Is the pandemic a portal?

26 October 2020

by Melissa Pittoti

At the recent Healing Solidarity conference I was struck by Swatee Deepak when she talked about the “pandemic as a portal”, a phrase introduced by novelist Arundhati Roy. A portal is a doorway, or gate, or an entrance. Maybe the silver lining of COVID-19, terrible as it is, is that is allowing us to enter a space to consider elements of our work that haven’t been working.

On October 10, World Mental Health Day, the World Health Organisation hosted a global, online “Big Event for Mental Health.”  Healthcare and humanitarian workers from around the world testified to the challenges they face in the line of duty “battling with mental health issues arising from the work.” These issues existed before COVID-19, but the pandemic is taking an additional toll, according to recent Devex surveys on aid workers’ job security and well-being.

“Mental health in the workplace needs our attention now more than ever… The time to invest in workplace mental health is now.” The WHO’s Big Event for Mental Health.

You can see the segment on workplace mental health by viewing the recorded video from 49:03-53:48.

Employees filmed in the Big Event gave plenty of suggestions. Two in particular stood out: “conversation can be part of the cure,” one said, and another emphasised the importance of partnering.

These two themes are consistent with what we are seeing in the CHS Alliance Initiative to Cultivate Caring, Compassionate Aid Organisations, which looks at well-being at the intersection between mental health, people management and organisational culture using the lens of care and compassion.

The Initiative is providing spaces for people from different organisations and backgrounds to reflect and share, including at the annual conference of the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action on 5 October and the CHS Exchange on 7 October, as well as contextualised cross-sector conversations currently taking place in Africa, Asia, Europe and MENA.

“During this period of COVID-19 and stark reminders of racial injustice, we have an opportunity to pause, slow down, and be with the parts of ourselves we don’t like.Dr. Gemma Houldey

For a closer look, the Initiative’s podcast, Embodying Change, has two new episodes this month. In the first one, Dr. Gemma Houldey shares with Mary Ann Clements her views on well-being in the aid sector, particularly the nuances that arise as a result of gender, race, nationality and professional status. She previews some of the concepts explored in her forthcoming book, including perfectionism, vulnerability and daring to have difficult conversations. This conversation touches upon some of the key challenges identified in our mapping report, particularly the importance of supportive organisational culture. You can listen to Gemma in conversation with Mary Ann now here and find out more about Gemma at

You don’t have to suffer to do the work you love.” Melly Preira

In the second episode, Melissa Pitotti talks with Melly Preira, the Human Resources Director at the Jesuit Refugee Service. Melly found a way, four years ago, to introduce major changes to how her humanitarian organisation supports its staff. When COVID hit, she didn’t need to “reinvent the wheel,” but “adapt it.” You can listen to Melly in conversation with Melissa now.

You can also hear Melly when she speaks on 3 November at the 2020 Humanitarian Human Resources (HHR) conference, organised by the CHS Alliance. The theme of the event will be raising awareness of the lessons learned from COVID-19 and re-imagining the future of aid work.

Perhaps the pandemic can be a portal after all.  It will open us up to new ways of working that support the people who are supporting the people, equitably and with care and compassion.

To learn more about the Initiative, check out the Caring & Compassionate Aid Organisation’s page.