The angst of being a locked-down South African diplomat in Brazil, Opinionista, Daily Maverick, by Ntsiki Mashimbye, 25 May 2020

The greatest causes of anxiety among diplomatic officials, both in Brasilia and São Paulo, is the health of family and friends in South Africa, especially those with elderly and vulnerable parents, and siblings. The utter devastation of losing a loved one while abroad is only surpassed by the absolute injustice and heartbreak one feels at not being able to travel home to say a final goodbye.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a wonderful thing happened to me last week: I received a call from a colleague in the Employment Health and Wellness Centre (EHWC) at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO).

The purpose of the call was to inquire as to my wellbeing under the difficult circumstances brought about by the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown in Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil. I was more than elated to receive this call, the first of its kind in my 10 years of service at DIRCO.

During my first posting as Ambassador to the DRC and the Great Lakes, I visited the most dangerous and far-flung battlegrounds and war zones for meetings in pursuance of South Africa’s foreign policy.

Perhaps the most traumatising of my experiences in the DRC was waking up to the deadly projectiles that landed on the property of the Chancery, which also housed the official residence and residences of all officials at the Mission in Kinshasa.

The trauma affected my family and colleagues in ways we will never fully be able to articulate. I had to counsel several of the embassy officials (and their families) who were determined to resign immediately and return home to safety. Fortunately, I managed to convince all to stay and to complete their postings.

And now, 10 years later, I finally received the call: cometh the hour, cometh the wellness unit! 

My colleagues will be aware that in the past, I have questioned the role and purpose of the EHWC. However, after the experience of one simple call, I am now more convinced than ever that this unit should be better equipped and adequately resourced to assist our diplomats to cope with the challenges of serving in foreign lands, away from family structures and from the familiarity and comforts of our beautiful country. Most, if not all, foreign ministries have such a unit, and some countries even have health professionals deployed at their larger embassies and covering several countries.

After the call from EWHC, I decided to engage officials at the embassy, starting with video calls to each of the officials in our Consulate-General in São Paulo, which happens to be the epicentre of the pandemic in Brazil. As a result, the consulate has been closed for two months now. My intention was to hear how each of the officials and their families are coping with this most unnatural situation and to reassure them that this too shall pass. After all, separating from others goes against the basic human need for companionship and connection that we all feel.

I thought I was ready to place this call given all my training over the years as a political commissar to hundreds of soldiers in the most unspeakable conditions of a people’s war against apartheid tyranny. Then, the enemy was clear and victory was in sight, but now, I had to speak to soldiers fighting an invisible and insidious enemy with no end in sight.

Speaking to my colleagues left me overwhelmed with a lump in my throat. I saw fatigue and worry, but also bravery and defiance. I heard fear and anxiety, but also resilience and endurance. I felt pain and melancholy, but also incredible patriotism and an indomitable spirit to survive and continue to serve the republic.

Officials conveyed the helplessness of being unable to respond to queries from their young children on even the simplest of activities: seeing their friends, watching a movie at a cinema or riding their bicycles in a park.

Children are generally visual creatures, and an abstract and obscure virus may as well be an imaginary and distant friend. Teenagers of officials are not necessarily better placed to handle the virus, many delving even further into the virtual world that already consumed most of their days in pre-COVID-19 times.

Spending long days indoors and even more time in front of television screens, mobile phones and laptops can only be harmful to their mental and physical wellbeing. For some of our children, the impact will be lifelong. As an April 2020 United Nations report stated: “Children are not the face of this pandemic. But they risk being among its biggest victims.” For those of us who are parents, this is indeed a difficult pill to swallow.

The greatest causes of angst among officials, both in Brasilia and São Paulo, is the health of family and friends in South Africa, especially those with elderly and vulnerable parents, and siblings. The utter devastation of losing a loved one while abroad is only surpassed by the absolute injustice and heartbreak one feels at not being able to travel home to say a final goodbye.

Speaking to my colleagues left me overwhelmed with a lump in my throat. I saw fatigue and worry, but also bravery and defiance. I heard fear and anxiety, but also resilience and endurance. I felt pain and melancholy, but also incredible patriotism and an indomitable spirit to survive and continue to serve the republic. 

I am indeed privileged to work with diplomats of this calibre. Listening to my staff and attempting to play the strong leader has only taught me that, like them, I too am just a mere mortal that always needs to know that someone out there cares.

If nothing else, this pandemic has taught governments and companies across the world the importance of investing in the health and wellness of its citizens, and employees. Healthy citizens and employees are productive citizens and employees. The nexus between health and economic productivity has been written about extensively. DIRCO — and indeed the rest of government — needs to continue showing that it is a caring employer. DM

https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2020-05-25-the-angst-of-being-a-locked-down-south-african-diplomat-in-brazil/#gsc.tab=0




 

 

Quick Links

Disclaimer | Contact Us | HomeLast Updated: 20 July, 2020 9:55 PM
This site is best viewed using 800 x 600 resolution with Internet Explorer 5.0, Netscape Communicator 4.5 or higher.
2003 Department of Foreign Affairs, Republic of South Africa