In the eye of the cyclone
At first, he was a paramedic with a thirst for adventure and travel. It is quite natural that he embraced a humanitarian career which took him from Afghanistan to Ukraine, Iraq and Syria. After 20 years of humanitarian conflict emergencies, Cameron is now Logistics Sector coordinator in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. As the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Cox’s Bazar on 15 May, Cameron and his team spent the past months building the response in the midst of the cyclone season.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
In 1999 I started as paramedic for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and was sent to my first assignment in Afghanistan. Over the following years, I gradually shifted to medical logistics. When the Indian Ocean tsunami occurred in 2004, I joined the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) responding to the crisis in Indonesia. I worked with UNHCR for about 10 years managing logistics activities in emergency refugee response operations. My focus was on practical project management and all aspects of the supply chain. The nature of the work put me in contact with Logistics Cluster teams and I learnt a lot working with them. The refugee response is under UNHCR’s lead but when it came to coordination of multiple involved partners and activities, the Logistics Cluster people knew more than I did.
I eventually ended up applying to a position within the Logistics Cluster and was assigned to Donetsk, Ukraine in 2015. It was a very interesting experience, with a focus on developing staff members’ skills and understanding of the UN’s unique approach to getting things done in complex work environments. I was there for two years, spending a lot of time in the field coordinating storage and truck fleet activities.
When the project came to an end, I was assigned as the Logistics Cluster coordinator to Iraq for two years, then to the Syria operation for five months, and finally to where I am now as the Logistics Sector Coordinator in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, after 20 years of humanitarian conflict emergencies. I think my experience working with NGO programmes as well as various UN agencies enabled me to take on this role as it requires a strong understanding of the humanitarian project cycle as well as the ability to deal with all types of humanitarian partners.
In a COVID-19 context, my medical background constitutes a strong advantage. For instance, I understand the approach of MSF and I know some of the team there. When conducting interagency site assessments for health centres I fit right in.
How has COVID-19 impacted the Logistics Sector’s work?
I arrived in Bangladesh last December to manage the later stages of the existing operation, and with a view for the Logistics Sector to gradually scale down the project and exit the country.
The COVID-19 outbreak changed everything. The intention to scale down was quickly forgotten, and the focus moved to starting a new project cycle.
Specifically, we scaled-up partners’ common services to support the downstream supply chain. This involves import, transport and storage of COVID-19 related medical equipment and materials. We also communicated closely with the government to ease access to the camps for essential humanitarian workers and supplies under the restricted conditions.
A special Logistics Hub was erected in Cox’s Bazar following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Logistics Sector hub includes five Mobile Storage Units and one temperature-controlled storage space and will be managed by Handicap International-Atlas Logistique. May, 2020. Photo: Logistics Sector
We went through different phases. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries. As a consequence, our scale-up felt like a countdown. We started to hold preparedness meetings with partners. We were especially concerned about the constitution of stocks. Indeed, there is a balance to find between the stock-needs and the negative impact we might have on the local market. Thankfully we received support from our donors which enabled us to launch a solid emergency plan. All in all, the emergency preparedness scale-up went on for a good six weeks.
We were working at the same pace as during an emergency crisis: seven days a week, day and night, trying to anticipate the outbreak of the virus.
It was effective: Bangladesh was one of the first countries to prepare for COVID-19 and one of the last to experience the virus outbreak.
Do you feel that this global pandemic reinforced humanitarian organisations’ interest in coordinating and working together?
The COVID-19 response was unique because we mainly focused on supporting our Health partners in medically oriented interventions. The essential aspect of the intervention was the supply of very specific material, coordination between partners, as well as working together. Now the challenge is to sustain this cooperation dynamic in the future!
Has Cyclone Amphan impacted the COVID-19 response in Cox’s Bazar?
Over the years, cyclone preparedness has developed in Bangladesh. Each organisation has a person dedicated to cyclone preparedness and we have a crosscutting Inter Agency Cyclone Preparedness Working Group. Lots of mechanisms were ready to be activated in case a cyclone hit.
As we waited for Cyclone Amphan we held daily preparedness meetings. All teams were ready to act and a 72-hour plan was on standby for activation.
It is quite a well-oiled mechanism and COVID-19 did not have a major impact on its set-up because it was the same work with extra sanitary and security requirements.
Luckily, the eye of the cyclone did not reach Cox’s Bazar, which was a great relief. Still, the cyclone preparedness work helped a lot with the COVID-19 response. It gave us immediate access to material resources (new warehouses, generators, etc.) which we were able to re-procure to assist Health Centres.
According to you, what are the next challenges we should prepare for?
The main challenge which I can foresee will be to maintain the material supply needs for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and oxygen. Even if we anticipated the outbreak and did quite well with preparedness and stocking-up, these stocks will only last for a limited time.
At the Logistics Sector level our challenge is human resources: we are a small team managing a wide range of urgent activities and we need more motivated people to join and work with us!
What would be your advice to people working in the midst of this crisis?
Be attentive to your mindset. In this context it is easy to overlook your diet and sleep-cycle; but you really need to take care of yourself to last the distance and avoid burn-outs.
On 15 May, the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Cox’s Bazar, the world’s largest refugee camp hosting almost one million Rohingya people.
To learn more about the Logistics Sector operation in Bangladesh, visit our dedicated page here.