by Miceál O’Hurley
DUBLIN – In December, 2019 news emerged of a novel strain of a coronavirus with an alarming infection rate. To date, some 738,965 people worldwide have been reported to have died because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic’s world-wide toll has been devastating, wrecking economies, stressing health care systems and causing countries around the globe to impose travel bans and restrictions to thwart the spread of the virus. As Ireland continues to lift many of the restrictions previously imposed to help contain the Covid-19 pandemic, even while delaying others, it gives us time to reflect upon the work of diplomacy in action and the critical role played by the Diplomatic Corps in continuing to serve people during the crisis.
We are continuing to interview diplomatic missions in Ireland to provide an insight into how diplomacy has been conducted during these trying circumstances and provide some insight into the challenges that may lie ahead. In this interview, the Ambassador of the Federative Republic of Brazil, Her Excellency Ms. Eliana Zugaib, spoke with me about the pandemic and the conduct of diplomacy during this difficult period.
Eliana Zugaib completed the Diplomatic Career Preparation Course at the Rio Branco Institute and entered Brazil’s diplomatic service in 1982. An advisor to the Minister of State, Ms. Zugaib was promoted to Second Secretary before being assigned to the Brazilian Embassy in Paris where she remained until 1991. Following her assignment in Paris, Ms. Zugaib progressed to the Embassy in Prague before returning to Brazil to assume the position of Advisor in the Department of Europe. Promoted again, Ms. Zugaib became an Advisor in the Department of Special Themes before returning to Europe at the Embassy of Brazil to the United Kingdom. Her career also saw her serve in the Embassy in Buenos Aires. Ms. Zugaib successfully defended her thesis in the Course of Higher Studies at the Rio Branco Institue entitled “The Paraguay-Paraná Waterway and its Meaning for the South American Diplomacy of Brazil” before serving as Director of Cultural Department, Ms. Zugaib assumed the post of Chief of Staff to the Secretary General of Foreign Affairs before being appointed Representative of the Permanent Delegation of Brazil with UNESCO. Ambassador Zugaib has received several decorations for her diplomatic service including the Medal of Merit Santos Dumont , Brazil (1988), the Order of Aeronautical Merit , Brazil, Cavaleiro (1988), and the Order of Rio Branco , Brazil, Grand Cross (2013). On 21 September 2017 Her Excellency Ms. Eliana Zugaib presented her letters of credence extraordinary and plenipotentiary to President Michael D. Higgins as the Ambassador of the Federative Republic of Brazil to Ireland.
Madame Ambassador, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me. History will record that the year 2020 has been a difficult year throughout the world. What did you find to be the greatest challenge that emerged for your Mission during the Covid-19 pandemic?
One of the biggest challenges we experienced at the Embassy, during the initial Covid-19 shut-down, was to maintain consular services rendered to the Brazilian citizens in Ireland in spite of the strict restrictions imposed on face-to-face assistance. We, therefore, made a great effort to introduce the practice of remote work, to improve the communication with the public and, at the same time, to ensure that face-to-face assistance was in place for emergency consular cases whilst keeping only essential activities in the office, without putting the staff at risk.
You have earned a reputation for forging congenial relationships with your fellow diplomats. How has working remotely impacted the collegiality in the diplomatic corps this year?
One has also to bear in mind that interpersonal contacts are of paramount importance for any diplomatic activity. Over the past few months, a period when we have been unable to participate in work-related meetings, seminars, and social activities, we have suddenly been deprived of those occasions in which personal contact is favoured. Thus, we had to adapt to virtual contact.
Some of the areas in which Brazil and Ireland might share the greatest, mutually, complimentary benefit lies in the areas of commerce and trade. How have those efforts been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic?
It has been a challenge for the Embassy facing the postponement of previously scheduled trade promotion and investment attraction activities, two of the areas in which there is room to increase cooperation between Brazil and Ireland. We are committed to reschedule activities that were due to take place in Dublin, with the presence of stakeholders coming from Brazil and the participation of the Irish public.
Did you have occasion for your Mission to assist Brazilian nationals living here in Ireland or possibly with repatriation travel during the pandemic?
There was a total of 690 Brazilian citizens repatriated from Ireland with the support of the Embassy in Dublin. Of this total, 140 citizens travelled on official Brazilian charter flights, and 550 were repatriated with some institutional support from our Government.
It is important to mention that, in addition to the consular routines developed under the conditions imposed by isolation, approximately 3,130 Brazilians were assisted, who declared themselves directly affected by the pandemic. This total includes those who were held in Ireland due to flight cancellations, approximately 700 persons; those who were found in situation of strain; and those who wished to remain in Ireland.
How did you conduct outreach to the Brazilian community at-large in Ireland during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic to date?
During the peak period of the pandemic, thousands of e-mails were sent, and hundreds of phone calls were made, with a view to mapping the actual needs of those who sought assistance or consular services. I am fortunate to have an extremely dedicated team to handle this laborious process, which has enabled the Embassy to assist the Brazilian community in a satisfactory manner.
