The Human Cost of COVID-19: A human resource and operations analysis from Oxfam in Horn, East and Central Africa (HECA) region

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, I have seen lower levels of implementation than was expected. With all these, I have had to work longer hours at times not guided by existing policies and practice because of the uniqueness brought about by COVID-19
Molly Ayiemba

By Molly Ayiemba and Wangechi Mukoko

"2020 is the year that the workplace changed forever and presented enormous people challenges. From office, guest house safety measures to work-from-home conference calls, HR policies that needed urgent review, and threats to employee wellbeing, productivity, and engagement. In addition, dealing with loss and illness of employees has tested my mental and emotional resolve as a HR practioner. I have condoled with employees who have lost co-workers or a loved one from COVID-19 and supported those who tested positive or fell ill; and throughout this period, I was obliged to continue with my normal HR work constantly praying that life would not throw another curveball!"

"As a Regional Human Resource Business Partner at Oxfam in Horn East and Central Africa (HECA), COVID-19 forced me to reimagine several aspects of support to staff. I have learned to be more agile, adaptable, empathetic, and understanding. After 12 months of challenges, I can say that I have made many transformative discoveries and laud the support received from colleagues in the Confederation."

Molly Ayiemba, the Regional HR Business Partner at Oxfam in HECA is not alone. Wangechi Mukoko, the Global Program Operations Manager at Oxfam International says: “I spend a lot of time negotiating alternatives as a result of internal and external changes such as staff covers, resolving operational issues such as over-spends and under-spends on commitments, made etc. All this is happening at a time when the organisation is going through a major internal change process. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, I have seen lower levels of implementation than was expected. With all these, I have had to work longer hours, at times not guided by existing policies and practice, because of the uniqueness brought about by COVID-19 and the new normal. However, one of the positives brought about by COVID-19 is the willingness for a collaborative effort in resolving operational issues. I feel this has resulted in a more coherent confederation.”

Senior Managers such as Molly and Wangechi have been at the heart of Oxfam’s organisational changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic evolution. In this article, they share their perspectives on the human cost of COVID-19 and how the new normal has affected the organisation and workforce whose lives have been deeply disrupted and left uncertain. Their perspectives paint a picture of the situation and how COVID-19 has affected work.

A human resource perspective

With the onset of the pandemic, many national governments announced temporary lockdowns and gave directives for employers to allow their staff to work from home, except for essential workers. Humanitarian organisations, like Oxfam who provide lifesaving and emergency response activities in marginalised communities were not exempted and had to comply too. In many of the ten counties (Burundi, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda) where Oxfam in HECA operates, offices scaled down from the end of March 2020 onwards with many remaining with few staff for the better part of 2020. The rest of the staff were required to work from home where possible and where not, to take their paid leave. Ways of working changed, and all implementation and oversight activities had to be done remotely with meetings, trainings and conferences going virtual. Zoom and Microsoft Teams became the order of the day.

During this period, learning institutions were also shut down and learners had to stay home for more than nine months in most of the HECA countries. This meant that staff, especially women with families had to balance their office work with additional childcare responsibilities such as home-schooling. Many households in the region do not have the luxury of large homes to accommodate extra rooms for office conversions or play spaces for the children in a bid to keep them safe from contracting the virus if they played outside with their friends and schoolmates. Most of the staff households do not have the right furniture and good internet connectivity. For example, some staff in Nairobi-Kenya took home their office chairs and computer screens to enable them to work well. Those with no internet access in their homes had to buy data bundles.

Peace Immaculate Chandini – Project Coordinator at Oxfam in Uganda, adjusting to working from home.

“I have ended up working from all sorts of places like the bed, and in some instances, I have used the fridge as a worktable. I, however, do not like the erratic power cuts with no backup option and sometimes the poor internet connection,” says Peace Immaculate.

During the pandemic, most staff have had to take sick leave and time off to take care of themselves, their loved ones and to attend funerals. All these have led to lots of mental health concerns in the region. Staff continue living each day with fear due to the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic. On one occasion, one staff member said: “Will I get the virus? and if I do, “how will I manage the cost of treatment since the CIGNA health insurance is not covering all the COVID-19 related costs,” such as random testing if one was suspected to be sick and medical evacuation from field locations.

