How a ministry manoeuvres through a pandemic

How a ministry manoeuvres through a pandemic

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is one of 19 ministries in the Maldivian cabinet, tasked with handling bilateral and multilateral relations, as well as overseeing locals outside of the country.

Undoubtedly, the ministry does important work in this regard, which oftentimes goes unnoticed and unappreciated due to the fact that the common person does not usually require the ministry’s direct services and only witness the photo-ops following a meeting or the signing of an agreement.

However, the gears within the ministry never stop turning. Every department and section work closely together, with staff trained in multiple areas and a workplace hierarchy that is almost non-existence in practice, to ensure that the institution functions efficiently.

When I walked inside Foreign Ministry for the first time as a journalist, in early 2019, I was greeted by Miuvan Mohamed, the Director of Communications at Foreign Affairs. Energetic as ever, he ushered the group of reporters through the ministry, which was then bustling with activity. We made our way down brightly-lit corridors filled with the chatter of conversation, - the air buzzing with a sort of urgency - and I remember feeling slightly awed and out of place as a junior journalist that had never had a similar opportunity before.

When I walked inside the ministry this year though, just a day before the lockdown imposed on the Greater Male’ region due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was lifted, I was greeted with silence and empty cubicles instead. The large office space was completely vacant, half blanketed by the dark, except for two chairs in the corner, where administrative staff sat at their desktops, submerged in work. All the other members employed by the prestigious institution were working from home.

Despite the lack of staff members and the loud quiet blanketing of the otherwise lively institution, the COVID-19 pandemic was one of the most difficult challenges that the ministry had faced in history.

As the outbreak, first reported in Wuhan City, China, began to spread at an alarming rate, the Foreign Ministry’s responsibilities multiplied by ten-fold. Providing support for the country’s citizens placed abroad, of which there are many, fell solely on the ministry’s shoulders.

As the pandemic sank its claws into the entire globe, the staff employed by the ministry worked day and night to ensure the safety of every Maldivian residing in foreign countries as many nations imposed strict lockdowns and closed their borders as a preventive measure to contain the spread of the virus.

Everyone, everywhere, required help almost at the same time - and it was the ministry’s job to provide it.

Crossing closed borders

Most of the foreign ministry’s efforts during the pandemic were focused on repatriating Maldivian citizens stranded in foreign countries across the globe. Carrying out any successful repatriation effort required a commendable level of coordination from different sections of the establishment.

Since first contact with Maldivians till the flight lands at Velana International Airport, every single step of the repatriation process has to be completed with consideration to multiple variables, including the availability of flight routes, guaranteeing necessary permits, and ensuring that all the arrangements fall within the precise timings.

Firstly, the ministry requests all individuals who wish to be repatriated to register at the foreign ministry’s portal by filling out a form with their personal details and other required information. Diplomatic agents then handle the necessary consular work, whilst maintaining communication with all the locals within their jurisdiction and continuously providing updates to the ministry.

Senior officials work on clearing the various permits from relevant authorities before scheduling a flight with the national airline Maldivian. When the flight is confirmed, the ministry informs the registered locals to make their bookings and pay for the ticket.

Explaining that every repatriation effort does not necessarily follow the same procedure, Miuvan stated that in some lucky instances, foreign countries with close diplomatic ties offer to send Maldivians home on repatriation flights arranged by their administrations.

In any case, Foreign Ministry is responsible for the individuals on their way home until the land at VIA, at which point the repatriated locals undergo a screening process and be transferred to quarantine facilities by frontline workers belonging to the Health Protection Agency (HPA) and the armed and security forces.

Global problems, global solutions

As a small island nation with an economy heavily reliant on its tourism industry, Maldives stood to undergo the worst economic contraction due to COVID-19 in South East Asia.

According to estimates by the World Bank in mid-April, the collapse of the tourism industry in Maldives will result in gross domestic output contracting by as much as 13 percent. Furthermore, the state estimated a shortfall of approximately USD 450 million (MVR 6.9 billion) in foreign currency, while projected state deficit would reach MVR 13 billion this year.

