The interview with MAGNA Operations Director Denisa Augustínová was published on 20 April 2020 in the Slovak daily newspaper SME. We bring its transcript translated into English.
Your humanitarian organization is mainly focused on developing countries. What has changed in its functioning in the time of the coronavirus crisis?
I cannot say that anything has changed explicitly, but rather we have managed to adapt. The Covid-19 illness caused by the coronavirus is a worldwide pandemic, countries remain closed. Like all of us, we have been affected by restrictions on movement, but the specific problem was, in particular, the difficulty of moving humanitarian aid stocks.
However, I must point out that humanitarian organizations are subject to somewhat less stringent rules, so that, for example, approximately once a week we can move different packages of help for women or protective equipment to fight the coronavirus across states.
Two days ago, we were able to send medical supplies from Paris to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Everything, of course, takes place with regard to strict hygiene criteria and safety measures. A big change occurred in the fact that Magna is now also helping in Slovakia.
Magna is originally a Slovak organization, but it is involved in Asian and African countries which often depend on outside help. You are helping in Slovakia for the first time only now. Up until now, do you think the situation in Slovakia did not require your help, for example in excluded communities?
The situation has never been so serious; the Slovak healthcare system has never faced such a widespread epidemic; there has never been a problem with unsufficient stock of medical material. What is happening now is unprecedented, so we have decided to start helping at home. We are helping hospitals, we are starting to provide help for oncological patients.
What is Magna's assistance to Slovak hospitals?
We started by providing hospitals with medical aids, especially masks and respirators. We cooperate with the Kramáre Hospital, the National Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases, and the St. Elisabeth Oncology Institute on Heydukova Street. These are just some of the facilities that work with immunocompromised patients who need our help most.
Just as people with severely reduced immunity, the elderly are also very vulnerable according to doctors, which has after all been confirmed by the cases of spreading infection in social services homes in Pezinok or Martin. Do you also provide help to these facilities?
Even before the media reported that Covid-19 had spread rapidly among dozens of the elderly in Pezinok, we created a project specifically aimed at older people. We have identified facilities where a large part of clients are the elderly and we have started testing.
We are currently testing in Bratislava; on Sunday we took samples at a retirement center in Podjavorinská Street, where an employee of this center was confirmed to have the infection. As the average age of the center's clients is up to 85 years, concerns about the possible mass spread of the infection were very high. However, I can say that all the results are negative after all, which we were relieved to find out.
Of course, our activity is not limited to testing and distributing medical supplies. We are also trying to instruct health professionals, as our doctors have experience with various epidemics around the world.
How does Magna have access to tests or medical supplies that it is able to distribute them in several countries? Respirators or masks, for example, have a limited lifespan, they must be supplied continuously.
For testing, we cooperate with the private laboratory Medirex and we use the so-called PCR tests, not the rapid tests. The sensitivity of the tests we use is higher and the result is extremely reliable, almost 100%. As far as medical devices are concerned, humanitarian organizations such as Magna have so-called emergency warehouses in various countries, in which masks, respirators and protective suits are stored. Also thanks to these stocks we are now able to supply deviced to Slovakia.
So the Slovak medical staff got the masks and respirators from the supplies you had prepared for the developing countries if any of the numerous epidemics recur?
Basically yes. The emergency depots of humanitarian organizations are well stocked, especially for those events in which it is necessary to go somewhere within 48 hours and help people affected by any disaster, whether natural or humanitarian, which often go hand in hand.
Magna's doctors are helping in developing countries to fight diseases that have long been under control in the West, or have never spread outside Africa. In the case of the new coronavirus, do you feel that all the countries of the world are on the same boat for the first time or do African countries still have a worse starting position?
Their starting position is still worse. We are still much better off than the Democratic Republic of Congo, where 55 million people have no access to drinking or running water. Under such conditions, the local people cannot follow even the basic recommendations of hygienists to disinfect and wash their hands regularly.
In some African communities, it is also almost impossible to guard the social distancing that is required, as in preventing people from grouping together in large numbers.
Many African countries have long-term difficulties with understaffed hospitals, with a shortage of health workers being just one thing. These facilities also suffer from a lack of medical devices and the necessary equipment. Thus, although the West has underestimated its response to the emerging pandemic, it is certainly better off because it has experts, epidemiologists, and top laboratories at its disposal.
But you can also look at it from another point of view. Europe, including Slovakia and the Western countries as a whole, were at a disadvantage precisely because they had not experienced any such epidemic for a long time. I think we have succumbed to the deceitful feeling that something like this can no longer happen to us. This showed our vulnerability, in particular, because we had absolutely miserable supplies of all the necessary devices to fight the pandemic or at least to slow it down.
Are African countries, in terms of material supplies, better prepared for a pandemic, because they are continually faced with Ebola or measles infections and are therefore better supplied?
I'd rather say that because of the frequent occurrence of epidemics, they already have a better system in place. This applies not only to the stockpile of masks and respirators but also to the overall community response. Thanks to their extensive experience, the people of African countries are aware of the urgency of such situations and are therefore immediately ready to cooperate with health professionals, the authorities. This makes the whole system more flexible.
Is the Democratic Republic of Congo an example of such an immediate willingness when the Ebola outbreak has evidently been managed through a test vaccine? It is difficult to imagine that Europeans would so massively and voluntarily let themselves be vaccinated with a test vaccine.
Ebola is a bit of a specific case because it is a disease that has an extremely high mortality rate of up to 70 percent. The new coronavirus, in contrast to Ebola, is well tolerated by the vast majority of the infected, with no major complications. With Ebola, the World Health Organization (WHO) has admitted perhaps an unprecedented exception. The condition was, however, that each person should be vaccinated against Ebola only after giving their written consent. I do not think that the same situation would occur in the case of Covid-19.
How is it possible that your projects - many unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic - still work in African countries, and yet you had enough people to start helping in Slovakia? Do you hire more professionals or do you reach to some "backup medical staff" in such situations?
In the twenty years of our operation, we have managed to create a relatively large database of workers. Of course, we regularly update it, some health professionals are with us for five years, others ten, but in such cases we know where to look. In Slovakia, we are cooperating with people who have become part of our database, for example, in 2015 and 2016 during the refugee crisis. These are medical workers who helped on the Hungarian-Serbian border. These include people from Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
So there isn't any need to withdraw Magna doctors from South Sudan to Europe, for example, directly to Slovakia?
In terms of logistics, there are also such movements.
Do these health workers then remain in quarantine to avoid any risk or are they subject to specific rules?
Our medical staff is also subject to the 14-day quarantine. They also have to undergo the Covid-19 test before they leave a country and after they arrive in another country. Until it is confirmed with certainty that their tests are negative, they remain in quarantine.