Desiree Jongsma: We are looking at the wider implications of COVID-19 for children and women. IPN interview


IPN: Dear Desiree Jongsma, we would like to discuss today with you, the UNICEF Country Representative in Moldova, a topic that is of great concern to our people and beyond: COVID-19. And we know that UNICEF has just brought to Moldova more than 700 kg of personal protection equipment, which is very much needed by the frontline health workers in Moldova. What were the challenges UNICEF faced in providing emergency supplies to Moldova?

Desiree Jongsma: First of all, I would like to say that the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has a long history of working in emergencies and humanitarian contexts. At the onset of an emergency – whether it’s a conflict or a disaster – UNICEF is capable to mobilize fast and deliver life-saving supplies from one of its supply hubs around the world. UNICEF’s Global Supply Division in Copenhagen is home to a warehouse, which some call a city in itself and spans over 2 hectares. It is the largest humanitarian warehouse in the world.

However, the coronavirus pandemic is a global health emergency. And it has brought unique challenges to UNICEF’s world-wide supply operations as well.

IPN: And it must have caused also the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the frontline health workers in many countries hit by COVID-19.

Desiree Jongsma: Exactly. According to information available at our Supply Division, especially face masks, including surgical masks and N95 respirators, have been experiencing the largest supply constraints since the COVID-19 outbreak. Demand for some PPE products specifically used in response to COVID-19 have risen as high as 1000 to 2000. For example, the annual average usage for all different types of face masks sourced via UNICEF did not exceed 25,000 units. By contrast, the current demand for face masks, both surgical and N95 masks, in response to COVID-19 exceeds 55 million.

Presently UNICEF is engaged with approximately 1,000 suppliers and industry leaders across the world, to support finding a solution to the current market constraints. Despite the extreme market conditions, including aggressive buying and emerging export restrictions, UNICEF has managed to secure availability of key products from suppliers for the next months. Though Europe is amongst one of the regions hardest hit by COVID-19, UNICEF’s Supply Division in Copenhagen, remains fully operational, and its’ warehouse operates on multiple-shifts basis 7 days a week.

IPN: Shipping those supplies to the affected countries must be an additional challenge, since by now, more than 210 countries and territories around the world have reported a total of more than 2.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19?

Desiree Jongsma: Absolutely. Increased restrictions on international transport are having an unprecedented impact on freight operations globally – delays and higher costs in the delivery of lifesaving supplies for humanitarian and development programmes.

Our colleagues at UNICEF Supply Division revised their global cargo aircraft capacity and coverage, freight forwarders and partner organisations to prioritise shipments and arrange charter operations as required for delivery of emergency and critical supplies. It also took preventive measures by decentralising some critical stocks, moving essential relief supplies from Copenhagen to hubs in Shanghai, Dubai, Panama, and Accra.

IPN: Apart from personal protective equipment, frontline health workers need such products as hand sanitizers and disinfectants. Is UNICEF providing that kind of supplies through its global and regional supply hubs as well?

Desiree Jongsma: Our global warehouse in Copenhagen and the various hubs do not store everything. For example, we do not store food. Despite the large capacity, only 5 per cent of what UNICEF delivers around the globe comes from the Supply Division in Copenhagen and its hubs. Most deliveries are shipped in bulk directly from suppliers to the destination country, and some items are purchased locally.

There are certain limits for shipments of products like sanitizers using air freight, in addition to increased restrictions on international transport due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because hand sanitizers, for example, must have at least a 60 per cent alcohol content, it is classified as dangerous goods.

Fortunately, thanks to a recently signed USAID-funded COVID-19 Response Project in Moldova, UNICEF will be able procure essential hygiene supplies locally, to address/cease COVID-19 transmission in communities and for use by medical professionals, among others.

IPN: Many parents and families are struggling to adapt to the new reality comprising of work from home and distant schooling for their children. How is UNICEF supporting them?

Desiree Jongsma:
This is a very pertinent question. Each crisis has both acute and chronic phases, and related problems that need to be solved, sometimes simultaneously. In Moldova, for example, in addition to meeting immediate COVID-19 prevention needs, UNICEF is looking at the outbreak’s wider implications, especially for children and women.

About half-a-million children in Moldova are confined at home, together with their families. Students, parents and teachers had to adapt rather quickly to the new reality of distance learning, and in this respect as Chair of the UN Coordinated Education Task Force for COVID-19 we support the Ministry of Education, Culture and Research (MECR) in its concerted efforts to ensure the continuity of learning. As there are still many teachers and students lacking the necessary devices and connections, we support mobilizing related resources, including from the Global Partnership for Education. We share the experience of other countries and the free resources for online learning for students and parents. In addition, the needs of pre-schoolers are also important, and together with the MECR we support various positive parenting related initiatives, including online training for educators involved. We are also aware of the fact that there are children and adolescents in confinement in boarding and special education schools and they will need hygiene supply that we provide with the support from USAID.

Furthermore, there is the unfortunate reality that some children may witness violence and abuse in their own homes, while others, in particular adolescents and youth, may struggle particularly with loneliness, anxiety and other mental health related issues. Moreover, some young children may be affected by the disruption of routine immunizations. Furthermore, women are giving birth during the pandemic as well, and the health of mothers and new-borns need to be protected.

We are therefore already focusing too on the more long-term safe delivery of essential health and social services, education, child protection services, as well as psychosocial support and stigma prevention for affected children and families.

As part of the UN’s common COVID-19 approach, UNICEF much looks forward working closely with the donor community and its partners at large to contribute to ensuring an adequate response to the COVID-19 pandemics in Moldova, this in relation to both the primary as well as the secondary impact of the crisis.

By Valeriu Vasilica, IPN