courses to reinforce my knowledge. With this, I was able to consult patients with flu-like symptoms in the right manner and take proper preventive measures. 

I educate staff members on the facts and eliminate the fears they have about COVID-19. I create awareness among them on how we can all contribute to flattening the curve by simply washing our hands with soap and water or the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, maintaining social distance, quickly self-isolating if we develop symptoms and getting medical help.

The tireless efforts of my hardworking team, which includes fellow doctors, nurses and other support staff, has been incredible during this time. We took measures to disperse health posters, hand sanitizers, etc., at common areas immediately. We work together to ensure patients calls are quickly attended. Together with the welfare team, we also reached out to patients and the community on maintaining mental health during this crisis.


Photo: UN Volunteer Medical Doctor Sittileyla Twaha Kibayasi (Tanzania). ©UNV, 2020

UN Volunteer Mwesigwa Jonathan David (Uganda), Medical Laboratory Technologist/Manager, UNAMA

COVID-19 initially seemed to be a virus that was far from us. However, it was soon at our doorsteps. As the only UNAMA Laboratory Technologist, I am part of the medical team that must not only respond to the medical inquires of patients, but also provide quality laboratory services.

My main role in this effort is to ensure that the laboratory has adequate essential medical lab test reagents for both COVID-19 testing and other routine tests. I also ensure that the laboratory provides the doctors with quality laboratory results in time for them to make a proper clinical diagnosis. 

For example, a colleague of ours was in quarantine, and I was supposed to visit the colleague’s accommodation and take a sample, as the doctors had ordered. We followed our infection control procedures, and this caused quite a scare for the cleaners around, but we reassured them it was perfectly safe.

I am also responsible for antibody testing for all UN staff in the UNAMA JMS cohort planning to fly out of Kabul and those coming out of isolation and returning to their duty stations. At UNAMA, I work along with UNV nurses and doctors and we all work in perfect tandem to ensure that the patients are kept safe while safely delivering the medical services to them. 


UN Volunteer Mwesigwa Jonathan David. ©UNV, 2020

UN Volunteer Dr Phanuel Tawanda Gwinji (Zimbabwe), Medical Officer, Medical Emergency Response Team

It is not a secret that COVID-19 has presented an unprecedented scenario, which has caused a lot of devastation and panic across the globe. My duty station is the Kunduz field office in the North Eastern Region, but I’m currently on temporary re-deployment to Kabul. At the clinic of the Joint Medical Services in collaboration with the Medical Emergency Response Team, under the leadership and guidance of Chief Medical Officer Dr Bantar Tawe, we provide support and advice to staff from the mission and UN entities.

This includes conducting medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) for those wo have taken ill and are in (regional) hospitals that lack the capacity to provide adequate care required by their condition. Typically, my working day in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic involves following up on a number of patients assigned to me (currently over 35) over the phone, providing remote assistance, tracking symptoms, giving advice, providing linkages with the counselling unit, activating MEDEVAC for those whose symptoms are progressing, as well as discharging those who have recovered.


Photo: UN Volunteer Dr Phanuel Tawanda Gwinji (centre) conducting a COVID-19-related rapid sequence induction intubation and transport ventilator refresher training. ©UNV, 2020

In these difficult times, technology has become our best friend. Making sure I remain connected with friends and family back at home on various platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Skype have become the norm. I make it a point to reserve some time to have a video call with my wife and two children daily, even though often it is just for a few minutes due to competing working obligations. Prayer is also an important aspect of my life, seeking guidance and protection from the Lord.

The need to contribute to humanity and wellbeing through sharing my skills and experience, as well as learning from others with experiences from different diversities and perspectives, is what motivated me to become a UN Volunteer. What I enjoy is knowing that the work I’m doing is contributing towards the greater good. Every single good deed I do, every patient or partner I reach out to makes my working experience worthwhile.


Photo: UN Volunteer Dr Phanuel Tawanda Gwinji during the MEDEVAC of a COVID-19 patient from one of the regional hospitals to Kabul. ©UNV, 2020