A personal account of how Covid-19 is crushing the work of decades in the eco-volunteering sector, from Vicky McNeil, Director of WorkingAbroad.
In December 2019, the start of a sweeping global pandemic began, slowly at first, but rapidly gathering pace with all the cataclysmic force of any ‘natural disaster’. In March 2020, the majority of the world went into (en)forced lockdown following the virulent and devastating nature of Covid-19. The incipient, calamitous, hiatus to the travel industry has been one aspect of the larger global picture that has, to any late converts regarding the interdependence of the world’s social, environmental, and financial systems, yet again shown just how finely balanced and precarious the woven web of connection really is.
It is mortifying to acknowledge that, with the high levels of global wealth, for many people, projects, and social schemes there is no fall-back position during this epoch. The reality is that untold hours, days and years of effort to support their local habitats and offer sanctuary to species already at risk have been ripped apart by a multitude of forces triggered from the effect of this pandemic. This ongoing, negative- spiral-of-impact to the small, but vital, environmental, cultural, and species-specific projects has ensured that there has not been a moment’s peace for WorkingAbroad’s Director, Vicky McNeil.
Working frantically to hold together the strands of her Not-for-Profit company, alongside supporting her family and managing instances of sickness and its aftermath, have created the perfect storm of exhaustion and rising panic. Panic, it must be said, that has its roots in seeing the decades of determination and hard work put into environmental consciousness and social enterprise, disappear. As she intimates, the fear is not simply for the loss of WorkingAbroad as an organisation, it is the loss of WorkingAbroad as a platform for the projects they support and the vital finance they drive to these small organisations. The importance of raising these groups in the world’s wider consciousness cannot be underestimated, and the potential loss of this visibility strikes fear in the heart of all concerned.
To talk with Vicky is to be immersed in her world, her passion for supporting our global environment, and her warmth, respect, and admiration for the people of the projects she and WorkingAbroad have worked hand-in-hand with for the past 23 years.
How did WorkingAbroad come about?
“I co-founded WorkingAbroad with my partner in 1997, having been volunteers ourselves with grassroots Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) across the globe. Our experiences inspired us to set up our own organisation and over the years we have built up very close relationships, friendships really, with all our partners in the field. I’ve spent some really memorable and meaningful times visiting many projects across the globe over the years, and have felt their passion and motivation for their work first hand. Over the years we’ve enjoyed sharing loads of their stories and events, including project successes and hardships, but I have to say, the devastating situation they are having to endure, since the start of Covid-19, has been heart breaking.”
How are the projects coping, following the impact of Covid-19?
“Projects, some of which have been carrying out research for 30+ years, are suddenly facing the reality that they may have to close down altogether. Others are having to sell their own farm produce just to be able to survive. These circumstances are putting all their conservation needs on hold, devastating for all the workers, as they know that the situation for the species they care so much about is getting worse every day. Our elephant project in Thailand is struggling to survive, barely managing on donations, but are having to witness elephants in other parts of the country being very badly treated as other sanctuaries have had to close down with no tourism, animals are being literally abandoned, chained up, on hot roads. It’s simply heart breaking. Lockdown in some countries has been violently enforced by police, and people are witnessing beatings and physical violence just for being out on the street. They are facing being locked inside whilst turtle eggs and rhinos are under constant threat of being poached and are devastated and disempowered, unable to do anything about it.”
How are the Projects coping financially?
“The reality is a complete uncertainty if our partners will financially make it through this pandemic and be able to keep running into the future. I simply don’t know and it really saddens me to see how small NGOs are the first ones to get the big hit, with no government grants in sight. They rely on tourists/volunteers as their main source of funding and some of this money, of course, goes to cover the volunteers food and lodging costs, but a large proportion goes towards sustaining the work of the scientists, the research equipment, or even simply to feed the animals.
