When COVID-19 surprised us globally and the crisis breaks out in Europe, many volunteers are drawn back to their home countries. Janina, EU Aid Volunteer for the German Red Cross, also has to leave the Philippines on short notice after 10 months and supports the Philippine Red Cross from her home in Germany.
Preparation for COVID-19 in the Philippines
It is Friday, March the 13th, 2020, and I am sitting relaxed at my desk in the Red Cross Tower in Manila when a message arrives on my phone: “Meeting with our Head of Office at 3:30 pm in the meeting room on the 7th floor. This is related to COVID-19.” There is increasing concern about COVID-19, but we are working on a strategic solution. As a prevention measure, all staff receive a set of N95 masks. Among some colleagues, we update each other on the status outside the residence and inside the Red Cross Tower: “I just went shopping. Local stores are still equipped!” In order to top up our food stocks and prepare for a possible home quarantine, we visit the small shops along the street on the way home. There is still everything here and especially short queues. Entirely in line with one of my colleagues: “Time is essence”.
The situation in Manila appears to be under control. Checkpoints are set up on the streets and public parks are closed down. Shopping malls are empty, and signs limit the number of people in restaurants. In my residence, masked security officers check my body temperature on a daily base. In my close neighborhood people move on the street as usual, only increasingly with masks. After 8 pm everyone is at home. At the weekend we make use of our ‘home cinema’. Online I monitor the steadily growing number of infected cases in Europe.
In the second week of curfew, President Duterte places the main island of Luzon (including Manila) under “enhanced community quarantine”. Anyone who feels like leaving the country has 72 hours left. The next day, March 17th, 2020, at six in the morning, I receive an email from Berlin. The GRC headquarters has discussed the status of EUAVs with regard to COVID-19 crisis. Result of their decision-making is: All EUAVs have to be evacuated as quickly as possible. I am becoming part of the largest callback campaign in German history. I have only 42 hours left to leave the Philippines before closing of borders. The head of GRC office in Manila contacts me a few minutes after I have received the email; she gives instructions for my return journey. I get the second last flight at 11 pm the next day. There are still a few hours left and these have to be sized.
It is time to say goodbye to the Philippines, Manila, my temporary home
My colleagues are surprised when hearing about my quick withdrawal. I meet with the manager of the Philippine Red Cross Youth. As parting, she hands me over the mascot of the Philippine Red Cross − a teddy bear in its Red Cross uniform − great, at least one accompanying me on my trip to the European crisis area.
In the evening I send a message to our driver: “Hi Edwin, tomorrow again, last time for me. 8.15 am”. The next day, I have the last meeting with my line manager. We agree that I will continue my work tasks from Germany, if possible. Afterwards we meet in a relaxed atmosphere with the GRC team which has spontaneously arranged a farewell lunch.
In my apartment unit, I leave my COVID-19 food storage to a colleague who happily puts together a survival kit. Likewise, my unit manager is excited about some food left behind. On the same day, staff of the Philippine Red Cross who live too far outside of Manila take over my unit and move in.
I say goodbye to my home and Edwin drives me in the Red Cross car on deserted streets past checkpoints to the airport. On the way, I report to our Head of Office and promise to keep her updated on the course of my journey via WhatsApp. After having arrived at the airport, I realize that this has been my fastest car ride through Manila. I feel slightly depressed – do I already miss the congested streets of lively Asian Metro Manila? Wrapped up in my personal protective equipment, including my Red Cross T-shirt, Red Cross ID and N95 mask, I mingle with the waiting crowd of tourists on the way to their home countries. Observations and chats clearly reveal that many are not yet aware of the gravity of the situation.
Flight to and arrival in Germany
I am thinking… I am leaving the Philippines after 10 months with experiences that have left their traces: various cyclones, some earthquakes, the TAAL volcanic eruption, and now on the way to the next crisis: COVID-19… What would have been if I had known all of this beforehand? – With a smile I remember my colleague’s farewell: “Hopefully you’ll be back soon.”
Lining up for the baggage check-in, I receive a call from my EUAV Volunteer Coordinator in Berlin. She inquiries about my well-being and wants to prepare me for the situation in Germany. So far, everything is fine.
The journey is going surprisingly well. No extra-long queues. No one asking weird questions. My GRC letter for emergencies lies in my hand luggage. On the plane there are even seats left. Only in Turkey, where I have my stopover, airport staff stops me when passing by the security check with my Red Cross laptop. It is just a small thing but revealing something.
On my arrival in Düsseldorf, I notice that my plane seems to be the only one that has landed. Only one baggage claim carousel is running; surrounded by fellow travelers, disciplined and reserved. After crossing the exit line, I perceive a difference: apart from me, hardly anyone is wearing a mask like I am used to from the last few days in the Philippines. On my phone I see countless WhatsApp messages from Manila; after having arrived in the European crisis area, everyone is so curious about my well-being: “Can’t believe you’re over there. How are you feeling about it now? Does seem surreal all that’s happening.” I am still fine, even if I already miss my home in Manila. There are only questions coming to my mind about how the next weeks will be like. But I know one thing for sure: I am determined to continue supporting the Philippine Red Cross until the end of my volunteer service.
