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COVID-19 Case Study: NGO Navigates Differing Attitudes on Masks and Temp Checks

Organization: An NGO providing services for the wellbeing of children around the world, with emphasis on rural parts of Africa.

Key issues:
• Inability to travel to serve vulnerable populations
• Poor Internet hampering community access to online services
• Growing regional violence

This case study is being regularly updated. Scroll down for earlier content. 

23 July Update

Three offices have opened, all in Africa. Two have opened fully and the third at limited capacity, which the director of security says may close quickly because the area has seen a “significant uptick in cases in recent weeks.”
Meanwhile, offices elsewhere, including the U.S. headquarters, remain shuttered.

A reopening date for HQ is still to be determined. Two factors account for its continuing closure, says the director of security. First is the spike in COVID-19 numbers generally in the country and the prospect of a surge specifically where the office is. Second, supplies to ensure a safe reopening are scarce. The NGO has ordered equipment and items such as plastic shields, hand sanitizer stations, and antimicrobial keys, but the manufacturers are faced with overwhelming demand and the shipments are delayed.

As offices begin to open, masks have emerged as a potential flashpoint. One Latin American office wants N95 masks, but the NGO, conscious of its image as a responsible corporate citizen, has decided not to diminish the global supply of N95 masks, which are most needed in healthcare settings.

“We have to explain that it’s a face covering plus distancing plus regular washing that leads to improvement,” the director says. While an N95 worn properly is considered the optimal mask to protect the wearer from the novel coronavirus, the NGO has determined that its policies and practices on health and safety fully cover its duty of care to staff. “But we have to document that they understand our rationale.”

Each returning staff member receives two or three reusable, nonmedical grade facemasks. Alternatively, staff may use their own if it covers their nose and mouth. Other reopening protocols include rigorous cleaning, social distancing, multiple hand sanitization stations, limited access to common spaces, and contact tracing logs. Though the NGO does not perform temperature checks, management at one local office where temperature checking is part of the culture provided all staff with thermal thermometers, and a donor agreed to cover the cost. Although HQ did not approve that purchase—the local office used the principle of apologizing later instead of asking permission before—the NGO has been flexible enough to approve their use at that location.

In fact, taking extra precautions isn’t the NGO’s main concern about staff behavior. “We work in places where there is a strong sense that COVID-19 isn’t real,” the director says. But staff have been fully compliant with the NGO’s requirements.

Expats are still sidelined, with travel to developing countries extremely limited and—when possible—circuitous. “People are still grounded across the board,” the director says. Depending on the donor and location, expectations and eagerness for resuming activities and meetings differ widely.

The NGO has developed a detailed set of criteria for resumption of activities, with protocols differing by country and whether the request is to attend an in-person event hosted by someone else, host an event at an external venue, or host an event at their own site. A staff member who wants to attend or host an event must submit a form that has to be approved by three specific superiors. That form inquires about the business necessity of the event and the incidence of COVID-19 at the site, along with factors such as what type of travel is required, whether overnight accommodations will be necessary, and whether any equipment, such as microphones or laptop computers, will be shared.

If preliminary approval is granted, the person must complete and submit a readiness checklist while continuing to monitor the environment for any changes. That checklist is reviewed by another three-person panel before it can receive final approval.

Xenophobia, considered a growing threat in the previous update, hasn’t materialized. For one, few expats from any NGO have returned. Moreover, countries in which the NGO operates face difficult internal situations that have drawn the focus of their citizenry. These include political tensions, economic troubles and protests, environmental events, and threatened food sources.

In the nongovernmental organization community at large, which operates with limited resources, some heads of security find themselves becoming experts in HVAC systems. As evidence accumulates that COVID-19 can transmit via airborne particles, security professionals are studying various international standards on HVAC to determine the best way to stop the spread, including using higher-grade filters, cleaning or changing filters more often, or adjusting air flow patterns.

8 June Update

Though most of its offices remain shuttered, the NGO has advanced its process for what it would look like to reopen. The path forward will be gradual and limited, based on business criticality, probably beginning in mid-June. One persistent challenge is that official health advice and government regulations around the world are changing quickly as global health agencies update their requirements for recording and reporting COVID-19 cases.

When offices do open, they will not include staff temperature checks at the door due to privacy concerns, unless the checks are mandated by national or local laws or regulations.

But travel is the main issue for the organization. “Right now, my attention is on international travel tripwires and approvals,” says the security director. Business travel is again being contemplated; the NGO halted all travel since its staff was repatriated in March. Countries are slowly scaling back restrictions, reopening domestic flights, and even some international flights. “We will have to start talking about bringing people back,” says the security director.

