Collective intelligence is not a meaningless word

An interview with Thierry Vandevelde, Chief Executive Officer of the Veolia Foundation.

© Uvira, Democratic Republic of Congo, Fondation Veolia.

A few weeks after the end of containment, Thierry Vandevelde, Chief Executive Officer of the Veolia Foundation, draws up an initial assessment of the management of the Covid-19 crisis. Examined against the yardstick of other pandemic experiences, our Western practices have not come out great.

Défis Humanitaires : With the Veolia Foundation, you have experience in the management of health crises, particularly those affecting the African continent. Are there lessons to be learned from what has happened in Europe and France?

Thierry Vandevelde: As such, there is nothing new in the management of health crises: emergency humanitarian actors are confronted with them very regularly after humanitarian disasters. We know that rapid action to be implemented in the field is a priority.

In France, hospital management of the pandemic has made it possible to take care of patients and provide them with all the necessary care. But the medical response cannot be sufficient. The strategy must be open and multisectoral because of the many unknowns: it must involve all the stakeholders, i.e. the health sectors, economic players and civil society. This is moreover the recommendation of a recent opinion (8 June 2020) of the Covid-19 scientific council set up by the French government.

In Cameroon, standpipes and hand-washing stations have been made available in Bangangté and its 13 villages, Fondation Veolia

©In Cameroon, standpipes and washbasins have been made available in Bangangté and its 13 villages.

To do this, it is probably necessary to accept going beyond the traditional intervention frameworks and to favour, when an epidemic is global as is the case with the coronavirus, transnational action. When I see that a shipment of protective masks intended for our fellow water service operators in Africa is prevented by a European regulation, I am sorry… We have been faced with export refusals that have become authorisations by dint of insistence, before being blocked once again by a text from the French Ministry of Transport. No doubt the fact of a bureaucracy that is not always very agile. The example is anecdotal but symptomatic: these fluctuating decisions were taken to the detriment of people’s needs.

You have observed what has happened in Africa. What are your observations?

The European response would have been more effective if it had been inspired by the example set by certain African countries which, unfortunately, are very used to health crises. Often, they have reacted quickly with the means at hand. I am thinking of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which drew inspiration from its multisectoral strategic plan for the elimination of cholera to promote a targeted, multi-actor approach in its fight against Covid-19.

I am also thinking of Cameroon, and particularly the commune of Bangangté, which very quickly mobilized its youth to spread the practice of barrier gestures. And in Senegal, the government, anticipating the spread of the epidemic, did not hesitate to set up a curfew.

How is water an element in the fight against this type of pandemic?

 The WHO stressed very early on that water and soap were the first weapons in the fight against the coronavirus, in order to implement the barrier gestures. But these are still scarce resources in many so-called less developed countries. Improving access to water, sanitation and therefore hygiene is the obvious answer to water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dozens of other pathologies. We will be able to build all the hospitals we want – and this is obviously still necessary – and carry out massive vaccination campaigns, but these responses will never be sufficient or sustainable to deal with major health crises. Alongside global programmes that have proved their worth, such as the recently refinanced Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, it is also essential to mobilise significant financial resources for access to water, hygiene and sanitation.

You place great emphasis on multisectoral approaches and the role of local actors…

This crisis has shown that local actors in the world of water are increasingly competent and effective in the countries of the South. They have been unavoidable in the response to the crisis as they have been practically the only ones to remain in place, as many international workers have been evacuated as a precaution. I have in mind the very recent example of the city of Uvira, where the Veolia Foundation has been fighting against cholera for years by creating infrastructures for access to water, and which was hit by violent bad weather in April. The floods that followed, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, jeopardized access to drinking water, forcing all stakeholders to work together very intensively to restore this essential service. To support the local operator, we worked remotely, hand in hand with an African engineering office, the teams in charge of the works and a Congolese NGO. This experience demonstrates that collective intelligence is not an empty word: crisis management requires stakeholders to trust each other and pool their skills. From this point of view, the current pandemic is a form of call to order and a demand for vigilance for the future.

Thierry Vandevelde

Thierry Vandevelde, Doctor of Science and engineer specializing in water-related issues, is currently General Delegate of the Veolia Foundation committed to sustainable development in France and abroad. Previously, he held several positions: Head of environmental preservation at Compagnie Générale des Eaux, Head of research programs, then Director of Technologies in the international technical division of Veolia Water.

Vandevelde is also a member of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Action set up by the French government and of the American Water Works Association and Secretary of the French Committee of the Solidarité Eau (pS-Eau) programme. He also sits on the boards of several international local associations.

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