Covid-19 Lessons for Ourselves and Aid Work

This week I’ve been sensing increased uneasiness and despair among the British population, due in part to the uncertainty of when lockdown will end and when we’ll ever be able to fully enjoy the sunshine or give our loved ones a hug. Meanwhile, the endless stream of upsetting news continues, with constant reminders not only of the scale of the pandemic and number of people dying, but also of the ineptitude of the UK government and its failures towards the doctors and nurses trying to save lives.

Every week, I’m sure for everyone, there have been countless incidents that we hear of or experience directly, that show us the grief, anxiety and trauma gripping the world’s population. I am lucky that no one I know has fallen seriously ill from Covid-19; although I may have had it when I had two days of minor symptoms, and I have family members who had the same suspicions only with far more serious symptoms, and who luckily recovered without a proper diagnosis. And I hear of many others, friends and associates, who have lost loved ones or are deeply worried about them but unable to provide direct attention and care because of social distancing rules.

Given these circumstances, these times may feel desperate and agonising. But as I touched upon in my previous blog post, I am reluctant to jump on the bandwagon of offering quick fix solutions or self-care strategies. Whilst I respect these may be useful and much needed for many people, I also believe that there is an opportunity to lean in to, not just get rid of or transcend, the difficult emotions that are coming up. Perhaps they are coming up so strongly now because they were previously repressed by constant distraction and ‘busyness.’ Perhaps they are coming up so they can teach us something, about who we really are, what our vulnerabilities are and what really matters to us. Perhaps our shadows reveal themselves now in order that they may be witnessed, listened to, and healed.

I say this from a position of privilege. Not being able to continue with a normal working day, being forced to sit with the feelings and reflect on my purpose in the wake of lockdown may be a curse, or it could be a blessing not afforded to many. I certainly have days when I do just want to ‘turn off’ the feelings and get away from the darkness of these times. But increasingly now I see my situation as an opportunity to learn; about why I feel the way I do, and about how this could be useful for the sector in which I work – in the humanitarian and development space. I wouldn’t claim to have any big life shattering answers to these questions; but as I continue with this learning process, trusting the potential for bigger answers and meaningful changes to come, I do have some reflections on what this pandemic could mean for humanitarian and development work that I feel are worth exploring. I present them here.

  • In the aid sector we are used to crises, and we are used to responding. We are put up on pedestals and seen as heroic because we save the lives of distant others. But here is a situation where aid workers don’t have the immediate answers or solutions, and where it is impossible to respond the way they might want – because of so many being furloughed and grounded, unable to travel. Perhaps then it is a moment to accept that there are not always clear-cut solutions, a right and a wrong. Perhaps now is not the time to be heroic, but to be humble. To open up to all perspectives in this wide-ranging debate about what needs to be done, and to consider whose voice matters most and whose is not being listened to.
  • Many INGOs and aid agencies have massively reduced their staff and operations in the wake of the pandemic, with thousands put on furlough. Whilst there is no doubt a downside to this in terms of humanitarian response, it has also meant that work routines and priorities have shifted. People have been forced to get out of the emergency mode that guides most aid work, even in everyday situations away from an actual emergency. For many, days are no longer filled with hour after hour of ‘urgent’ meetings. This invites the question: what is really needed in our working day? What can we let go of and how can we better use the space that opens up when we let those things go?
  • Whilst many international staff are grounded, more responsibilities are handed to local staff in humanitarian and development contexts. To some extent, the localisation agenda is being implemented in a way that hitherto had failed to happen in spite of promises made at senior level; local staff are likely to have a greater presence and decision-making powers in the Covid-19 response in their own countries in the Global South. This raises questions about whether they are provided with the same protections as their international colleagues, particularly given the significant risks they are exposed to right now. And it also raises questions about where international staff are really needed; and where it may be time to fully relinquish those powers to the experts on the ground.
  • Spending a bit more time, whilst in lockdown, on acknowledging our privileges compared with others is not necessarily a negative exercise resulting in pointless guilt. In one way it helps us to cultivate some gratitude (a popular self-care and wellness exercise currently doing the rounds) for our circumstances; not in the way so crassly suggested by U2’s Bono in Do They Know It’s Christmas (“Well tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you”). But I do believe that a step towards greater understanding of the communities served by aid workers is to understand ourselves better; our privileges and our differences, and the shadows that prompt us to behave the way we do. Furthermore, if we can learn to be more compassionate to those parts of ourselves that we perhaps don’t like very much, we can increase our compassion towards others.
  • And whilst there are clear differences in living conditions for the average Londoner, for instance, compared with the average Kenyan slum inhabitant, the emotions arising for us may not be that dissimilar; trauma and anxiety are being felt by everybody to different degrees. How might this experience break a historical pattern of ‘othering’ the recipients of aid, casting them out as weak and defenceless and the aid worker as the hero and saviour? How might our own complex emotions bring us closer to being with the emotions of others in completely different environments, so that we avoid flawed generalisations and assumptions, and can make more informed judgements about people’s needs?

Ultimately I believe that the more we take notice of our own emotional turmoil right now – how it feels in our bodies and what are its triggers – and the new realities we are confronted with as a result of lockdown, we might come a lot closer to taking care of each other; in our work environments, in our families and communities and in the way we respond to this pandemic on a global scale.

2 thoughts on “Covid-19 Lessons for Ourselves and Aid Work”

  1. Absolutely agree, well said. Staying with the discomfort and indeed the disempowerment of the present situation, is an opportunity for all of us working in development. An opportunity to reflect deeply on power and privilege: how we respond individually, how we work together and work with aid recipients. Coming out of this Pandemic is the potential to work with a compassion and understanding that rejects othering and simplified solutions to complex, diverse, and often complicated, needs.


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