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Travel Agency, donations facilitator and new areas of cooperation: An embassy in a COVID19-crisis

by Karina Hedemark, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Denmark in South Africa

8 May 2020

We all have to get used to a very different everyday life during the COVID19-crisis. As a diplomatic mission, our core work used to be to facilitate incoming and outgoing missions between South Africa and Denmark, issue visas so South Africans could travel to Denmark and prepare high-level visits.

Photo: Mr Tobias Elling Rehfeld, Ambassador of Denmark to South Africa and Dr Zweli Mkhize, Minister of Health of South Africa inspecting a donation by Danish company Maersk of personal protection equipment against COVID19

To travel and meet, to have a face-to-face dialogue and shake hands with the right people seemed to be fundamental instruments for diplomacy. But in this COVID19-crisis, we have had to very quickly adjust and shift focus in order to solve the urgent tasks at hand and transform the excellent South African – Danish relationship into activities that would benefit us all in this crisis.

We spent most of our time in March and April with close contact to our citizens in South Africa and the side-accredited countries. We lived and dreamt excel sheets, pax lists, logistics and travel documents. The big task was to get the stranded citizens on board repatriation flights back to Denmark. It was no easy task and the speed of the lockdown not just in South Africa but globally took many people by surprise. Thanks to a great effort from especially Germany and a fantastic cooperation among the European countries and with the South African government, the bulk of this work is now behind us. We continue to have citizens wishing to return, but at a manageable level.

Quickly, the South African reality became the next big issue to deal with. Denmark and South Africa has strategic sector projects in the areas of water, sustainable cities and energy. We wanted to respond to the situation in some areas where access to water is an issue and where the lockdown made this issue even more pertinent.

In collaboration with the municipality, we managed to get water tanks delivered quickly to some of the communities in most need. Furthermore, we have facilitated that one of the big global Danish companies – the shipping company Maersk – is donating various items such as 450,000 masks and 200,000 gloves and sanitizer, suits, thermometers and other things to Transnet and the Department of Health and food parcels through NGOs. This work to play the part as facilitator to support South Africa’s efforts to handle the COVID19-crisis will continue over the next months.

New areas of cooperation has also emerged. To exchange experiences across borders is an old diplomatic trade. In a crisis that has hit globally where each country is struggling to figure out how to handle it, exchange of experiences and knowledge is vital.

The South African Department of Basic Education reached out to the Embassy because they had seen Denmark as one of the first countries that had decided to reopen school for the smaller kids – namely grade 1-5. We quickly got a contact to the relevant people in the Ministry for Education in Denmark and a virtual meeting established and a lot of information exchanged.

This is just one example of how we can build on the networks and relations we have established in ‘peace time’ and apply them in various areas when a crisis hits and we need new information.

COVID19 demands new skills and routines from all of us. We become very fluent in virtual meetings and webinars. We all lack the daily social contact that we were so used to – so now we have launched a ½ hour virtual ‘tea and chat’ every Friday so staff can catch up and socialise a little. While the crisis lasts, and we move through the various levels of the lockdown, we adapt to a new post-COVID19 reality.

 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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February/March 2020

 
 
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