Belarus: 'Addiction is Getting the Recognition it Deserves'

07 September 2017

Vancouver - Frankfurt (10 hours), Layover, Frankfurt - Minsk (2 hours).

I made it with all my luggage. I have to say, that was a huge relief. My luggage was significantly less than my previous assignment to Tajikistan (read: I didn't bring 4 bags of coffee and tons of Deirdre Soap), but nevertheless, it's always a lovely feeling to see your familiar orange backpack emerge from the conveyer belt. Yes, clean underwear is in the future!

As usual, the friendly smiling face of the MSF driver awaited me at the airport, and nicely carried my bag to the car. He did not speak much English, but I speak even less Russian.

"So, this is Minsk", I say as we exit the building and head for the car.

"No, this is airport", he replies back with a smile. You got me there, this is the airport, and that was probably the best joke post long haul flight I've ever heard.

After the drive into the Minsk, the driver shows me up to my apartment and it's very nice! My room is large, the apartment has lots of skylights, and there is even a dishwasher! There's 2 bathrooms!! I'm pretty happy. Then I try and shower....and it's only cold water. As I learned later, Minsk city is doing the annual maintenance of the pipes before winter comes, and therefore there is no hot water for several weeks. My bucket shower skills come in handy.

I decide that before I fall asleep from jet lag, I'm going to make it to the grocery store and get enough food for dinner, lunch, and breakfast. I wonder over to the store that the driver had pointed out on our way in, and I'm met by a large grocery store full of everything. And I mean almost everything. Avocados! Pineapple! BRIE CHEESE!!! Or at least I think it's brie cheese, I can't read the Russian yet.

So the food is fine, the house is great, next is going to work and seeing how things are. 

I'm in this mission for 3 months. My initial reactions are comparing how I felt at the start of my first mission, and how I feel now - it's night and day in terms of understanding and foundation. Yes, the projects are both TB so that part is definitely helpful, but understanding how a mission works, how to get per Diem, the reporting structure, what to expect in your first week - it really does seem to get easier. I think being in a second former Soviet country makes it extra easier.

After the usual briefings from my Project Coordinator, Head of Mission, and Medical Coordinator, I'm starting to get a better sense of the focus and scope of my role in this mission. It's a change to have a targeted function and a very clear and defined goal, and I'm looking forward to the challenge of addressing substance use disorders, primarily alcohol, within the context of TB adherence. My role will be to work with the system in place to try and support TB patients who are experiencing adherence issues due to struggles with alcohol use. I'm thankful that everyone that MSF is collaborating with appears to identify that this is an area that needs intervention, and is willing to work together. I'm also happy that addiction is getting the recognition it deserves as a component of health, and as part of treatment planning for infectious and chronic diseases.

I am working with a team of 4 counselors and 1 social worker on the MSF team, as well as staff within the existing medical system in Minsk. Mental health also seems to be more prominent in Belarus, as there are formal degrees and training standards.

The weather has been decidedly chillier than Vancouver is currently. No shorts here, and some international staff from warmer countries are saying it's already cold! It's about 16-20 Celsius, so I'm still pretty happy with it.

Minsk itself is quite a lovely city. The Lonely Planet says you will be pleasantly surprised by Minsk, and they are not wrong. On my first day off, I took the day to walk around, try out the subway, and get my internal geolocator turned on, as my friend would call it. There is a river running through town. The history of Minsk is that it was completely flattened after WWII and that no buildings survived the war. The city was then rebuilt during the Soviet area. The city is clean, easy to navigate, and has a charming city center. What really struck me as I was walking around was how similar I felt to Dushanbe, which is also a former Soviet city. Very similar feel in terms of architecture, features in the city, and look, but without the Muslim aspects in Tajikistan. It's incredible how far the Soviet state spanned, when you reflect that it reached from Eastern Europe to Central Asia, to the Pacific Ocean.

I do have to spend a minute and acknowledge to my former Tajik teacher, Kibriyo - you were right. You were right in making me learn Cyrillic alphabet. I hated it, and didn't see the point, but it's sure helpful. While the Tajik and Russian Cyrillic alphabets aren't exactly the same, the majority of the letters are, and I can slowly sound out works for street signs, train stops, and the like, which makes my life just that much easier. So, thank you Kibriyo, for making me learn to read.

That's the update on the first week and the sense of the project. Looking forward to taking on week #2!

Cute little coffee shop!

The main road where I live 

Downtown Minsk!

Minsk City