UN Mine Action Prevention and Protection During  COVID-19 Pandemic

Photo: 3F

Photo: 3F

“We are in this together – and we will get through this, together.”
Secretary-General António Guterres

COVID-19 has impacted UNMAS operations across the globe. Operations ceased, projects were postponed, personnel were stranded, budgets were re-negotiated, and procurement was delayed.

However, UNMAS work continued in the 19 countries and territories where it is deployed. In the face of this pandemic, mine action personnel quickly adjusted their work plans to provide whatever assistance they could to people living in conflict and post-conflict settings.

UNMAS emphasizes the needs of the most vulnerable and prioritizes the clearance of health facilities and access to these facilities. UNMAS staff takes every precaution to safeguard their own health and to ensure that they do not become a vector of the virus.

"Let us remember the people living under the shadow of explosive ordnance, from Syria to Mali and elsewhere. As many people around the world work safely from home, they will remain exposed and vulnerable. And, when the world emerges from today’s crisis, they will continue to need our support."
Secretary-General António Guterres

COVID-19 has reached every corner of the world. In the words of the United Nations Secretary-General, it poses the greatest test that we have faced together since the formation of the United Nations. 

It is in this context that the members of the United Nations Inter-Agency Coordination Group on Mine Action (IACG-MA) issued a statement calling on all Member States, including donors and affected states, to work together with IACG-MA to maintain national mine action capacity and address the dangers that explosive ordnance pose to affected communities, which are no less threatening in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mine action sector has always understood the importance of combining our efforts to eradicate the horrors, whether they are viruses or explosive hazards of war, that have plagued humankind. It is part of our DNA. Thus, we hasten to assure you that our commitment to continue to work to rid the world of explosive hazards has not faltered. We remain resolute!
Joint Statement of Agnès Marcaillou, Former Director, United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) and Daniel Craig, UN Global Advocate for the Elimination of Mines and Explosive Hazards

While some programmes have had to suspend or reduce activities due to movement restrictions, many others remain fully operational and have incorporated appropriate protective measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

United Nations entities, civil society, and other partners have intensified reliance on innovative and remote technologies to maintain activities and deliver on new priorities. For instance, organizations are providing remote explosive ordnance risk education training to United Nations staff and partners. UNMAS also now uses digital and radio platforms to engage with communities on risk education and behavioral change.

In many contexts, UNMAS programmes integrated explosive ordnance and COVID-19 risk education messages to maximize prevention and protection efforts against the virus. 

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In the State of Palestine, UNMAS staff, respecting social distancing and other health-related restrictions, are conducting explosive ordnance risk education (EORE) by placing posters around the community. Since the pandemic, UNMAS combined EORE with COVID-19 risk awareness. So far, the teams have completed 700 EORE/COVID-19 sessions, reaching almost 2,000 beneficiaries.

In the area of risk education, UNMAS in Somalia took the initiative to educate the at-risk population on COVID-19 so they can be better informed on how to protect themselves from the virus. UNMAS trainers in Jowhar provided COVID-19 awareness sessions for soldiers participating in the African Union Peacekeeping Mission to Somalia (AMISOM).

As part of ongoing efforts to ensure the delivery of its mandate in Mali, mine action personnel in the peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) adapted IED threat mitigation training consistent with camp lockdown provisions, COVID-19 prevention measures, and social distancing. Dedicated IED threat mitigation training videos were produced and screened to peacekeepers in locations that were inaccessible. In support of the protection of civilians, EORE messaging was complemented by safety messages related to COVID-19 and delivered to populations at-risk as well as broadcast through local radio stations.   

In Sudan, COVID-19 necessitated a lockdown, closed shops, and suspended many United Nations operations. Despite these challenges, UNMAS continues to provide EORE and to support the nation-wide response to COVID- 19 with the National Mine Action Center (NMAC) and the Ministry of Health. The UNMAS EORE teams disseminate COVID-19 awareness and prevention information alongside EORE messages, targeting approximately 50,000 individuals through loudspeakers mounted on vehicles to avoid public gathering. Using this newfound mobility, the team provided personal hygiene materials such as soap and masks to villages in remote areas and distributed more than 25,000 COVID-19 prevention information, education and communication (IEC) materials. The team also sterilized more than 90 public utilities in Kassala, South Kordofan, Blue Nile, South and East Darfur.