Are there any changes in the way you will provide Consular services for the foreseeable future or otherwise adapt your Mission’s functions to meet people’s needs for your services?
During the period of lockdown, which took place in Ireland between 18th March and 13th May, the Embassy introduced remote work for most employees, with the option of face-to-face assistance for emergency cases only. After the restrictions were relaxed, the consular section introduced a new system of remote pre-service, which allowed for advancing the elaboration of documents by email exchange with the users and thus limiting the need of personal visits to the Embassy just to sign the final version of the documents and/or collect them. With this system in place, the formation of queues or crowds of people at the Embassy was avoided.
Such system has proven to be efficient and has contributed to better respond to the significant demand of the Brazilian community in Ireland, in the current context of social distancing. The new methods have also proven to be effective from the point of view of productivity and should, in principle, be maintained in the future upon the return of the normal activities.
I want to turn to the issue of health care and the worldwide shortage of on-hand Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) at the commencement of the pandemic. Was your Mission involved in helping to facilitate the provision of PPE to Ireland or within the EU?
The Embassy was not involved with any PPE provisioning during the pandemic.
What about Brazil’s own efforts with regard to PPE and meeting the demanding needs arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Let me take the opportunity to comment that in my own country, the emergency measures adopted by the government in the health sector were aimed primarily at preserving lives. In this area, the Federal Government has transferred over 10 billion Euros to the States and Municipalities to expand their local medical and hospital capacity, with an increase in the number of beds and the acquisition of materials (PPE) and equipment. It is important to understand that, due to the continental dimensions of Brazil, the decision on social confinement has been decentralised, leaving it up to States and Municipalities to define its implementation and duration.
Miceál, I would like to comment on two other aspects related to fighting the pandemic in Brazil. A great effort is also being made in social protection, with an emphasis on emergency aid benefiting informal workers, those unemployed and low-income families.
Additionally, in the economic sector, the preservation of jobs was prioritised, through wage subsidies, reduced working hours, regulation of teleworking and support to micro and small companies.
What are some lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic that you think will have an impact on how diplomacy is conducted in the future?
It is too early to predict the impacts that the pandemic will have on diplomacy. We can note, however, that in this period there was an extraordinary increase in the use of available digital resources. For the Brazilian Government, it is necessary to carefully monitor the developments of the digital society, as in this new reality, we must preserve our capacity to maintain and to promote democracy and, in a very special way, freedom of expression. I quote here a recent comment from our Minister of Foreign Affairs, in which he reaffirmed Brazil’s willingness to participate as one of the central players in building a post-Covid-19 world based not only on economic efficiency, but also based on democracy and freedom.
Are there plans for Brazil to move towards some ‘normalisation’ of travel and tourism?
Fortunately, we have signs of the beginning of normalisation of trips to Brazil. As of the 29th of July, restrictions on the entry of foreigners by air into the country were relaxed for short stays. In addition to meeting the usual migratory requirements, foreigners must be covered by health insurance for the period of their visit. We hope that these measures will contribute to the beginning of normalization of tourism and business trips to our country, always with the necessary care with a view to overcoming the pandemic.
Any pandemic is a tragedy. But even in such situations there are always stories that inspire. Would you care to share any that come to mind?
I would like to mention the efforts made by the Brazilian science, technology and innovation system in the search for solutions to the problems brought about by the pandemic. Last May, the Ministry of Science and Technology of Brazil made approximately 100 million Euro available for activities such as the development of diagnostic tests for COVID-19; low-cost ventilators; laboratory equipment; clinical tests; and internet coverage for health units in remote areas of the country.
Among the many initiatives in progress, I would like to mention just two. First, the agreement between the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford for the manufacture in Brazil of the vaccine for COVID-19. Secondly, an ongoing partnership between institutions such as the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), the University of Cambridge (England), the Institute Butantan and Karolinska Institutet (Sweden), for the development of a recombinant BCG vaccine against COVID-19. These partnerships acknowledge in a way the long tradition of the Brazilian research institutions, Fiocruz and Butantan, in the development and production of the vaccines distributed in Brazil.
Finally, let me ask about how the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade. What was your experience with the Department and the Minister, Simon Coveney, throughout the pandemic, to date?
Thank you for asking. I would like to mention the impeccable support that the Embassy in Dublin has received from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in recent months, during the lockdown period. The DFAT has always kept communication channels open, which facilitated the Embassy’s work and allowed us to follow up on the bilateral agenda and cooperation issues. I am incredibly grateful to the Department for the kind attention granted to us.
Ambassador Zugaib, I want to thank you for taking the time to share with me your thoughts and observations. On behalf of everyone at Diplomacy in Ireland – The European Diplomat, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule. We wish your Excellency, your staff and the Brazilian people good health, prosperity, and happiness.
You are very welcome, Miceál.