As the UN System Staff College, we are always on the lookout for success stories of different UN organizations working in partnership with each other. Every example reinforces our deep conviction that we as the UN, are more effective when we pull together as a System. In the past few months, and in response to the devastating impact of COVID-19 on Italy, I have personally witnessed and benefitted from the work of ONE UN. We have come together despite our mandates, logos, and individual flags.

Our pre-COVID-19 normal is disrupted

Until March of this year, our work as the learning and training organization for the entire UN System ensured that we regularly kept in touch with most of the Italian based UN agencies. This included frequent trips to Rome, Brindisi, and many other cities with UN presence. We also received participants for our courses and conferences, from most of our sister agencies in the country. However, this all changed on 10 March, when our host government instituted a nation-wide lockdown. On that day, we all packed our bags and left our offices, not knowing when we would return.

I have to confess, prior to COVID-19, safety and security were not some of my primary concerns as a person living and working in Italy. Where work is concerned, we typically had occasional, and routine contact with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), who serve as the UN security focal point in the country. However, this all changed in just little over two weeks, when we all understood the gravity of the crisis, and the fact that we as the UN in Italy were all in the same boat.

A rediscovery of community and working together

Led by the charismatic and effective Chair of FAO’s Security Management Team (SMT), and his very competent team, we all huddled virtually through Zoom, to see what we should be doing next to protect our staff, and loved ones against the invisible enemy.

Throughout the one-hour sessions (sometimes longer), we listened to our Chair who clearly summarized the latest government decree, and gave us the latest updates. Next, we heard from our no-nonsense doctor from Italy’s Ministry of Health who patiently explained- amongst other things, the rationale behind factors such as the number of deaths, infection rates, upward and downward trends, and swab vs. serological testing. Our Italian counterparts from the Civil Protection Agency also concisely guided us through the latest government ordinance, which detailed what we could, and could not do during the lockdown. Before leaving us to discuss internal issues, the representatives of our host government would answer all of our questions, to help us better navigate the unchartered territory of life during a pandemic.

In the last thirty minutes of our SMT meetings, our capable Chair would superbly facilitate discussions, and sharing of information until we all ran out of questions to ask. We left these sessions with some good practices to share for the week. No longer than a day after, our FAO colleagues would send us meeting minutes that we would immediately share with the rest of our staff.

Given the grim updates at the beginning, I admittedly dreaded attending our Thursday meetings. Aside from the useful WHO regular updates, the SMT in Italy brought the reality closer to home, so one had no choice but to take part. This was not the kind of meeting that you could delegate to others – this was something you had to attend regularly, by yourself, no matter how painful the topics were.

Having gone through the process week by week, we all bonded. We cared when our good doctor who never sugar coated his words joined us from a hospital room (not COVID 19 related). We were deeply concerned when one day, we were informed that one of our colleagues from the Civil Protection Agency fell ill (he tested negative and joined us again in two weeks). As time passed, we developed a sense of community that brought us together week after week.

Charting a new path

Now that the Italian curve is dipping , and the statistics are lowering, our tight UN community─ like other businesses in the country, is beginning to exchange plans on how to start phase 2 of our operations by gradually opening offices. Last week our good doctor informed us that he would most likely not be joining us anymore. This means going forward, we as the UN will only be left with our friends from the Civil Protection Agency.

At the moment, no one knows how long our Thursday SMT meetings will continue. As the situation in Italy improves, we all hope that we will no longer need to have these meetings. The irony is that I will miss my support community after our last SMT meeting.

A renewed focus centred on learning together as ONE UN

There are however, some small and meaningful takeaways from the experience in the last two months. First, it took a crisis to bring together 24 Italian UN agencies and entities. Second, good leadership is central to working as one. Third, as good colleagues, we care about each other and are willing to step in to offer a helping hand. Fourth, participation through systematic sharing of ideas and information, is crucial for developing and maintaining a solid community. Last but not the least, learning from experts and from one another is key to working as ONE.As a new experience for all of us, it took us a great deal of learning to figure out what, and how we should operate collectively in the new environment.

I look forward to the day that we attend our last COVID-19 SMT meeting, but sincerely wish to maintain our small community and continue to work as ONE UN in Italy. This will hopefully not be through Zoom, but in person. If the primary objective of a post COVID-19 world is to Build Back Better, then shouldn’t we all collectively learn how?



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