The United Nations Refugee Agency Weighs in on the Coronavirus

The United Nations Refugee Agency Weighs in on the Coronavirus

By Donald Dunphy 

May 2020

Because of the timing and global footprint of Covid-19, the majority of NAFA Members are working through an epidemic for the first time in their careers. For NAFA Member Ondrej Holcman, Global Fleet Manager for the United Nations Refugee Agency, epidemics are always a potential challenge in his work.
Holcman has had extensive experience in field work; prior to working with the U.N., he served with Doctors Without Borders and the World Health Organization. His expertise on dealing with crisis, specifically health-related epidemics, gives him a unique perspective on the current pandemic. He spoke to NAFA from The UN Refugee Agency’s home base in Budapest, Hungary and we asked him when it comes time to gear up for a dramatic shift in operations to fight an epidemic, what are the critical things that often slip through the cracks. Holcman replied, “During the past five years, I have had a chance to actively participate on operations suppressing various epidemics as a fleet manager. Some of them were quite tense due to ongoing political instability or the presence of rebellion armed forces. One would often hesitate to say whether the risk associated with the epidemics was higher than the security context itself. A good example would be the most recent Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of the Congo where my team had to manage a fleet of 700 vehicles, including 650 rented units, all during the presidential election.”


Epidemic Preparation

On the topic of epidemic preparedness, Holcman explains, “When we talk about epidemics, whether it is malaria, measles, polio, cholera, and so on, we can often predict them. The majority of these are associated with weather-related factors. Even though they reoccur, we consider them to be seasonal. Hence, we can mobilize our resources and get prepared. However, the situation of Covid-19 is unique as it suddenly popped up and spread all over the world in a few weeks.

“The response to such cases starts by establishing an emergency operations center and creating a network and communication lines. One can always benefit from someone's presence and experience. Hiring a reliable staff, even if not super-experienced, but loyal and motivated, is essential. It may require some coaching but saves headaches in the future as the response can take a few months.

“Mapping the market to ensure fuel supply, preferably from multiple sources as a hedge against price manipulation is a must. The importance of having a maintenance structure not only to maintain vehicles, but also to verify the technical state of rented assets prior accepting them in the fleet can’t be underestimated. Stock up on spare parts and consumables for preventive maintenance and don’t forget about tires.

“Vehicle tracking becomes more useful than ever, not only to have live visibility over the fleet, but also to manage the workload of your drivers. This can certainly limit drivers’ fatigue and associated risk of having preventable crashes. Vehicle tracking systems also allow us to monitor utilization of vehicles, which can serve as a maintenance-planning and fleet right-sizing tool.”

Risk Mitigation

We asked about the most common mistakes fleets tend to make in the rush to act quickly.  Holcman says,Based on my experience, the biggest challenges concern human resources, contract management, and administration. Monitoring fuel distribution and consumption is critical. Epidemics are often associated with an immense volume of transport which cannot be covered by the means of any single organization. Therefore, in order to cover these needs, renting is the only option. There is no possibility to rely on partners because they all have the same problem while chasing the virus.”

In the U.S., there is a lot of discussion about getting furloughed fleets moving again. Fleet professionals have a list of critical tasks before taking vehicles out of mothballs. Holcman has had experience in his relief work and suggests, “Those who will resume operations fast will benefit from the situation and potentially take customers from competition. If there is a demand for transportation, whether it is goods or people, it requires satisfaction and customers will go for whatever is most convenient. A perfect example would be with food delivery services. Customers are not typically going to wait for their preferred provider to be ready and will go with whoever is.

“We all know that vehicle depreciation is the largest component of the total cost of ownership (TCO) and having vehicles grounded only deepens the losses. Furthermore, public auctions used by some of us for disposal of vehicles are stalled and oversupplied, meaning the vehicle resale value and consequent TCO will be negatively affected.

“From the technical perspective of getting vehicles back on duty, we should not omit seasonal factors. Most of the vehicles were grounded at the end of winter, therefore some of them probably still have winter tires, low viscosity oil, flat batteries, and have not been washed from ice melt chemicals. So, they should at least undergo a check, if not a full service. Lastly, there is a possibility of having expired inspections, insurance, first aid kit, etc. There is much catch-up to do, but it is better to take a little time to accomplish this than to let vehicles roll out unprepared.”

All Clear?

Having lived through so many crises, Holcman has identified best practices for getting back to work in a dangerous territory that is not yet “all clear.” He says he would be concerned about the following:
  • “Clearly, there will be more people getting back on the road after a prolonged period of not sitting behind the wheel.
  • I would recommend sensitization meetings with some refreshers for your drivers, particularly for the inexperienced rookies and older drivers who have expectations of a specific sense of normality out on the roads.
  • I would expect a higher occurrence of accidents as they get out into a public that have been pent up for two months and are driving to alleviate isolation and are not responding as clearly as they might ordinarily.
  • Your drivers themselves may be just as “itchy” to get back to work and may not be as diligent immediately as they typically would be.”         
This One Is Different

When we asked Holcman about some of the unique lessons-learned from the Covid-19 pandemic compared to previous epidemics, he observes,The current situation is particularly unique and complicated for various reasons, starting with the fact that every single country on the planet is affected and taking their own individual approaches, without a coherent response consensus. We can see that the situation is being abused by politicians across the world and the media is not helping much at all. Cross-border movements are significantly limited, factories have cut production, and many people are losing their jobs. In my opinion, it is obvious that not a single government was prepared for a situation of a global scope like this.

“The worst scenarios are predicting that a second wave will come a few months down the road. This gives us some time to prepare contingency plans or hibernation plans in order to sustain the situation, adapt our service portfolio, or get back to business when it is over.”

Accountability and Liability

The issues surrounding fleet leadership making responsible decisions about the team and the liability for the parent organization if fleet members become ill have become daily conversations in the time of coronavirus. We asked Holcman how his field experience has shaped his strategic and operational accountabilities. “Well, contagiousness is different for each virus and preventive measures depend on its type, strength, use of the vehicle and so on. In some cases, we modify vehicles in order to prevent drivers from getting in touch with patients/passengers. We provide them with face masks and hand sanitizers. We also implement strict rules including hand wash stations with chlorinated water and we have staff measuring body temperature prior to entering our facilities. We even ask drivers carrying the patients to roll down the window while driving. Moreover, if there is a vaccine or preventive medicine available, drivers have access to them.

“On the top of that our drivers always have access to health care and are fully responsible for consequences associated with not reporting health conditions that could affect their performance."

One thing to consider that might easily be overlooked is to have drivers be salaried and not paid based on hourly rate. The majority of people work with money as the prime motivator. This is understandable, but it can cause your workers to prioritize earnings over safety, picking up hours wherever they can get them. In normal times, this could mean your drivers have been putting in a lot of road hours without rest and are not safe to drive. But in our current situation, that could mean drivers working for multiple outfits, using multiple vehicles, and extending the possibility of contracting and spreading this virus.

“A fixed and counted-upon salary gives the employee the confidence of knowing how much money he or she is making each week, and they can commit to the work you provide versus independently contracting themselves out to many other organizations.”

A New Normal

He believes that the new normal post-coronavirus would require permanent changes, “As I am not aware of many companies regularly sanitizing their vehicles, I would definitely avoid having more than one driver operating the same vehicle. They certainly should consider regular sanitization, however. Companies dealing with passenger transport might need to impose some specific rules for passengers, e.g. face masks, restricting food and beverage consumption, and for sure sanitation of hand rests, handrails, and other surfaces exposed skin makes direct contact with.” 

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