Many complexities bedevil this process. For example, some countries do not report case or fatality numbers or issue dubious numbers.

In addition, different countries have varying requirements for testing, quarantining, and treating arriving travelers. A travelling staff member who is flagged may have to isolate for two weeks at a government-run hotel or clinic. How can the NGO support a staff person who is quarantined in a government facility? And what if the traveler is simply transiting through on the way to a different destination country? Travel to countries where the NGO is active often requires multiple stops and flight changes.

Another travel complication is that donor requirements dictate the use of certain airlines. Donors waived these restrictions to get everyone home during the initial outbreak, but it is unclear whether they will do so again as air travel gradually resumes in a less-dire environment. The organization will be looking closely at airline practices considering the pandemic, such as increased sanitization, the removal of middle seats, and boarding from the back of the plane forward. With so few people flying, it is difficult to get firsthand accounts of what that means in practice. “If airlines say they have enhanced cleaning procedures, what does that really mean?” wonders the security director.

Meanwhile, xenophobia is increasing on the ground. Around the world, travelers from abroad—“others”—are viewed with suspicion and concern as potential virus carriers. “Anyone who is not local would seem to be threatening,” the security director says.

The protests over the killing of George Floyd in the United States have rippled throughout the world, creating a challenge for the NGO. “The nonprofit sector likes to support peaceful protests for social justice, but the protests aren’t observing social distancing,” the security director says. “We are saying that you can safely support those protests, just don’t bring people together. We are very conscious that isolating during COVID-19 and showing solidarity for racial injustice are in direct conflict with each other.”

The security director is using a resource for NGO’s called Recovery & Wellness, COVID-19: Operating Considerations for US Based International a sort of reopening playbook. It’s available here:

4 May Update: NGO Sets Plans in Motion for Reopening

In late April, the NGO started setting up a plan for slowly restoring operations around the world. It formed a task force consisting of representatives from general counsel, HR, security, operations, and the office of the CEO.

The big question was who would lead the task force. The CEO settled on the general counsel, because of the importance of addressing legal risk, compliance, and duty of care. The CEO tasked the team with developing criteria and policies for re-entering the market—mostly developing African countries—that the organization serves. “Just because a government reopens or lifts restrictions, we won’t necessarily return on that timeline,” says the security director. “We will do our own risk analysis to ensure that we are meeting our duty of care.”

Staff in more developed countries, with their robust technology and reliable Internet service, can still perform many of their functions at home, so there is no rush to get them back into the office. Office-opening considerations include how to enforce social distancing, ensure sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE), perform continual cleaning, and implement new visitor and staff health screening measures such as COVID-19 testing and temperature-taking.

The NGO is studying various privacy laws, recommended practices, standards, and other guidance. One thorny issue, for instance, is how the NGO will respond if a staff member refuses a health screening. “We have to figure this out before opening our doors,” says the security director. “It is going to be critical to know what the organization’s response will be if protocols are put in place and people choose not to comply. The longer we can wait and see how things develop and plan accordingly, the better our chances of not having a false start and not having to put people at unnecessary risk or close offices again prematurely.”

Since the NGO’s operations that touch real lives take place in-country, there is urgency to get staff back on the ground and working with their constituents. Global coronavirus restriction fatigue is a growing concern, and it is compounding other threats to NGO operations. At least one Central American office, for example, is keeping staff at home because the region is rife with crime, natural disasters, food insecurity, and civil unrest. At this office and others, very few COVID-19 tests are available in-country, so the NGO is monitoring and proceeding slowly.

Some local offices where the government is urging a return to normal, however, are eager to get back to work and are proposing to bring staff back soon after nonessential businesses re-open. Such is the case in multiple countries in Africa and the Middle East where the regional leadership is fielding questions from frustrated staff who cannot work from home due to a lack of electricity and Internet connectivity. The NGO is navigating this issue with the philosophy that while mission and deliverables are important, staff well-being is paramount, and proper assessments and planning must take place before staff return to their offices.

The corporate-level task force has proposed a four-phase recovery plan: preparation and planning to return, limited return, expanded return, and full return to offices. The security director says that reopening protocols will be “grounded in health authority advice and best practices,” such as guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

The task force is developing an assessment in which local teams and offices will self-evaluate according to several markers of risk, including the strength of the local health infrastructure, food security, the level of in-country support for expats and traveling staff, the rate of COVID-19 transmission, and the availability of testing for the virus. A new travel risk assessment is in the works as well, though business-critical international travel is not likely to restart until late the fourth quarter of 2020, and “normal” travel is not expected until 2021.

