The coronavirus is currently the number one conversation topic in Switzerland. What is it like elsewhere in the world: how does everyday life feel in Myanmar? How do people in Burkina Faso assess the danger? And what are the burning questions in Peru? We asked Helvetas staff in three of our partner countries.
Coronavirus in Myanmar: traffic is (perceived) more dangerous
By Peter Schmidt, Director Helvetas Myanmar
The good news first: there are no confirmed cases of coronavirus infection in Myanmar as of today (9.3.2020). However, no one really believes this, given the common border with its big neighbor China.
Since I know - partly because of SARS 2002 - how important it is for an organization to prepare and introduce precautionary measures as early as possible, I sent an initial message to the Helvetas security officer in Zurich on 23 January 2020, at a time when the lack of snow was still making headlines in Switzerland. Since then, the virus has been one of the daily topics here in Myanmar. Face masks - usually hanging somewhere below the chin - are part of everyday life. Fevers are measured at the entrance to public buildings, embassies and hotels. Flights to and from China have been suspended. The border to China was temporarily closed - and now reopened. Thousands of tons of watermelons destined for export to China are rotting. Hotels stand empty, first after the western tourists decided not to come because of the Rohingya crisis and now group trips from China are cancelled.
It is scary to imagine what the outbreak of coronavirus in the densely populated metropolis of Yangon would mean for a health system that is not beyond reproach. So we have taken measures: Instructions on how to wash your hands properly are hanging in every toilet room in Helvetas offices, terry towels have been replaced with paper towels, the IT infrastructure for home offices is being reviewed, risk assessments are being made, plans are being drawn up. And yet there is still a feeling of powerlessness in the face of what might be coming.
And yet: When I walk along the six-lane Pyay Road, the main road across Yangon, on my way to work in the morning, it is - at least it feels - much more dangerous!
Coronavirus in Burkina Faso: in addition to tension and attacks
By Franca Roiatti, Helvetas communications advisor for West Africa
The news that the coronavirus has arrived in Senegal is still quite new. We'll see if the population's perception of the coronavirus will change. So far, at least, there is no fear like in Europe. A friend said: "Here we know dengue fever and malaria, we have lived through the Ebola crisis - the coronavirus is just another disease." The Ebola epidemic, which didn't directly affect Burkina Faso, fundamentally changed daily life in Ouagadougou at the time: Almost all the small restaurants in town installed a device to wash their hands with soap - a sort of plastic canister with a small tap. Is it a product from China? In any case, this installation helped people wash their hands more often.
Knowing how to wash your hands is the first step in prevention. But there are already other measures in place, for example at the airport: passengers are asked to fill in a file with information about their health and travel origin and destination. The government has also announced a prevention plan. Everyone hopes that the virus does not like the heat. At the same time, expats, especially Italians at the moment, are afraid to travel because they fear that they will not be able to return to Burkina.
Despite all this, my first concern in the morning is not whether the coronavirus has arrived in Burkina, but whether there have been attacks, where and how many people have been affected. Armed groups are operating in ever more parts of the country and provoking purges by the army. More and more people are therefore forced to flee within the country. And in a few months' time, elections are due, so further tensions and attacks are to be expected. This growing insecurity is the real infection we face here. The worries about it affect our work every day. We ask ourselves: Can we continue working? What could we do to respond even better to the many and growing needs of the Burkinabe population? This situation helps to put the fear of the coronavirus into perspective - rightly or wrongly.
Coronavirus in Peru: concern for the poor and disadvantaged
By Kaspar Schmidt, Helvetas Program Advisor Peru
Here in South America we have followed the spread of the coronavirus from a great distance. But in a globalized world, geographical distance means hardly any protection, at most a delay in time. This is especially true for a country like Peru, which has intensive trade relations with China and other countries affected so far and which is an attractive tourist destination. Only two weeks ago, the whole of South America appeared "infection-free" on the world map, without red circles indicating confirmed cases of infection. In the meantime, the first confirmed cases of the disease have been reported in four of Peru's neighboring countries, and the red circles in Central and North America and the Caribbean are getting bigger every day.
The first cases in Peru will probably be confirmed in the coming days. The virus has long since reached the national media; the topic is becoming more present with each passing day. When entering the offices of Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) in Lima, people are asked to disinfect their hands. The day before yesterday, while shopping in the supermarket in our neighborhood, I noticed that there were very few liquid soap dispensers left on the shelves. The health authorities and hospitals are preparing for the first cases, but so far have only recommended general prevention and hygiene measures. Life (still) seems to be largely taking its usual course in the metropolis of Lima. It is quite possible, however, that we will greet each other with a kiss on the cheek less frequently in the coming weeks and months, as is usually the case.
The Helvetas Peru team is discussing the virus a lot these days. We are preparing ourselves and trying to do something about this elusive pathogen, starting with the usual preventive measures such as education about the importance of frequent and thorough hand washing. But we are privileged here in the capital. But what could the coronavirus mean for our local partner organizations and the communities in rural Peru and South America with whom we work? Or for the population in poorer quarters of the city, including the refugees from Venezuela? For areas with poor medical care and sometimes precarious sanitary conditions? These are currently our most pressing questions.