New Era (NE) this week engaged Erongo governor Neville Andre (NA), who is at the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic after a record number of positive cases were reported in the region over the last couple of months.
NE: You have been thrown into the deep end, having come in shortly before Covid-19 hit Erongo seriously. How has your experience been so far, juggling between your normal duties and the emergency at hand?
NA: To be honest, I have not had time to think about it at first, as when I was appointed by His Excellency the President as governor on 15 April 2020 (the date my appointment commenced), I spent less than a month in office before Covid-19 started to sweep through Walvis Bay. Within 38 days of my appointment, the Erongo region became the epicentre of infection in Namibia.
The impact was immediate and devasting on all our people, the economy and jobs. The hospitality industry, which is the lifeblood of Swakopmund, came to an abrupt standstill. Everything was paralysed by shock and disbelief brought on by the onslaught of Covid-19 in our region.
It is my responsibility as the representative of central government and His Excellency the President to take the reins, provide political leadership, and to ensure that all national programmes and initiatives are fully functional in the Erongo region and implemented to respond to the impact of this virus.
Balancing normal duties as governor and leading the regional response to Covid-19 was difficult as can be imagined, but I am very fortunate to have a team that has shown nothing less than superhuman endurance and commitment. I truly am thankful that I am surrounded by selfless and dedicated people to ensure nothing falls through the cracks.
NE: Have you had time to appraise yourself with the state of the region in totality?
NA: I have to be honest; I simply had no time to spend as much time as I would have liked in other constituencies due to the circumstances. Walvis Bay did not only become my priority but a national public health priority. It was, thus, a ‘no-brainer’ in that respect. The primary focus was to contain the spread of infection, prepare and to implement responsive health and other systems to respond to the pandemic. The most notable characteristic of this pandemic is that it exacerbated the existing socio-economic realities of our people and has tested the limits of all our systems like public health, economic, enterprise and financial systems. Walvis Bay became the microcosm of all these stretched systems.
We were, thus, forced to galvanise and strengthen our strained systems in the Erongo region in to effectively and sustainably manage our reality. I am proud of what we have been able to achieve during this extremely trying time.
Another plus was that it brought me straight onto the ground, working with the local leaders and being in daily touch with them to address all issues that needed immediate attention. We are constantly in active mode, making decisions on the run and implementing immediately – the situation requires immediate wisdom and action.
NE: Governors are appointed by the President and are expected to work with elected councillors. How has the cooperation been with those in the Erongo Regional Council and local authorities?
NA: I have sympathy for the elected councillors because they too were thrown into the deep end and here was this new governor and a raging pandemic. No one had the time to acclimatise; we were all forced into action.
I am thankful to them, as the devastation of the pandemic became very personal to all of us as leaders. We all knew that our decisions and timeous action meant life and death for our community.
As to be expected, there is politicking, which is inevitable. But overall, I have only great respect for the elected councillors in specifically Walvis Bay and Swakopmund.
For example, I would call meetings mostly at odd hours daily or weekends because of the urgency of everything we face. These meetings take until well into the night and actions have to be implemented immediately. Everybody puts in the long hours and effort to get things done without delay.
NE: Erongo, especially the epicentre of Covid-19, is a highly politicised environment at the moment. What’s your message to the residents who live in anxiety?
NA: You are very right in that assessment that Erongo, and specifically Walvis Bay, is highly politicised. The decimation of Walvis Bay by Covid-19 has forced all of us to choose whether we are going to exploit this situation for political points or just do our jobs.
I have a job to do and that is to ensure all the residents of this region are looked after and that national socio-economic programmes and initiatives are implemented, delivering the required impact and benefits for our people. In addition, I spend 95% of my time out of the office, listening to our people and ensuring we respond to the anguished voices of our people. That is my focus, which mirrors the mandate that has been bestowed upon us as government by the people.
So my message to the people of Erongo is ‘your voice and your cries matter – my job is to listen and to ensure that we employ the resources we have at our disposal to respond and act on your call’. I would also further like to say to our residents that I acknowledge we are living in uncertain times as we see the global devastation this virus has brought – not only on our national economy and way of life but indeed on that of the entire world.
Never before in our lifetime, have we seen the critical need for collaboration and co-operation as nations and citizens to jointly form a fighting force against the stark reality that this virus is and has brought upon our world.
In this new reality, we are faced with the unavoidable task of transforming all aspects of our societies and economies to renegotiating and entering into a new social contract. No country will be spared from this reality.
NE: Lastly, can you perhaps give us an overview of activities, achievements and challenges you have experienced thus far and with specific reference to the regional response to Covid-19
NA: Yes, gladly. On the leadership and co-ordination front, I established our Covid-19 ‘War Room’, which meets every night to collaborate and report across focal areas like infection control, community engagement, security cluster, case management, points of entry and quarantine. This War Room was established the day we saw the epidemiological data confirming community transmission.
This War Room quickly evolved into a fully functional Public Health Emergency Operation Centre (EOC). We formed focal areas that were mandated to carry strategic and operational oversight and accountability. I chair the EOC and we meet every Saturday to collaborate, co-ordinate and make decisions, share and report on activities, elevate challenges/issues for resolution or further elevation and resolution at central government level.
For example, when the President made the call to urgently operationalise a decongestion strategy here in Walvis Bay so that we contain the risk of infection in densely populated areas, my office was able to get the Walvis Bay and Swakopmund local authority areas to respond. In less than 72 hours, we had an implementable plan.
This was a very revealing achievement, which was ‘we can and have the resources to do what we need to do’ to meet the needs of our people. It is all about timeous and effective implementation, underpinned by results-driven leadership.
Community participation and engagement
Being a born and bred product of Walvis Bay, and having been a junior mayor at the Walvis Bay municipality when I was in Grade 12, I have the advantage to be operating on home ground.
One thing this pandemic has given us is our renewed sense of community and care. I am so proud of the people in my region. Many people have lost their livelihood to this pandemic, and so we are dealing with a very distressed community.
My office has been coordinating the food distribution drive for Walvis Bay in particular, with assistance from the local authority councillors and volunteers. As you know, we were devastated by the fire that razed 150 shacks at the Twaloloka informal settlement, which left almost 1 000 people destitute – and this time, the whole country responded in brotherhood and solidarity.
The sense of nationhood and solidarity that Walvis Bay has experienced from our compatriots all across the country, across political lines and race has been so overwhelming and heartwarming. It, undoubtedly, is a personal highlight for me to have the first-hand experience of the outpouring of humanity and citizenry towards the Erongo region.
I host a weekly press conference every Friday morning at 10h00 with the regional health director, Anna Jonas and police regional commander commissioner Andreas Nelumbu to give weekly updates regarding our Covid-19 response and developments.
I also invite special guests like the regional education director, social workers, industry and other stakeholders to share issues that they are facing in the region due to Covid-19.