As things return to some semblance of normality here, thoughts turn to the past seven months of COVID-19-impacted life on the mission field. To be honest, it was some weekend R&R playing a boardgame – Pandemic – which inspired this blog. In the game, four players randomly receive a character with certain capabilities, and work together in order to prevent a pandemic, as events turn on the players and outbreaks of four ‘infectious diseases’ spread around the globe. The four characters were dealt, and each were of a medical nature – the Quarantine Specialist (handy), Medic, Researcher, and the Scientist. Sounds like an ideal team to combat a pandemic. Left out of play were the Operations Expert, Dispatcher, and Contingency Expert. On with the game!
After initial success keeping the diseases at bay, progress stalled. Getting to fresh outbreaks, and pooling our resources proved difficult without the roles which aided movement, got players working together, and maximised the potential of special ‘Event’ cards. If you are not familiar with the game, it is enough to say that the global disaster spiralled out of control quite quickly. What went wrong? All of the participants had specialist skills for disease control, but our game lacked the support and logistics capabilities to get them into positions to be effective. This is not far removed from the reality of Bible translation in PNG. Our mission community is made up of translation, literacy and scripture engagement specialists, and a large number of support personnel in areas of transport, construction, finance, logistical supplies, education and health services – essential to the effectiveness of the translation task. Remove one aspect of this, and the impact is noticeable.
The threat of COVID-19 in PNG, peaking from March 2020, saw co-workers leave the country as global mission organisations requested at-risk staff to return home to ensure access to medical treatment if needed. The departure of many older staff, and those with pre-existing health issues, impacted a significant proportion of the translation work. Others who could remain were faced with a suspension of all domestic travel within PNG. With our mission aircraft grounded, teams were cut off from remote village work, and many PNG co-translators were unable to attend scheduled training courses in Ukarumpa. Support work was also impacted, with a number of staff either needing to leave or, as the months dragged on, unable to return to PNG from home furlough in our regular June intake.
It seemed that at every turn, there was something missing from our regular pattern of life and ministry. As a community, it was frustrating to have either services available – such as Aviation – with little or no opportunity to serve in their usual way, or a shortage of staff – such as school teachers – to cope during complex times which saw everything from virtual classrooms to carrying the load of multiple subjects. In the Pandemic game, when it all turns sour you simply shuffle the cards and start over. In Ukarumpa, the ‘game’ had turned on us, and some creative play was called for.
There have certainly been positive stories coming out of these COVID impacted times. Translators who have had time to commit to essential tasks such as developing the orthography (systems of writing language), dictionaries, or training resources; support teams who have streamlined processes and found more effective methods of delivering services; discovering ways to work remotely and remain productive in the midst of disruption. In spite of the positives, we are all eagerly awaiting a return to ‘normal’ with long absent co-workers gradually returning, and perhaps, with a better understanding of the times not being in our hands.