Working from home in Germany
Back in Germany – and suddenly thrown back in my parental home – I say goodbye to my independence and spend the next two weeks in home quarantine. I am glad though about the opportunity to be able to continue my volunteer work online. It is a real relief in times of social distancing and perceived infinity. In consultation with my line manager and mentor in the Philippines, I adapt my work schedule and follow the Filipino advice: “Stay home, stay healthy.” In Europe, COVID-19 has made a good choice for the season. Due to the fantastic spring weather with plenty of sunshine, I open my main office on the balcony with views overlooking the garden. What could be more different from living in 12 million Metro Manila for ten months? In the same way, I am spending my two weeks of official vacation – a special time!
Via email, Skype or Messenger local staff keeps me in the loop about the situation in Manila and the Red Cross Tower. I receive the message: “I tried to limit my movement and interactions in the tower. To be honest, everyone is very worried.” I message back: “The GRC team in Berlin seems very busy. They send weekly emails with security updates.” Shortly after, I receive an email from my EUAV Volunteer Coordinator asking me to take an online course on “Coronavirus: Basic knowledge and prevention measures” on the IFRC learning platform of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. What a coincidence, out of sheer curiosity, I have already completed the online version “for responders” a few days ago – I wanted to find out what to expect in the field in Europe.
Supporting the Philippine emergency helpline during COVID-19
From Germany, I support the Philippine Red Cross’ PMER office for Programming, Monitoring, Evaluation and Planning in its response to the COVID-19 crisis. The office is in close contact and works with the emergency Operations Center. One day I receive the message: “How’s it been? I think you may be tasked for some activities through Cathy. Not sure what it’s gonna be but it’s coming :).” Together we develop a monitoring sheet and carry out a feedback analysis of the emergency calls arriving in the Operations Center every day.
We work simultaneously, but also with a time delay via our online shared document. As my colleague’s working day draws to an end, I take over the tasks from my home in Germany. If immediate reaction is required, we exchange via messenger: “Hey, how’s it going? I might need your help today if you are free.” I am definitely on board. With the evaluation of the feedback data I have the feeling that I am directly on the spot in Manila. The callers’ needs are different: they ask for advice regarding COVID-19 symptoms, prevention and quarantine measures, possibilities for testing, emergency transportation or the coordination with the Department of Health and local communities. Only shortly before Easter when I have a Filipino holiday that does not exist in Germany, I again realize: I am back home in Germany working for a different cultural context. I can put my feet up now.
COVID-19 as an opportunity to strengthen the partnership
Furthermore, I complete tasks that I have already started working on in the Philippines. For example, I develop a concept note for a study on humanitarian diplomacy. The results of the study will serve the future strategic direction of the Philippine Red Cross in its “auxiliary role” or supportive relationship with the government in disaster risk reduction and management.
In addition, I develop communication material outlining the conflict-sensitive approach of disaster risk reduction for various stakeholders such as government officials, Red Cross staff and beneficiaries in the project regions. Conducting expert interviews with field staff in the Philippines, I have learned a lot about their communication challenges. The knowledge gained now feeds into the development of flyers, which all have one thing in common: a visual representation of the conflict-sensitive approach based on the following principles to: understand different contexts and perspectives, communicate clearly, be neutral and needs-based, be flexible and adaptable and be solution-oriented.
Memories of my 12-months voluntary service
It does not take long until we have reached the middle of May and I have my last day of volunteer service. One more time my coach gives me a call. Since we have already reflected on the past months, now it is all about the future… On the same day, the debriefing with my EUAV Volunteer Coordinator takes place. In the morning I submit my “End of Mission Report” to her, a duty every GRC delegate has to fulfill after a mission. For me, it turned out to be a summary of the past twelve months.
My conclusion: My original mandate as EUAV to develop a toolbox of disaster risk reduction related activities in schools and communities has opened up many other opportunities. These include technical support in disaster risk reduction, support in emergency operations during the TAAL volcanic eruption and COVID-19 crisis, support in communication and public relations, and last but not least participation in various events and trainings. Particularly positive for me has been the opportunity to visit the Red Cross chapters, communities and schools in the field. I have been particularly impressed by the youth preparing for disasters during simulations as part of Red Cross Youth camps. While the greatest challenge for me has been finding my role, the greatest success for me has been digging into humanitarian diplomacy.
Overall, the past twelve months have given me a comprehensive insight into the expert knowledge and cooperation between the German and Philippine Red Cross. Various challenges have offered great learning opportunities for personal and professional development. Both in the Philippines and from Germany, I was able to work together with the Disaster Management Service, the Red Cross Youth, the Office for IHL and PMER as well as with GRC delegates from different cultures. It has been a unique experience to be able to support and strengthen the partnership of the Philippine Red Cross in a crisis such as COVID-19. At the end, really surprising was only – I went to a one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world in order to learn from the expertise of the people there; and I come back and the disaster is here.
Do you like this article? Then read more of Janina´s blog posts: https://blog.drk.de/autor/janina-jasper/
Get to know more about the work of the GRC in the Philippines: https://www.drk.de/hilfe-weltweit/wo-wir-helfen/philippinen-engagement-mit-weitsicht/
Find out more about the EU Aid Volunteers and how to take part on our Webseite.
Photos: Janina Jasper/DRK