René Lehmann answers questions about Coronavirus and Mercy Ships

29 June 2020

The coronavirus is causing unprecedented challenges. Strict, consistent and radical measures must be taken. Our lives are subject to increasing limitations. No one can escape them. Our mission in Senegal is no exception either. René Lehmann, director of Mercy Ships in Switzerland since 2012, looks back on the events of the last few weeks and their impact on Mercy Ships.

 

René, how are you doing, despite this “storm”?

I’m a little emotionally shaken, but I’m doing well! Shaken because the Africa Mercy has had to stop its mission in Senegal, and we think that the African continent risks joining us in this major crisis. Doing well, because I am grateful that none of our patients and crew on board has been infected with the virus, and that all the Swiss who had to or wanted to return are now safely at home.

It can’t have been easy to make the decision to suspend the mission!

No, indeed, it was a painful decision! Firstly, because of the final patients on whom we were not able to operate. But, also, because of the volunteers who were looking forward to joining the ship and who had to cancel everything; not forgetting those who had only just arrived and who had to return.

Did you even have to organise the repatriation of certain Swiss volunteers?

Yes… a complicated task when there are almost no more flights and the borders are closing one after the other! For example, the Australians and Canadians aboard suddenly had no chance of returning home because it was no longer possible to continue the journey beyond Brussels. For the Swiss crew, a solution was found with the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, which had organised a special repatriation flight for Swiss nationals stranded in West Africa. I was in regular contact with our embassy in Dakar, which provided much support in a very efficient and non-bureaucratic manner. For which I am extremely grateful to them!

What were the main reasons behind this suspension?

With volunteers from all over the world arriving almost every day, and many patients coming back and forth, we were a potential vehicle to spread the coronavirus to Senegal. It would also have taken just one case for the vessel to be quarantined for an indefinite period. We have all heard of this Japanese cruise liner that became a floating prison for over 3,000 people! We absolutely wanted to avoid such a scenario. And, finally, it was also a decision taken according to WHO recommendations and in agreement with the Senegalese government.

Why couldn’t the Africa Mercy be used to treat Covid-19 in Senegal?

Her operation in the event of an epidemic is very problematic. The Africa Mercy is actually designed to perform surgical operations. She is neither suitable for receiving contagious patients, nor equipped for treating patients suffering from respiratory problems.

The Africa Mercy is stopping the mission two months earlier than anticipated. What has been achieved?

Thousands of people have found new hope through surgery or dental care. Other than fistula surgery, we have exceeded all our goals in terms of dental surgery and treatment. Thousands of hours of continuing education and mentoring for health professionals have been given on board and across the country. These programmes have been a great encouragement to local health personnel and will be continued as soon as possible.

The ship is now in Tenerife, what happens next…

Although we did not have the virus on board at the time of departure, the Africa Mercy is currently in quarantine in an industrial port in Tenerife. On board are 239 crew members, some because they were unable to leave Senegal, others because they are required for the minimum running of the ship. As for the Swiss: we have Tamara, who produces fresh bread every day; Andreas, the chief chaplain, and his family; and also, Alphonse, who plays the role of chief engineer. Alphonse usually works in our Lausanne office but is called upon in the event of a shortage of volunteers for this essential position. One of Alphonse’s tasks will be to do all he can to accelerate the maintenance phase, which is scheduled for mid-June in Las Palmas, by several weeks.

Will the Africa Mercy return to Senegal?

We hope to be able to return to Senegal as soon as the Covid-19 situation allows. We have deliberately left equipment behind. Today, more than ever, the whole world realises the importance of a quality health system. Mercy Ships has had a significant impact in Senegal in the field of training and development of health professionals which, we hope, will be especially helpful to them in overcoming the pandemic crisis. The advantage of a floating hospital becomes apparent: if we have to leave a country, we can do it quickly and in a well-organised way – but we can also come back quickly and continue our work without the risk of infrastructure having disappeared or being no longer usable.

And what is the situation for staff in Switzerland?

All our employees are able to work as normal, but are doing so from home. They are here for you! Do not hesitate to get in touch with us – I always look forward to each personal contact! I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for your prayer support, your encouragement and your donations.

 

Read about the measures taken by Mercy Ships since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.