Dr. Rokhiatou Babio is one of the few women in Benin spearheading a medical team on the COVID-19 frontline. She narrates her gut-wrenching experience on that dark day, a month after taking office.
"The most painful moment in managing this crisis was in June 2020 when I had three severe cases of COVID-19. They all died on the same day," she explains.
"One of the three patients practically died in my arms."
A deep silence overcomes her, and she continues. "Then, you have to deal with the parents after the announcement of the deaths. The hardest part for these parents was not being able to take the remains with them. It is difficult to convince them, even with the support of a psychologist," the doctor recounts.
Dr. Babio is a general practitioner at the Emergency department of the University Hospital of Borgou in northern Benin. Working for several medical facilities, she supervises a team of 40 medical staff at the COVID-19 care centre of the Borgou Army Instruction Hospital. Her centre receives COVID-19 patients from five of Benin's 12 departments -- Atacora, Borgou, Alibori, Donga and Collines.
Epidemic response expert
As a veteran in medical emergency and epidemic response for health centres in the north of the country, Dr. Babio has managed four health crises in her career. Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, her fifth emergency, she quickly inspired confidence in other "less experienced" team members.
"As soon as I took office, the goal was to save the lives of patients while protecting health care workers, most of whom had never managed an epidemic before. It was, therefore, necessary from the first days to establish a climate of confidence and make them want to manage COVID-19 patients," she says.
Dr. Babio divided her staff into three multi-disciplinary, mixed-gender teams. To get the best out of each of them, she listened to issues from all staff members, both professional and personal.
"Each colleague has my number and can contact me at any time to complain. This decreases staff stress and ensures good management of the epidemic," she adds.
But it is sometimes surprising for people in Benin to see a woman at the helm of the emergency department, let alone as the COVID-19 case management coordinator.
"Some people go so far as to say that it was because I am a woman that I was appointed as the coordinator, because I was friends with the authorities, without taking into account the fact that since 2016, I have been managing epidemics of viral hemorrhagic fevers in Lassa and that my competence has been recognized at the international level," she says.
Women managing crises
The doctor stresses that women are good at managing crisis. She quips: "We are first and foremost mothers and, therefore, born to show empathy."
Her colleague, Dr. Hermès Melvis Amoussouvi, a general practitioner, agrees. He acknowledges that leadership is "genderless."
"A leader should be able to inspire both women and men. But it is important, and it is increasingly noticeable, that women realize their capacity to do as much or even better than men. Women have their own potential, and we must embrace it," Dr. Amoussouvi says.
The UN country team in Benin is working closely with the government to facilitate women's integration in all sectors of society, including medicine.
"We cannot build the future we want and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) without the full participation of all stakeholders in society, especially women," says Salvator Niyonzima, UN Resident Coordinator in Benin.
He emphasizes the significance of the promotion of gender equality and women's rights in a broader social context.
"Gender equality, enshrined in SDG 5, is often measured by the existence of a legal framework to promote, enforce and monitor the application of the principles around non-discrimination based on sex," notes Mr. Niyonzima.
First COVID-19 case in Benin
Since the first case of COVID-19 was declared in Benin in March 2020, the centre managed by Dr. Babio has registered 117 patients, with 96 cases recoveries and five still undergoing treatment.
Benin had recorded 5,434 confirmed cases by the end of February 2021, including 4,248 recoveries, 1,116 under treatment and 70 deaths. By 19 March, the number of confirmed cases had risen to 6,501 and cumulative 81 deaths, according to WHO statistics.
Under the leadership of the Resident Coordinator, all the UN entities in Benin and other partners have been contributing to the fight against COVID-19, offering the government a wide range of support, including essential materials, medical equipment, finance, and capacity building. This One UN support also reached out directly to all COVID-19 treatment centres, including that of Dr. Babio in Parakou.
With such assistance, Dr. Babio takes charge of the centre, following up treatments and managing complicated cases. She always moves forward.
"What a pleasure to see our patients getting better. I feel re-energized when they are grateful for our support. Yes, we save human lives," she says decisively.
Dr. Babio's competence is well recognized by her peers and patients. "I take my hat off to this very dynamic team under the leadership of a rigorous and methodical woman," explains Ms. Hermine Fatoumbi, a patient who has just recovered from COVID-19.