With the temporary halt in issuing on-arrival visas from March 27, the country’s tourism industry completely screeched to a halt as resorts shut down their operations and sent their staff home. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic dragged a myriad of additional issues to the surface, as many lost their livelihood, homes, and basic rights.

Amidst public frustration and a health sector stretched to maximum capacity as the outbreak progressed from isolated cases into a community spread on April 15, one cannot deny that Maldives’ COVID-19 response would have been as effective without the immense outpouring of assistance from the international community.

Miuvan noted that securing foreign aid was also one of the main key areas that Foreign Ministry focused on, since the virus reared its ugly head with the beginning of 2020.

“We secure foreign aid by holding meetings and negotiations with bilateral and multilateral partners to discuss areas needing support. Then we sign the agreements, and when we receive the aid, it is transferred to the relevant ministry”, he said, adding the importance of having a minister who is respected by international counterparts in securing such deals.

Noting that most grants are extended for a specific purpose, Miuvan explained that all financial aid is routed to the Ministry of Finance, to be disbursed for its intended objectives.

During the course of a few months, Maldives received an impressive amount of aid, in the form of grants, technical assistance, medical equipment, food supplies, currency swaps and loans.

The aforementioned aid was extended from several countries, including the United States of America (USA), China, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Japan, India and Bangladesh, as well as private companies and organisations, the World Health Organisation (WHO) in particular.

The amount of financial assistance received from international banks alone, as loans and grants total up to USD 189.5 million. This amount does not include the donations provided as non-cash assistance by bilateral partners and UN agencies.

According to the state, the foreign aid was utilised to amp up testing capacity, procure essential supplies and tackle a variety of issues posed by the pandemic.

There is no question that foreign aid is, and always have been a necessary factor in the development of Maldives, in every sector.

Delivering his remarks on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Maldives signing the United Nations (UN) Charter, Minister Shahid also highlighted the importance of international cooperation, adding that "our progress and advancement as a nation owe much to the global environment created by the United Nations".

Adhering to restrictions

While the employees of the ministry worked on delivering results in the aforementioned fronts made important by the pandemic, they also had to keep up with the daily tasks of the job.

According to Miuvan the number of staff working at the ministry had been reduced to the minimum possible numbers, with only Executive Committee coming in for active duty on the daily, in addition to a few essential admin staff.

As per the Health Protection Agency’s (HPA) guidelines to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread, the rest of the employs conduct their duties from their homes.

Meetings were held via online conference calls and tasks were coordinated to ensure they were completed smoothly despite the lack of personnel working from the office.

Easing into the 'new normal'

As the government began easing the lockdown measures imposed on the Greater Male’ Region in phases, institutions are also changing up the way services are offered, to cater better to the public. Many establishments digitalised parts of their operations and introduced online services for efficiency, convenience and ease of access.

In this regard, work is underway by the foreign ministry to introduce their two main services provided to the general public - attestation and visa provisions - as online services.

“There are a very few services available [for the public] and even out of those, the services that can be provided online are limited”, Miuvan noted, assuring that the services will be introduced shortly, as soon as the preparations are finalised.“Most of the consular services are also focused mainly on people residing abroad, including those who require financial assistance and medicine”, Miuvan said.

Citing that improved communications were a priority of the incumbent administration, he added that another key area the ministry is working hard to improve on is being more reachable by the public.

“[We] attempt to not let any call go unanswered, and even call back anyone we might have missed”.

Despite the numerous limitations and increased workload, the Foreign Ministry’s efforts during these unprecedented times remain noteworthy.

During the ongoing global health crisis, the government arranged 30 flights, which repatriated 2421 locals from different countries, including India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, United Kingdom (UK), Malaysia, Belarus and Thailand.

Furthermore, at the time of publication, the ministry had facilitated the travel of a large number of expatriates back to their home countries, out of which at least 3907 migrants were undocumented workers.

Although it is undeniable that there is always room for improvement it is necessary that the public understand and acknowledge the work done by institutions such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in order to deliver constructive criticism and hold government offices accountable when they fall short of their mandate.