I was delighted when we started receiving a few donations, via our website, after reading some of our recent blogs, one of them being our Wolf Project in Portugal. Since Covid-19, their inability to feed the wolves is distressing beyond belief, and sadly is echoed across so many of the other projects. This money has immediately been paid over to them, as it has for other partners of ours that we have collected donations for in Costa Rica and Ecuador. It’s a small comfort that there are no middle men, we know it goes directly to the source and gives some temporary relief. Any donation or support really helps and really matters. Our grassroots ethos as an organisation was instilled in the beginning and has been maintained since the outset. This means we can ensure that the projects receive both donations and volunteer fees directly.”
How is WorkingAbroad managing as an organisation?
“I am the only person at WorkingAbroad, who is currently working, everyone else has been furloughed. I am working day and night to try to keep these projects running and do what I can do to help them, as well as support all the volunteers who have had to cancel their trip this year, to postpone to a later date in 2020 or 2021. There are signs that some countries in Europe are “open for business” again, so I am hopeful that we can get volunteers back to Greece, Iceland, Portugal and Italy soon, where we have turtle and dolphin projects. The same for countries like Sri Lanka, Ecuador and Costa Rica, and then other countries a little later. I am of course keeping a close eye on this every day because the sooner volunteers can travel, the sooner people will be booking again and their fees reach the projects that so desperately need them.”
And what about you, Vicky? How is life during lockdown?
“Some days are better than others. Some I feel hopeful, but most of the time the news from the field is sad and distressing, and it is hard to take heart at these times. However, I push on because that is all I can do – to help colleagues and friends at the projects, the beautiful habitats they care for, and the various species that vitally need their support.
On a personal level, I’ve been finding this whole period since the end of February very difficult, not only because I caught Covid-19 myself and was ill for 6 weeks from 16th March, but also trying to support home and online schooling for my two teenage girls. The change in home-life has been extremely challenging because my usual work routine is up in the air, and I grab any opportunity I can to sit in front of my computer to deal with the piles of emails I am getting from distressed volunteers, not knowing if, or when, they can travel. I’ve heard about friends having a glorious lockdown with their kids, cooking together, enjoying lovely walks in the countryside, and people tapping into government grants. Sadly, none of that has been our experience. We’ve fallen through the cracks of any government support, except the furloughment scheme, so there’s been no time to rest and live any kind of blissful existence. This is especially, painfully, true as a result of our awareness of how the rest of the world is suffering.”
Is there anything that brings you hope?
“The one thing that has brought me lots of joy is sowing seeds and planting vegetables in recycling boxes and wooden crates all around my patio, and watching them grow. It’s been my meditation and source of peace. Watching little green shoots growing has offered me a bit of hope each day. I hope our blogs bring people closer to our projects and help them to develop an understanding of how our friends and partners are being impacted, and that we can all pull together to be able to dream about better times ahead. Little steps, one at a time, this is the only way we will get out of this crisis. Hopefully with all our heads above the water.”
Offering donations is currently the best way to connect with and offer hope to our project partners. Any amount offers a lifeline to much needed support. Please look at who we are connected with here on our blog page. We would also love you to keep in touch with them and us so sign up for regular updates on how our partners are doing.
As we all look to the future more hopefully, you can both financially and practically assist in the work that our partners are doing by booking a volunteering experience for late 2020 and into 2021. Seeing and experiencing the work for yourself sends the vital volunteer funding fees directly to the project – fees which feed animals, provide a sanctuary, fund ongoing research, and pay for areas vulnerable to poaching to be patrolled.
To find your next adventure click here, safe in the knowledge that your funding fees go directly to the project you support and the administration fee ensures the ongoing survival of WorkingAbroad. Engaging in volunteering in this way is as much ‘WorkingTogether’ as it is WorkingAbroad, and we all hope you love your experiences as much as we have.
Written by WorkingAbroad Blog Writer, Rae Hadley
To make a donation to any of our project partners, please click here to donate under PayPal – and remember to write in your reference which project you would like the donation to be given to. It should be the project name so e.g. the Community Project, Nepal.