In the fight against coronavirus, ‘lockdown’, ‘self-isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ have become the global norm in recent weeks. As this unprecedented disease plagues the planet, we explore how Mission Aviation Fellowship’s work has been impacted across Africa..
In its 75-year history, MAF has been serving many isolated communities across Africa including South Sudan, DRC, Kenya, Chad, Uganda, Liberia, Tanzania, South Africa, Madagascar and Ethiopia. During this pandemic however, the word ‘isolation’ takes on new meaning.
As borders close and many MAF partners leave the continent, serving the earth’s most far flung people has never been more difficult. As Africa comes to terms with this unknown disease, MAF has been quick to offer its support.
Unsurprisingly, lockdowns across Africa and around the world are currently limiting the number of MAF flights to around 20%. Regardless of the challenges that lie ahead, every MAF staff member and volunteer continues to play their part.
South Sudan’s Prime Minister praises MAF
Henk-Jan Muusse is MAF’s Regional Director for Africa. Part of his role is to oversee how MAF operations can support African governments during the current crisis.
South Sudan’s Prime Minister, Salva Kiir Mayardit, publicly thanked MAF for their support so far, but lots of red tape hinders flying and makes it harder for MAF to reach the most vulnerable people. Obtaining permissions to fly can be a particularly lengthy process. Henk-Jan explains:
‘We’re trying to get an aircraft serviced, which is currently based in South Sudan, but we need permission from the Kenyan authorities to fly it to Kenya where the hangar is located. That’s step one. Step two is to get permission from the Sudanese government to fly it out of South Sudan for maintenance services. We’ve now been waiting for more than a week.’
A lack of reliable data is also proving a problem. At the time of writing, coronavirus cases across Africa are reportedly a lot lower than Europe, but according to Henk-Jan, the reality might be very different.
‘The West does a lot of testing, but in most of the countries where we operate, there’s a shortage of testing kits. In South Sudan we have one reported case officially, but the health facilities are unable to report on the actual number of cases. It’s hard to determine how high the infection rate actually is.’
Due to Ebola, Africa took coronavirus seriously
Although testing in Africa is an issue, Henk-Jan says most governments reacted swiftly to restricting movement, unlike their western counterparts who were arguably slower to respond and did not grasp the gravity of this highly infectious disease:
‘We recently had an Ebola outbreak in DRC, so African governments are more attuned to fighting viruses. They enforced very strict measures to restrict people’s movements including airport checks. They took it very seriously because of their experience with Ebola. That could be another reason why the spread of the disease appears to be slower in Africa.’
Many aid workers have now left Uganda
Regional Avionics Manager, David Waterman, is based in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, with his wife Becky. Dave has been working for MAF for three years, but now movement across the country is highly restricted. Use of public transport is prohibited and no flights are permitted in or out of the country. Dave explains how this impacts his work:
‘MAF continues its operations in a limited capacity – we are no longer allowed to fly out of Uganda into South Sudan or the DRC and the demand for NGO workers has dropped, as many left Uganda before the borders closed.
The MAF Uganda office has scaled down to essential staff only, which means I’ll be working from home. I will continue to support the work of the African programmes that are still flying and go to the hangar if necessary.’
‘A serious outbreak in Uganda could be devastating’
Becky is concerned about how people will protect themselves in such densely populated areas:
‘In some parts of Kampala, with living conditions the way they are, it’s just impossible to do any kind of social isolating. There’s just no way that people can distance themselves from other people.
With the country locking down more and more as a preventative measure, it will become impossible for some people to work and if they can’t work, they can’t eat. Starvation is a real possibility for many in this city.
Uganda has a young population which is a blessing, but a large proportion of the population has pre-existing medical conditions such as HIV, malaria or typhoid. Although reported cases are relatively few, a serious outbreak in Uganda could be devastating.’
The health of staff and passengers is MAF’s top priority
As for the health of some 230 MAF staff across Africa, Henk-Jan confirms, as of yet, there are thankfully no confirmed cases. As a responsible employer, MAF are taking every precaution necessary to protect their staff:
‘Before coronavirus, local staff used shared public taxis to travel to work. Now -where possible - we lay on MAF transport so key, essential staff, like engineers, can get to work. Even though we can’t fly in some countries due to lockdown, our aircraft still need to be maintained and serviced.
When engineers work on an aircraft, one works at the front end and the other works on the tail. They keep their distance. Staff also use masks and gloves etc, to reduce the risk of infecting one another.’
MAF are also exploring how they can effectively deep clean an aircraft after every flight.
MAF makes its first coronavirus rescue flight in Liberia
African nations are taking different approaches to ‘lockdown’. It’s still business as usual in Tanzania where MAF continues to fly medical professionals to remote parts of the country, but the situation is closely monitored and regularly reviewed. In Madagascar however, flying is strictly prohibited.
Before Liberia’s lockdown, Liberia’s Ministry of Health requested MAF’s help to test a suspected coronavirus patient in Zwedru - a remote town in the south east of the country. MAF Pilot, Steven Biggs, got the call:
‘It was 7:30am Saturday morning when I was enjoying my first coffee. An hour later I’m at the airport prepping the aircraft shortly before flying to Zwedru with Liberia’s Ministry of Health staff and their test kits.
A positive coronavirus diagnosis in remote Liberia could be devastating as there’s very little in the way of health facilities here and definitely no intensive care units or ventilators.
We arrive an hour later. If not for our flight, they would have had a 20 hour plus journey on terrible roads, then back again – precious time wasted instead of dealing with more potential infections. God has placed MAF in Liberia for just such a reason. I feel so privileged to be here.’
Fortunately, the test was negative. As a result, Liberia’s Ministry of Health and MAF are exploring other options to respond to the crisis, particularly as the wet season approaches when MAF will be the only feasible means of transportation to take coronavirus test kits and medication to the remotest parts of Liberia.
MAF flights have become the new buses In Chad!
In Chad, the use of buses is prohibited by the government, but limited internal flying is permitted. Thanks to MAF pilot, Phil Henderson, MAF’s partners have been boarding MAF flights in the absence of public transport. Phil praises the government’s response to the crisis:
‘Chad has done a really good job. Everyone is well aware of the necessary precautions. They’ve shut down international passenger flights, so no one is coming in or out of the country.
The public has taken to saying hello with an elbow bump or just from a distance. There are hand washing facilities at many institutions.
The government has stopped all minibus transport, which can carry up to 20 people, so that’s affected some of our partners in the remotest parts of the country who can’t get back by bus. I’m happy to say that MAF has been flying people back!
We’re happy to help out where we can and we’re also looking forward to working with Chad’s Ministry of Health. They want to transport coronavirus test kits from Abeche, which is in the east of the country. That’s a full day’s drive to the capital, N'Djamena, if you do it by road.’
It’s uncertain how long various flying restrictions will be in place across Africa. Rest assured, MAF is working hard with various governments and partners to bring relief to those who need it most, whenever they can.
Where is God in all of this?
If you’re wondering why God has allowed this to happen, take heart. Our Father is sovereign and ultimately in control of this strange situation. We can always trust him, no matter what’s happening around us. Henk-Jan concludes:
‘God has been there all the time. He’s the one that we cling to and gives us hope. He’s the one that we go to in times of turmoil and uncertainty.
We can access God and relate to him. We have the opportunity to pray for those who are struggling. We can bring any need before him.
God cares for us as much as he’s ever done.’
Keep believing that God will bring good out of the terrible and light out of the darkness.