When the COVID pandemic broke out three months into 2020, MEDA – like many development organizations – moved quickly in response. We brought staff back from overseas. Shuttered our offices. Stopped all but essential field activity. Our operations – both head office and field – shifted to a virtual model. All staff started working from home.
Those first months in the pandemic were a time of great uncertainty. While we were accustomed to managing crises at the project level, the pandemic was something entirely new and certainly unprecedented – a global event, impacting all of our operations at the same time.
There was a steady flow of information and new learnings from the scientific community, and clearly, a lot of research was getting done and a lot discovered. Yet, the almost constant drumbeat of updates, breaking news, and new and amended recommendations was daunting to manage.
What struck me at the time was how little we knew – about the disease, how it spread, how we could mitigate it. We did know that COVID would be with us for a while but that the lockdowns would need to be a temporary measure. We needed to find a way to restart some field programming. And we needed to balance that with an approach that would ensure staff and client safety.
So, we re-grouped and thought through our next steps. Programming staff from both head office and the field conducted scenario planning about what our operations could look like in this “new normal.” We sought to answer fundamental questions – what project activities could continue, what would have to be canceled, what would need to be re-designed and reconfigured.
In conjunction with that scenario planning, we developed new security protocols, focusing on the COVID risk, to ensure our staff and client safety. We developed a four-pillar system to guide our program resumption.
We first crafted Protective Protocols used by our field offices to put in place systems to manage the COVID risk. These provided guidelines around staff and office safety, holding meetings, etc.
With the protocols in place, we focused on how to decide when a project could start reopening. We developed a COVID Risk Matrix, which looked at a variety of risks – how widespread the disease was, what governmental systems were in place, the local health care’s ability to respond, among others – to enable us to make subjective assessments.
From there, we commenced a phased approach to reopening. We instituted a Resumption Risk Assessment to assess the level of risk in proposed locales. If the risk was something we felt we could mitigate, we would then develop a Project Resumption Plan to guide operational resumption in a phased manner.
Our phased approach has allowed MEDA to resume operations in most of our field locations. Our field staff has been an integral part. This process has been designed, implemented, and ultimately owned by the field staff, with support from our head office. Key to these efforts are the project Security Focal Points, those staff in each program office tasked with coordinating security and implementing the new protocols. Most importantly, we have been able to restart our programming while ensuring our staff and clients’ safety.