In Afghanistan, UNMAS and the Directory of Mine Action Coordination (DMAC) have led the initiative that conducted Explosive Ordnance Risk Education combined with COVID-19 awareness messages.  

The mixed EORE/COVID-19 protection messages were designed and printed on posters and have been distributed by implementing partners of the Mine Action Program of Afghanistan. The sessions were mostly conducted in the very rural areas of Afghanistan where access to mass media for COVID-19 awareness was limited for different target groups.

So far, the EORE/COVID-19 awareness has been conducted across more 10 provinces of Afghanistan through 1046 sessions which reached 5,384 people.

Khairaddin Jalali works as a risk educator at a border crossing in the western province of Herat, on the border between Afghanistan and Iran. 

“It is difficult to breathe wearing a mask and educating returnees on the risks of explosive hazards, but these devices are as dangerous as the virus. I have to protect people, but I cannot wait until the pandemic ends.”  

Despite the challenges caused by COVID-19, Khairaddin shares life-saving information on how to recognize explosive ordnance and risk-reducing behaviors with returnees to support their safe return to Afghanistan.

He alone delivered risk education messages to over 25,000 people
between January and July 2020.

Adelina Urmanova works as a Project-support Officer in the UNMAS programme in Somalia.

"During the lockdown, I continue to perform my day-to-day duties as I did before. I still work at the UN camp in Mogadishu with my colleagues to support the African Union Mission in Somalia. Currently, I am more involved in contributing to the reports that reflect how lockdown and the public health crisis affects the UNMAS operation. As work meetings take place online now, I miss face-to-face interaction with my colleagues."

"There are fewer opportunities for people to meet and communicate since all social gathering places have been closed disallowed because of the preventative measures put in place. I have developed a strong bond with my colleagues who are still working in the camp. We support each other to stay focused and healthy. In addition, I developed a personal routine, do physical activities in an open area and keep in touch with my family back home on a regular basis. I just take all precautionary measures accordingly, stay vigilant, and, at the same time, optimistic. I can't wait for a day when the situation improves, and I will be able to see all my colleagues again."

Roshan Christy, from Sri Lanka, manages the operations of an UNMAS implementing partner in Abyei.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been unable to return home,
and he misses his wife and two children very much.

In spite of the daily danger he and his colleagues face, he is proud that
teams he manages can continue to work through COVID-19 to ensure that
thousands of men, women, boys and girls in the Abyei area can safely travel
to work and school.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ummetha and her colleagues were locked-down in a camp in the Sahara desert; all clearance operations in the area were suspended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“We knew these were difficult times; we had to ration our food to ensure supplies would last until next shipment could reach us,” she said.

“Clearance operations allow the people living here to carry out daily-life activities. Just seeing us with our equipment is a relief to them.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges to our everyday work. We no longer gather beneficiaries in a group-setting to deliver explosive ordnance risk education (EORE), which is a commonly used and effective method to disseminate information in communities. I know that the risks posed by explosive ordnance are particularly increased during the pandemic for people living in rural areas, because they need to fetch water for frequent handwashing, and they may encounter explosive items on their routes. Fortunately, mine action partners and the national authority unanimously agreed that EORE needed to be delivered even during the pandemic, but in a way that is safe for both parties. Now, our EORE teams deliver EORE in a door-to-door modality, but they have also incorporated COVID-19 preventative messaging in line with the national directives. Despite all the obstacles, we have managed to deliver necessary information across the country.” 

Itta Betty Oliver Lowela, EORE Coordinator,  UNMAS South Sudan

The COVID-19 pandemic will not undermine decades of mine action. It is in hard times that human beings and institutions must come together and find new solutions. The UN mine action community is committed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the people it serves from explosive ordnance.