“There was always delay in getting quick answers from colleagues and sometimes the internet was just as slow. I always made phone calls to colleagues in case I needed a quick response. This meant running out of the provided airtime. I also had a very uncomfortable chair and table, but I eventually utilized pillows for comfort.”

Unfortunately, due to the increased travel restrictions, some national staff with families living far from their workstations chose to resign and go home to be with their families. There, they felt safer. A good case in point is South Sudan where we have staff with families living across the Ugandan border. Those who chose to persevere and continue with their jobs often took the risk of travelling across the border to see their families over the weekends, but upon return, they would have to observe the mandatory fourteen days isolation. This meant that they could not access the office or go for fieldwork. In most cases, Oxfam would pay for the isolation costs when staff productivity was highly affected.

The inequality phrase among staff that usually takes a back seat became a reality. This glared in the areas of medical care as it would be much easier for an expatriate to get medical evacuation from a field station but almost impossible for the nationals. Murmurs and rumours of who was bringing the virus from outside the borders and who was not following the laid down standard operating procedures were constant. Team dynamics became prominent.

Learning and development was not spared. 2020 began as an ordinary year with many learning, training, and conference plans in place for the FY20/21 financial year. With the travel restrictions, all those plans had to be cancelled and/or postponed to future dates. Many of those activities remained undone to date with only a few moved to be held virtually.

An operations and finance perspective

As countries heightened their border controls, there was a challenge on the transport sector, whether by air, land, or sea. It became difficult for staff to secure regular flights for official travel. Therefore, when the need arose, some country programmes would have to charter an aircraft. In South Sudan, to charter a flight from a field location to Juba would cost between USD 15,000 to USD 20,000 per trip. In Somaliland, there was a sharp increase in the cost of vehicle transportation used by staff for field visits. COVID-19 social distance measures meant more vehicles had to be used which translates into more time spent ferrying staff to field locations and more fuel spent but fewer field activities.

In most countries in the region, the supply chain was also severely affected. In ordinary times, it would take only a week to deliver materials to project sites, but with the disruption in the supply chain due to the restrictions on transport, it would now take more than a month for vendors to deliver materials. This affected implementation due to the delay of project activities.

In some offices like Nairobi which hosts the Oxfam International Secretariat, the HECA Regional Platform, Kenya Country Programme, shared services team, and other essential staff, those who do own personal vehicles have had to take taxis to and from the office in a bid to reduce the exposure to the virus both to themselves, their families, and other colleagues. Some of these staff live quite far from the office, thus their taxi costs are quite high. In Juba, South Sudan, the cost of transporting staff from the guest house to the office and back has increased by USD 55,000.

Office cleaning supplies and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) have also been a key consideration to keep staff safe. These include masks for staff, sanitizers, regular fumigation and sanitisation of the offices and common areas. In Nairobi, each monthly round of fumigation and sanitisation of the office costs between USD 400 to USD 500. In DRC, this costs USD 230 for each round while in Somalia, it costs USD 4,500. In South Sudan, it cost USD 4,632 in the month of February 2021 meaning that these costs will continue to be incurred. Occupational safety and health administration standards have also had to be observed to the latter like putting up COVID-19 protection signage within the office spaces. This has come with additional costs.

Staff working from home have had to be provided with unlimited data bundles every month to facilitate their internet connections. This is despite the standard monthly office internet charges paid to the service providers. In Juba, internet and mobile recharge costs have increased by approximately USD 54,000 as at the end of February 2021. Office rental costs across many country programmes remain constant despite most of these spaces remaining unutilised for the better part of 2020 as many staff continue to work from home with only a few more returning to the office in 2021. Landlords who have equally been affected by the pandemic, have been hesitant to engage in negotiations to cut down these costs.

Chris Adide Odongo (left), EFSVL Assistant at the spot where he can access network.

Medical testing for staff suspected to have contracted the virus is another huge cost. In Juba for example, the cost for testing international staff was and continues to be USD 80 per staff and USD 40 for nationals–everyone requires two tests; when suspected, and if found positive, after the isolation and treatment period to confirm that they are fit to return to work. In Nairobi, this cost has been between USD 50 to USD 100 per test. In Juba, the country program recently spent USD 10,000 to test staff after there was a high number of staff identified after contact tracing following some COVID positive cases. This cost included medical follow up and support.

Key to note is that all these extra costs had not been budgeted for and Country Programmes have had to engage their Country Governance Groups for support where they were unable to absorb the additional costs within existing country budgets.

