Every Mask Counts: Leading Emergency Procurement for UNDP China during the COVID-19 Pandemic
The seriousness of the situation became palpable over the Chinese New Year. Like everyone else, I had gone home for the holiday, but the mood in my house was anything but cheerful. No big dinners or gatherings, no visits from friends and extended family. I found myself spending more time watching the news than doing any celebrating. They were calling it “coronavirus”, but I had no idea what that meant at the time. All I knew was that every day the numbers of infections kept getting higher and higher. 2,000, 5,000, 10,000… This wasn’t going away.
After coming to terms with the magnitude of the crisis over the course of a few days, I began thinking about how this was going to affect my work. Would we be able to return to the office? All the plans we had made for the start of 2020, how would they be impacted? Most importantly though, what were we at UNDP China going to do to help?
"All I knew was that every day the numbers of infections kept getting higher and higher. 2,000, 5,000, 10,000… This wasn’t going away."
When the decision was made to donate supplies to help frontline health workers, as the office’s Procurement Associate, I knew I had to be ready to lead our efforts to source medical equipment and supplies. I have been working on the operations team at UNDP China for almost a decade, and in the 10 years I have been with the organization, I have been involved in all different sorts of procurement from consulting services to goods and products. Each kind of procurement order brings its own challenges, but most issues can be avoided by planning in advance and maintaining consistent communication.
However, this would be a task unlike any I had ever experienced before.
From the very start, things were daunting. I had never done emergency procurement during an epidemic before. The level of demand and extreme urgency didn’t afford me the time to do my usual preparation and to shop around for the best offers. After getting confirmation from the relevant government ministries of what the most urgently needed materials were, I had to immediately jump into searching for and contacting suppliers.
"Despite the difficulty of the situation, I would remind myself that this was the least I could do while doctors, nurses, and other health workers were risking their lives trying to save others."
Another aspect of my global search for supplies was taking into account the time difference between China and other countries when communicating internationally. Since I couldn’t afford any delay in getting back to potential suppliers I truly had to work around the clock, 24/7. Every night I would reply to what felt like an ocean of email until well past midnight, and then try to sneak in a few hours of sleep, hoping that when I woke up, never later than 7:30, there would be good news from suppliers. Despite the difficulty of the situation however, I would remind myself that this was the least I could do while doctors, nurses, and other health workers were risking their lives trying to save others.
In March, the situation in China began to stabilize but my work didn’t let up, as the virus began to spread overseas. My focus shifted from procuring supplies for China to helping other countries procure supplies from China. Since then, the number of countries asking for support from UNDP China has been overwhelming. Countries all over the world are in urgent need of support and China has been one of the last markets that has not imposed export bans on PPE and medical products.
Throughout this entire process, there have been some extremely stressful moments. At one point, a shipment of ventilators to be sent to Europe ran into issues due to restrictions on batteries for international deliveries. We managed to solve the problem after a week, but the whole time I felt like if I couldn’t get the shipment through I would be letting down the recipient country and negatively affecting UNDP’s reputation.
Ultimately however, after more than 30 requests for procurement support, over 150 quality assurance dossiers reviewed with the help of colleagues, and thousands of phone calls and emails over 60 non-stop days and nights, what I think I will remember most about this period is not actually the quantity of the work. It is how supportive most people have been and how they have united in response to the situation.
"Pandemic or not, my attitude has always been to stay positive and if problems arise, address them head on. There is no obstacle that can’t be overcome."
From different UNDP country offices to long-time government and private-sector partners, none of the procurement work we have accomplished would have been possible without everyone working together and learning from each other. On the personal side, my family, friends, and colleagues have all been there to help and support me. In fact, if I had the opportunity to work on crisis support again in the future, I would gladly accept. The many lessons and insights that I have gained from this experience I will be able to apply to different scenarios and share with other country offices to improve upon the global procurement process.
In the end, people all think this period has been really rough on me, and while it has been hard work, the truth is, I have never once felt discouraged. Pandemic or not, my attitude has always been to stay positive and if problems arise, address them head on. There is no obstacle that can’t be overcome. I’m just doing my job and we are all in this together.
That being said, it does make me feel proud when watching the news, knowing that I have played a part in this global fight against the virus. My heart goes out to the countries that are most in need and where people are fighting to survive. When the first batch of supplies arrived in Nigeria, and I saw a photo of the UNDP Resident Representative in Nigeria holding up a sign with the words “Thank U UNDP China”. I couldn’t stop my tears from falling down.
That is what makes it all worthwhile.
Authored by Yi (Sara) Xiao, UNDP China Procurement Associate