With projects around the world, Winrock International has been dealing with COVID-19 since January, when the novel coronavirus shut down daily life in China, one of the 46 countries in which Winrock works. As the virus continues to spread across the globe, the organization has ramped up its response: increasing communication, adjusting to altered workflow and telework, and finding creative ways to continue pursuing its mission amidst restrictions.
Winrock President and CEO Rodney Ferguson has made transparent communication an important aspect of the organization’s approach to the pandemic, instituting weekly communiques and holding frequent all-staff meetings. “I believe it’s important to maintain more regular contact and highlight that business is continuing to function as normally as possible during this time,” Ferguson said in a March 18th email briefing.
Individual projects have responded to the pandemic in their own unique ways. The Senegal Dekkal Geej (Restoring the Sea) project, funded by USAID, initiated a French language COVID-19 poster to educate its beneficiaries. The Winrock Communications team designed the piece and generated an English language version for use across the organization.
In Bangladesh, the USDA-funded Safe Aqua Farming for Economic and Trade Improvement (SAFETI) project created a COVID-19 safety poster in Bangla to share with shrimp farmers, who are using a new app to stay in touch while maintaining social distance.
In Laos, the USDA-funded Creating Linkages for Expanded Agricultural Network (CLEAN) project is adapting to COVID-19 by building WhatsApp networks that connect farmers to processors, buyers and suppliers. Representatives from a grain storage company were able to reach the Lao Cassava Association through this network.
Winrock’s U.S. programs are also finding new and inventive ways to reach their clients. The Innovation Hub was featured on a local news station in Arkansas for its call to all makers to help create the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed by health care providers. And Innovate Arkansas, which helps scale promising technology businesses, has found itself even busier than usual.
“The nature of our work is to identify barriers and work through barriers that startup founders have growing businesses,” says Innovate Arkansas Director David Sanders. “So not only has our work continued, but given the situation we face it’s picked up, as people try to make sense of things.” For instance, Innovator Health, an Innovate Arkansas client that promotes remote telemedicine, has created a plug-and-play model to give patients in rural communities more access to doctors.
Meanwhile, Winrock’s Wallace Center has created two new initiatives for its Food Systems Leadership Network (FSLN), which is almost 3,000 members strong: a community wellness check among members happening this Wednesday, April 1, and an FSLN COVID-19 Response Group, both designed to connect food systems leaders so they can share strategies. The COVID-19 Response Group is a listserv focused on identifying, amplifying and replicating the solutions that are emerging in response to the virus. “We hope it will be a dynamic venue for exploring and acting on our best ideas for driving resilience and equity in communities,” says Wallace Executive Director Lucy Jodlowska.
Winrock employees live and work everywhere from Bangkok to Lilongwe, Little Rock to Kathmandu. And more than 800 of them are now able to communicate through a Microsoft Teams page with real-time updates, tips on teleworking, videos and a link to an informational page on the organization’s intranet. Employees are sharing everything from project status trackers to telework tips to local developments in the field. Individual projects are finding their own ways to stay in touch.
Natasha Burley of USAID’s Asia Counter Trafficking in Persons project says that she and her colleagues have started a What’s App chat group to stay in touch. No work questions are allowed in this forum, just coping strategies, funny memes and updates from home. “People have been great sports so far,” Burley says.
Bunthan Eng of the Cambodia Countering Trafficking in Persons project, funded by USAID, says that while his team is making sure they keep physically apart from each other by working remotely “we are not social distancing because we are still interacting with each other through various social media platforms and technologies. … Covid-19 may prevent us from physical contact, but it can’t prevent our team from interacting with and caring for each other.”
To further boost employee morale, a twice-a-week meditation session has been expanded to three times a week, and one staff member is conducting remote yoga classes — which were heavily subscribed from day one.
One of the busiest people at Winrock is Global Safety and Security Director Tobias Friedl, who has been keeping staff apprised of the pandemic and its effect on international work and travel for more than two months. Friedl is no stranger to epidemic illness, having dealt with H1N1, SARS and other viruses throughout his career. He knows how important it is to keep perspective. “We need to focus on things we can do as individuals, as an organization and in our projects,” Friedl says.
Friedl works with Winrock’s Crisis Management Team, which is currently meeting daily to review priorities. But his major message is the one he delivered at an all-staff meeting about the pandemic: “I want to be sure you understand that as we make decisions, from my perspective and the perspective of leadership, we’re doing everything to prioritize your safety and security. It’s the first thought we have.”
Ferguson reiterated this recently in a meeting with staff. “I know how difficult it is to operate in times of uncertainty. So let me say first and foremost, take care of yourself and colleagues.” He concluded the meeting by expressing his gratitude and appreciation to all those who called in from around the world. “Your safety and security are at the top of our agenda. … Your input is crucial moving forward.”
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