On a positive note, there have been some savings. The daily consumption of office tea, water, toilet paper and official flight costs declined. Some offices like the Nairobi hub also had a reduction in the number of stewards from six to three cutting the cost by 50%.

Lessons and recommendations from the pandemic

1. Workforce areas are emerging as priorities for business leaders and international organisations

  • Protect people: Initiate measures to help support employees’ physical and emotional well-being, whether at work or at home.
  • Communicate effectively in global uncertainty: Lead with responsive, empathetic communication and policies that help people feel informed and supported.
  • Maintain the continuity of work: Provide the resources and support employees need to be productive, especially as they adapt to working remotely.
  • Assess workforce costs: Explore workforce levers to help balance the potential need to cut costs with the desire to keep people employed.
  • Prepare for recovery: Align workforce planning with the business strategy and prepare for an evolving market in order, to ramp up in recovery.

2. Need to review our internal policies and processes

This pandemic should greatly inform us on how our policies and processes respond to emergencies of such magnitude as COVID-19. e.g., enabling staff to work remotely, being able to adjust and lower requirements and adjust to minimum standards e.g., in recruitments, access to medical care, or approvals, etc. This also applies to the internal reporting requirements where country programme staff were required to respond to their respective executing affiliates, partner affiliates, donors and requests from NGO regulatory bodies, while honouring the increased internal reporting requirements to track the organisation’s preparedness and engagement during the pandemic.

3. Digitisation of workflow is key in the future of work

Majority of our business processes, both internal to the organisation and with other parties rely on physical paperwork and signatures, or some version of it. During the lockdown, these were severely affected with a lot of people being unable to manage paper related processes. A lot of these may have already been resolved across the region or will need rethinking in the future.

4. Delegation of authority

Different country programmes work in different contexts. One cannot compare the working environment in Europe to that in sub-Saharan Africa and this therefore calls for the need to delegate authority based on context. It is important to listen to the people on the ground who have the facts and reality at their fingertips and wear a more human heart when dealing with them. Empathy goes a long way in getting things done better by people who are already hanging on a thin line.

5. Supply is a major factor in Oxfam’s implementation

Speaking with some of our colleagues, some of the supply and logistics learning include:

  • Innovation, research & development: Lockdowns, inability to access markets, transport systems, low output in production and many more were some of the issues facing supply chains across the world. Innovations in these areas may have helped e.g., the use of drones to deliver goods to individuals, utilisation of e-commerce, etc. More research and innovation will be required to provide access to these services to more people especially in remote areas where humanitarian actors work.
  • Need for a resilient supply chain: Complex operation models do not work well in emergencies. To create sustainable, resilient supply chains, logistical processes must be simplified and re-invented. The key aspects in the future of logistics are cooperation and collaboration i.e., if storage, drivers, and vehicles are in short supply, what could be more obvious than sharing them? Networking and collaboration will benefit all parties involved.
  • Innovation and local solutions: For our logistics and supply teams, there was the realisation that we had an over-reliance on external markets especially in fragile countries like DRC and South Sudan. Once international trade was affected, the local markets were immediately negatively affected. Commodities and goods became scarce, leading to heightened prices and having longer lead times towards delivery. This eventually created an opportunity for innovation as local solutions were sought and implemented. This was a great win for both our local communities, project activities and our localisation agenda.
  • Need for practical inter-agency coordination during emergencies: While the scale of the pandemic was unprecedented, there was little inter-agency preparation and coordination. While coordination mechanisms later began to be put in place, with the United Nations agencies like World Food Program (WFP) and World Health Organization (WHO) leading, humanitarian actors still had difficulties in accessing or figuring out how to use them properly. Prior simulations and arrangements would have maybe made it better by understanding how these may realistically work at the global, regional, and at the country level.
  • Information and communication are critical to the success of supply and logistic operations: Having knowledge of which markets are working, which transport systems are available, where, and how to obtain critical goods were all key things that individuals, corporations, and government institutions as well as non-governmental agencies needed to know on a timely basis to communicate them to their key decision makers. Whoever had the fastest access to this information stayed ahead of the game and was able to address their needs. Investing in information systems, data analytics and robust communication channels on our supply chain will be a critical factor in being able to make decisions that may save on time, cost and even lives.

COVID-19 may be an unprecedented global crisis in our time, but it may not be the last. As an organisation, we need to become more agile and ready for the future of work.