Problem solving a pandemic: a B.C. man on working for Doctors Without Borders in Pakistan

People receive food boxes and a traditional sweet drink distributed by volunteers for breaking their fast, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on May 3. Photo: AP Photo/Anjum Naveed
Nelson’s Paul Caney is currently working for Doctors Without Borders in Pakistan, an Islamic republic torn over how to safely mark Ramadan during the pandemic. Photo submitted

The second of a two-part series on how COVID-19 has affected Ramadan. Read the first part here.

Paul Caney has made a career helping others by knowing a lot about everything, but not so much about any one thing.

In 1994, he was recruited by Médecins Sans Frontières, known in North America as Doctors Without Borders. His cousin, who was visiting Calgary seeking staff for the humanitarian organization, asked Caney what his expertise was.

At the time Caney was working in the film industry, which required some of the same skills his cousin was looking for. He could operate a radio. He could set up a generator. He knew how to drive in the mountains.

“Anyway, they asked me if I was interested,” he says now. “I sort of thought they were a little flaky and said yeah, sure.”

Three weeks later he flew to The Netherlands for training. Then it was on to Sarajevo — in the middle of the Bosnian War.

“It doesn’t work like that any more. It’s much more professional, you have many more mentors and work up to that kind of role nowadays.”

Caney, 56, works as an international logistics co-ordinator, which is better described as an extreme jack of all trades.

His daily duties include: overseeing construction and renovation of medical facilities, offices and living spaces; managing security guards, drivers and a fleet of vehicles; communications; and supply chain management.

He’s also the tech guy.

“It’s by far the most interesting job I’ve ever had, bar none,” he says.

Caney, who lives in Nelson when he’s in Canada, is currently stationed in Pakistan’s capital city Islamabad. He arrived in the country just as the pandemic was spreading. The World Health Organization says there have been 22,533 cases of COVID-19 in Pakistan along with 526 deaths.

The Islamic republic of 207 million people has been criticized by its own medical association for allowing mosques to remain open during the holy month of Ramadan, which began April 23. For 30 days, Muslims fast during the day before celebrating with family and friends in the evening while also attending evening prayers.

But Caney says he’s observed empty streets, closed tourism areas and clerics telling people to stay home.

“We have a tendency in Western cultures and Western media to group Islam as a single theological idea, which is of course not the case,” says Caney.

“There are moderates and there are fundamentalists just as there are in Christianity. So I think it’s very much a freedom to choose. I don’t think anybody is being incentivized or pushed toward gathering at risk to their faith. I think every single person in Pakistan is aware of what is going on.”

Related: Ramadan in a pandemic: How COVID-19 is affecting Islam’s holy month in B.C

Caney works for the Amsterdam arm of Doctors Without Borders, which also has centres in Geneva, Barcelona, Paris and Brussels. Three of those centres have teams working across Pakistan, where the organization typically focuses on mother-child health.

One in 11 children dies before the age of five in the country, according to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey. Last year, Doctors Without Borders said it provided treatment to 11,000 malnourished children in the province of Balochistan, where Caney and the rest of the Dutch team focus their efforts.

But COVID-19 has forced the organization to change its priorities.

Caney said his colleagues have had to suspend some of its programs as staff assist Pakistan’s health ministry in COVID-19 screenings.

“I really hope, I think we all do, that we’re not overwhelmed in our medical facilities by coronavirus, so we can keep supporting the women who are having complicated pregnancies and really need our facilities,” says Caney.

“We’re the only game in town in some of these places in terms of access to obstetric health care. I think we all have a back-of-our-mind concern that coronavirus might just overtake our normal lifesaving programs.”

Acquiring supplies for front-line staff has become Caney’s biggest challenge during the pandemic.

Personal protective equipment is difficult to come by in Pakistan, where domestic flights are grounded and the European supply chains once relied on by Doctors Without Borders are closed.

“That puts you in a position where you have to purchase things locally that normally you would never do on the basis of quality, availability and price,” says Caney.

“There are some things manufactured here in Pakistan, and that’s why I say I’m much luckier than some of my colleagues in less-developed countries. You’re at the mercy of opportunistic businessmen at times and that’s the same for everybody.”

Caney’s concerns also extend to the humanitarian sector at large.

Most organizations rely on donations or government assistance to operate, which he expects will dry up. He worries too that the pandemic will impact just how many people want to take less money to work for NGOs.

“We’ll see how it all plays out. I don’t know, but I think already within the health care industry, many [current or future] health care workers are seeing very real consequences of the job, especially when we are working in a highly infectious viral emergency.”

But for now, he isn’t seeing anyone on the front lines himself. Caney has stayed put in a house in Islamabad, where he’s visited by staff and struggles to find supplies for Doctors Without Borders’ medical personnel.

Like everyone he works with, Caney worries about his own health. When he’s stressed, he tries to make use of the home’s gym equipment. He’s been using it a lot.

“If anything,” he says, “I’m healthier than when I arrived.”

@tyler_harper | tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

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