I’m standing at the main gate of the Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Bentiu, a UN camp in South Sudan. The doors of the Land Cruiser close while the engines start.
I watch as the guard opens the gate to let the car out. Two of my colleagues are inside. Having come to the end of their assignments here, they are heading home.
Tears at 1.5 metre distance
Restrictions on travel designed to stop the spread of COVID-19 have made it difficult for us to bring new international staff here to Bentiu.
I wave my last farewell to my colleagues in silence. I’m fighting my tears. Tears of sadness because my friends are leaving the project, tiredness due to the hard weeks that have passed, unprocessed emotions piling up. The prospect of more work for fewer people.
Tears because of the absurdity of the situation. Saying goodbye without a real goodbye, with gloves, face masks, plastic covers in the car, goodbye at a one-and-a-half metre distance.
Previously, when someone left our team, every goodbye was a celebration with all the international and local staff. Despite unavoidable feelings of sadness mixed in, the focus would be on the joy of being together with such a diversity of people, music, food, drinks and more food.
In the last months, this tradition has been broken because of COVID-19 and the ban on social gatherings. It would also have felt weird to celebrate someone's departure with the knowledge that it might be a long wait before they were replaced.
But even without a big party, we still shared last drinks together, took goodbye pictures with the team and exchanged firm hugs before departure. Now, for the first time, two colleagues leave in silence, without even an anouncement on the radio.
Without test results
Meanwhile we’re admitting more and more children and adults with malaria to the hospital.
The wards are slowly filling up again. We had tried to empy them as much as possible, reinforcing strict admission and discharge criteria . This was to ensure a 1.5 metre space between beds, and so that we could keep our medical supplies only for the most urgent cases.
We see a growing number of people of who we suspect have COVID-19, but we have no way of knowing how many actual COVID-19 patients we have.
Anyone with severe malaria who has respiratory complaints potentially has COVID-19 as well.
Every tuberculosis patient with acute deterioration might also suffer from COVID-19. Tests are currently only processed in Juba, the capital, and results often come with significant delays.
Corona or malaria?
The number of respiratory infections and deaths have been higher than average these weeks, both on national and local level.
Is this fluctuation in numbers coincidental? Are the figures going up and down due to COVID-19 or due to the early start of the malaria season?
We have no way of knowing right now.
“Just the two of us”
At the gates I look up and find comfort in the eyes of my colleague, who came a second too late for this sad farewell. We want nothing more than give each other the hug we should have shared with those who have just left, but would that still be allowed?
We fight the absurdity of the reality we live in with humour. A spontaneous joint outburst in singing follows: “Just the two of us, we can make it if we try…just the two of us…”
We can’t help but laugh. Only 11 international staff remain of the 23 originally assigned to this project. Many management positions are now vacant. And yet, we are keeping the hospital, office, workshops and warehouses running, thanks to the substantial efforts of the around 500 South Sudanese staff who work full time in the hospital by our side.
With the car now off in the distance, I return to the hospital, back to my kids: 18 new born babies and 33 children, 16 of whom are severely malnourished.