Meanwhile, the NGO regularly checks in with staff via video to perform wellness checks, update them on activities and plans, and provide support as they continue to navigate operating in this new environment.

April 2020 Update: Logistics and Benchmarking at an NGO

This NGO offers educational assistance—rather than humanitarian services—in impoverished parts of Africa. The pandemic has had a significant impact on all of its operations around the world. Office and administrative staff now work from home, and travel has been largely shut down, putting connectivity and technology to the test. “It has had a major impact on the way we have had to be creative to try to maintain activities and deliverables,” the security head says.

A major April gathering in Africa to train 5,000 teachers from all over the continent had to be canceled, causing logistical issues that security helped remedy. Trainings, research, and programs have either had to be put on hold or conducted virtually—not an easy task in some of the poorest countries in the world.

Other smaller activities can be done online, but the organization had to purchase additional licenses to enable distance learning. With schools closed, however, most programs have been postponed or canceled.

While the cancellations might have saved travel and associated costs in the short term, the larger issue is that the disruption is thwarting the NGO’s mission. “You can’t achieve objectives remotely, especially with people who have poor Internet connectivity and can’t learn, or lack access,” the security director says. “And some objectives should be face to face.”

When the pandemic began, the NGO took a measured approach to travel. Since it had a strong telecommuting program, remote work was a straightforward transition. Early on, undeveloped countries showed low rates of COVID-19, so staff evacuation wasn’t deemed necessary. “But we wanted to be on the right side of history, vis-a-vis social distancing,” good hygiene, and the like, says the director. “We were very risk averse.”

The NGO’s leadership listened to suggestions so it could adapt to stakeholder concerns and take a proactive stance. Operations continued as much as was feasible, at the same time as ensuring that remote workers had contingency plans in place, as long as no cases were reported.

Starting in early March, security scrambled to get traveling workers back home across continents. “It was chaotic,” the security director says. In mid-March, the next round of travel logistics began—getting expats home. Urged to return weeks earlier, many opted to stay in country. As the pandemic worsened, expats, often living with their families, all wanted to return at once, which made travel arrangements on scarce flights much more difficult.

“We worked 7 days a week, 12-15 hours a day, for a month,” the security director shares. At the same time, the crisis management team was meeting daily and trying to get information and resources to support the African educational community.

More than 30 expat families made their way home safely, while eight critical senior project expats remain on their posts. The NGO is careful about how these personnel are scheduled and deployed, making adjustments down to the minute. “We have had to make quicker decisions on a shorter time frame than in the past,” says the security director.

As of early April, the director was examining the security implications of projects still in play. For example, in some areas, security guards feared traveling to work on public transportation, making it difficult to fill guard slots. Other issues include growing violence against foreigners and a stigma attached to Nigerians.

With the rollout of more technology, the NGO has enhanced cybersecurity as well. “We are preparing reminders about phishing, malware, and other issues,” the security director says. “People are in a heightened state of anxiety, not thinking about being scammed, and they may let their guard down.”

The organization benchmarks with other NGOs. The crisis also helped convince the organization to switch intelligence providers. It had been conducting a trial with a new provider before the outbreak, and it was so responsive and helpful that it convinced the NGO to make the switch. “I even got a budget increase to fund it,” the security director says. In the process, the NGO cut ties with a brand-name intelligence company that failed to live up to the NGO’s expectations. It didn’t provide access to analysts, and even standard services were upcharged, according to the security director.

“I’ve been tracking companies that are socially responsible, as well as those trying to gouge,” the director says, noting that 25 to 30 percent are trying to oversell to exploit the crisis, while another 50 percent are making additional information and services free to clients. “Companies that are giving, socially responsible, win my business,” the director says. “I will remember who was trying to take advantage of the pandemic and who was going above to try to be a good person.”


Michael Gips, JD, CPP, CSyP, CAE, is the principal of Global Insights in Professional Security, LLC, a firm that helps security providers and executives develop cutting-edge content, assert thought leadership, and heighten brand awareness. Gips was previously Chief Global Knowledge Officer at ASIS International, with responsibility for Editorial Services, Learning, Certification, Standards & Guidelines, and the CSO Center for Leadership & Development. Before that, as an editor for ASIS’s Security Management magazine, he wrote close to 1,000 articles and columns on virtually every topic in security. In his early career he was an attorney who worked on death-penalty cases.

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