The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken lives of people, communities, organisations and governments across the world. Like any other organisation, icddr,b was at a loss about the twin threats of the outbreak - protecting lives and livelihoods of its employees and at the same time, continuing its research.
Even though icddr,b has vast experience in responding to emerging pandemic and has earned global reputation in managing outbreaks of cholera, HIV/AIDS, and H1N1 influenza (2009-10), it was baffled with the sheer scale of challenges to ensure safety and well-being of its employees. icddr,b enshrines 'Employee First' culture to its core since its inception in the 1960s.
Even before Bangladesh recorded the first positive case of Covid-19 on March 8, 2020, icddr,b formed a Covid-19 response team comprising virologists, epidemiologists, clinicians, immunologists, emerging infection experts, communications experts and started holding meetings regularly. A wide range of precautionary measures were taken since late February 2020. The measures include restriction on international travel to high risk countries; postponement of the use of biometric devices for recording staff attendance; regulation of crowding in places like elevator, cafeteria, mosque, meeting rooms, and all office premises; making hand hygiene stations available at all places within the office premises; responding to frequently asked questions about the pandemic and introduction of work from home to reduce staff exposure.
Working from home has become an unexpected reality for many organisations and their employees, but being an international research organisation, it's of no trouble at all for icddr,b. The management immediately categorised staff into 'essential' meaning those requiring physical presence and 'nonessential' staff, and offered them all necessary logistics to perform their duties while staying at home.
Amidst widespread media reporting on the inadequate preparation of the health systems to manage Covid-19 patients globally, icddr,b management took a decision of setting up a Covid-19 isolation and treatment ward. In April 2020, icddr,b's Dhaka Hospital parking area was turned into a triage tent where testing and isolation of patients were carried out. As more and more staff members were getting infected, its day-care centre and later staff cafeteria were also transformed into Covid-19 isolation and treatment ward respectively. The treatment ward was equipped with high-flow oxygen and all medical equipments necessary to function as an intensive care unit. The icddr,b hospital healthcare workers having specialisation in treating diarrhoea/malnutrition, immediately readied themselves to treat Covid-19-induced complications that affect not only lung but also brain, heart, liver, and kidney.
Without being fearful of the disease yet ensuring their own safety, icddr,b healthcare team have been performing their duties. Facilitation of Covid-19 treatment had immediately given a sense of relief to employees, especially amid reports that private ambulances were refusing to carry patients with Covid-19-like symptoms and some healthcare facilities were refusing to serve patients.
Although at the beginning of the pandemic testing was scarce in the country, icddr,b has been providing testing and contact tracing for its employees since early March 2020. The health care provision at icddr,b was broadened to cover all who have employment contract with icddr,b, be it a daily wager, contractual, or third party service provider (security personnel and cleaners). This was further extended to cover staffs' family members living with them.
Even though fear of not getting proper care was somewhat addressed, one month into the countrywide lockdown imposed to stem the spiralling coronavirus pandemic, the economic fallout started to trickle in and so did fear of losing job or pay cut. icddr,b management then came up with an empathetic solution to the stress of employees and supported staff by announcing an unconditional extension of service up to June 2020 even for those retiring or whose contracts with icddr,b were expiring before June. This compassionate support was later extended until September for all employees.
icddr,b also emphasised continuity of research, disease diagnosis, and hospital operations that gave treatment to more than 200,000 diarrhoeal disease patients free-of-charge annually and its Severe Acute Respiratory Infection (SARI) Isolation and Treatment Centre in Teknaf, Cox's Bazar, which serves the host communities and forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals. In order to keep these operations uninterrupted, special risk allowance for frontline staff was introduced. Personal protective gears including PPEs, N95 masks, surgical masks and sanitisers were provided to the staff. Staff Welfare Association (SWA) of icddr,b also distributed safety equipment among the staff.
In order to reduce influenza, and prevent flu-related hospitalisations and deaths, icddr,b management came up with the initiative of getting employees vaccinated for flu. The staff members received flu vaccine voluntarily to reduce indirect exposure to SARS-CoV-2.
For resuming office, icddr,b management undertook a transitional approach in September 2020. This included provisioning no more than a third of staff from each division/department/unit to attend work on a given day to ensure social distancing in the office. This was raised to 50 per cent considering the decline in the country's case positivity (since January 2021) and again reduced in April 2021 when rate of infection was again on the rise.
At a time when there were unprecedented employment losses, icddr,b management rather maintained its regular assessment of cost of living expenses (COLA) and accordingly increased salary of national staff by 6.0 per cent. The ideas icddr,b came up with to support its staff not only improved productivity of staff but also ensured employee commitment.
Thus, one year into the pandemic, it is found that icddr,b has not only managed to continue its operations with bare minimum disruptions but has also started to rebound to normalcy. One could very well argue whether icddr,b's crisis management measures could be replicated in other institutions. The truth is: Any measures, which are driven by empathy towards the employees, must work and should be considered as an investment. Experience gained during the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly tested icddr,b's resilience and capacity to sustain through such public health crisis of global magnitude.
Md. Saiful Islam and AKM Tariful Islam Khan are Senior Communications Managers of icddr,b.