Problem solving a pandemic: a B.C. man on working for Doctors Without Borders in Pakistan

People receive food boxes and a traditional sweet drink distributed by volunteers for breaking their fast, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on May 3. Photo: AP Photo/Anjum NaveedPeople receive food boxes and a traditional sweet drink distributed by volunteers for breaking their fast, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on May 3. Photo: AP Photo/Anjum Naveed
Nelson’s Paul Caney is currently working for Doctors Without Borders in Pakistan, an Islamic republic torn over how to safely mark Ramadan during the pandemic. Photo submittedNelson’s Paul Caney is currently working for Doctors Without Borders in Pakistan, an Islamic republic torn over how to safely mark Ramadan during the pandemic. Photo submitted

The second of a two-part series on how COVID-19 has affected Ramadan. Read the first part here.

Paul Caney has made a career helping others by knowing a lot about everything, but not so much about any one thing.

In 1994, he was recruited by Médecins Sans Frontières, known in North America as Doctors Without Borders. His cousin, who was visiting Calgary seeking staff for the humanitarian organization, asked Caney what his expertise was.

At the time Caney was working in the film industry, which required some of the same skills his cousin was looking for. He could operate a radio. He could set up a generator. He knew how to drive in the mountains.

“Anyway, they asked me if I was interested,” he says now. “I sort of thought they were a little flaky and said yeah, sure.”

Three weeks later he flew to The Netherlands for training. Then it was on to Sarajevo — in the middle of the Bosnian War.

“It doesn’t work like that any more. It’s much more professional, you have many more mentors and work up to that kind of role nowadays.”

Caney, 56, works as an international logistics co-ordinator, which is better described as an extreme jack of all trades.

His daily duties include: overseeing construction and renovation of medical facilities, offices and living spaces; managing security guards, drivers and a fleet of vehicles; communications; and supply chain management.

He’s also the tech guy.

“It’s by far the most interesting job I’ve ever had, bar none,” he says.

Caney, who lives in Nelson when he’s in Canada, is currently stationed in Pakistan’s capital city Islamabad. He arrived in the country just as the pandemic was spreading. The World Health Organization says there have been 22,533 cases of COVID-19 in Pakistan along with 526 deaths.

The Islamic republic of 207 million people has been criticized by its own medical association for allowing mosques to remain open during the holy month of Ramadan, which began April 23. For 30 days, Muslims fast during the day before celebrating with family and friends in the evening while also attending evening prayers.

But Caney says he’s observed empty streets, closed tourism areas and clerics telling people to stay home.

“We have a tendency in Western cultures and Western media to group Islam as a single theological idea, which is of course not the case,” says Caney.

“There are moderates and there are fundamentalists just as there are in Christianity. So I think it’s very much a freedom to choose. I don’t think anybody is being incentivized or pushed toward gathering at risk to their faith. I think every single person in Pakistan is aware of what is going on.”

Related: Ramadan in a pandemic: How COVID-19 is affecting Islam’s holy month in B.C

Caney works for the Amsterdam arm of Doctors Without Borders, which also has centres in Geneva, Barcelona, Paris and Brussels. Three of those centres have teams working across Pakistan, where the organization typically focuses on mother-child health.

One in 11 children dies before the age of five in the country, according to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey. Last year, Doctors Without Borders said it provided treatment to 11,000 malnourished children in the province of Balochistan, where Caney and the rest of the Dutch team focus their efforts.

But COVID-19 has forced the organization to change its priorities.

Caney said his colleagues have had to suspend some of its programs as staff assist Pakistan’s health ministry in COVID-19 screenings.

“I really hope, I think we all do, that we’re not overwhelmed in our medical facilities by coronavirus, so we can keep supporting the women who are having complicated pregnancies and really need our facilities,” says Caney.

“We’re the only game in town in some of these places in terms of access to obstetric health care. I think we all have a back-of-our-mind concern that coronavirus might just overtake our normal lifesaving programs.”

Acquiring supplies for front-line staff has become Caney’s biggest challenge during the pandemic.

Personal protective equipment is difficult to come by in Pakistan, where domestic flights are grounded and the European supply chains once relied on by Doctors Without Borders are closed.

“That puts you in a position where you have to purchase things locally that normally you would never do on the basis of quality, availability and price,” says Caney.

“There are some things manufactured here in Pakistan, and that’s why I say I’m much luckier than some of my colleagues in less-developed countries. You’re at the mercy of opportunistic businessmen at times and that’s the same for everybody.”

Caney’s concerns also extend to the humanitarian sector at large.

Most organizations rely on donations or government assistance to operate, which he expects will dry up. He worries too that the pandemic will impact just how many people want to take less money to work for NGOs.

“We’ll see how it all plays out. I don’t know, but I think already within the health care industry, many [current or future] health care workers are seeing very real consequences of the job, especially when we are working in a highly infectious viral emergency.”

But for now, he isn’t seeing anyone on the front lines himself. Caney has stayed put in a house in Islamabad, where he’s visited by staff and struggles to find supplies for Doctors Without Borders’ medical personnel.

Like everyone he works with, Caney worries about his own health. When he’s stressed, he tries to make use of the home’s gym equipment. He’s been using it a lot.

“If anything,” he says, “I’m healthier than when I arrived.”

@tyler_harper | tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusRamadan

Just Posted

A person receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. Northern Health confirmed it has the lowest vaccination rates amongst the province’s five regional health authorities. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
Vaccination rates in Vanderhoof, Fraser Lake, Fort St James well below provincial average

COVID-19 immunization clinics for youth 12+ coming up in Fort St. James

Steve McAdam (left) is studying substrate conditions in the Nechako River and how they impact sturgeon eggs. The work will help design habitat restoration measures, said McAdam. (Rebecca Dyok photo)
Sturgeon egg studies to help inform future habitat restoration

“It’s an interesting, challenging issue,” says Steve McAdam

Saik’uz First Nation Coun. Jasmine Thomas and Chief Priscilla Mueller speak about the need for addiction treatment facility near Vanderhoof, March 2021. (Aman Parhar/Omineca Express)
Vanderhoof addiction treatment centre tries again with ministry support

Agriculture minister insists she is not interfering in land commission

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: B.C. family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from B.C. residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

A logging truck carries its load down the Elaho Valley near in Squamish, B.C. in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody
Squamish Nation calls for old-growth logging moratorium in its territory

The nation says 44% of old-growth forests in its 6,900-square kilometre territory are protected while the rest remain at risk

Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Pick a Sunday:’ Indigenous leaders ask Catholics to stay home, push for apology

Indigenous leaders are calling on Catholics to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors by not attending church services

“They will never be forgotten, every child matters,” says Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone in a video statement June 1. (Screen grab)
104 ‘potential graves’ detected at site of former residential school in Manitoba

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation working to identify, repatriate students buried near former Brandon residential school

The Queen Victoria statue at the B.C. legislature was splattered with what looks like red paint on Friday. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)
Queen Victoria statue at B.C. legislature vandalized Friday

Statue splattered with red paint by old growth forest proponents

Most Read