São Tomé and Príncipe was one of the last countries on the African continent affected by the pandemic. Given it is both a least developed and small island developing state with a fragile economy, the fear of a disproportionate impact of COVID-19 has been growing since the outbreak of the pandemic. In April 2020, the Government turned to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for support in strengthening its national COVID-19 response capacity.
As the Minister of Health stated at the time, "the pandemic exposed existing inequalities and capacity to respond in many countries in Africa." That is why UNDP, in close collaboration with the Ministry of Health, designed a comprehensive capacity development project that included a wide spectrum of young professionals to help strengthen key areas in the health sector of São Tomé and Príncipe, identified as critical in mitigating the impacts of the pandemic.
With the generous support of the Governments of Canada and France, UNDP was able to recruit eight international UN Volunteers with a wide range of backgrounds, who were embedded in the health system to support national counterparts through targeted capacity development in strategic health system areas of need. --Olaf Juergensen, UNDP Deputy Resident Representative, São Tomé and Príncipe
For example, Ines Rodrigues and Rita Drago from Portugal are UN Volunteer Public Health Specialists. They joined the country's National Reference Laboratory in October 2020 to help in collecting and analyzing Coronavirus samples, and strengthening the capacities of the national laboratory. Ines and Rita brought ideas to enhance efficiencies and increased the accuracy of testing regimes.
The support provided by Ines and Rita goes far beyond the analysis of samples. We are also taking advantage of all their know-how in laboratory procedures and management of administrative tasks. Their presence here is an asset and will help us improve our performance. --Dr Rosa Neto, Head of the National Laboratory
In addition to Rita and Ines, six more international UN Volunteers are serving in the archipelago:
- Hugo Paula (Portugal), UN Volunteer Nurse, is currently supporting the Regional Delegation of the Ministry of Health in Principe, while Roberto Beiro (Spain) works in the intensive care unit of Dr Ayres de Menezes Hospital (HAM). Both Hugo and Roberto have conducted numerous training sessions for nursing staff to help update their skills.
- Alex Mkwamba (Zimbabwe), UN Volunteer Epidemiologist, and Joyce Tognola (Brazil), UN Volunteer Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist, assist the National Center of Endemics.
- Lurdes Soares (Portugal), UN Volunteer Risk Communication Specialist, contributes to elaborating messages and actions in response to COVID-19, Tuberculosis, HIV, and malaria.
- Thiago Pereira (Brazil), UN Volunteer Supply Chain Specialist, supports the National Drug Fund.
UNDP is very happy to see that the efforts of UN Volunteers in São Tomé and Príncipe are bearing fruit. This has been a great learning experience for us, and hopefully a memorable one for the UN Volunteers. All have demonstrated a strong spirit of volunteerism, day-to-day commitment, youthful energy and enthusiasm! --Olaf Juergensen, UNDP Deputy Resident Representative
"The Minister of Health has recognized their contribution and would like them to extend their stay, as relationships with their counterparts continue to strengthen," Mr Juergensen stated.