Double Shift

By Bjondina Rexha

My workload has significantly increased since the pandemic began! So, just to give you an overview, I am a senior officer at the Ministry of Finance at the division of International Financial Cooperation. So, basically what I and my division do is secure financing for Kosovo, for different capital projects. At this point, it is very necessary for COVID-19. Since the pandemic started on the 13th of March with our first case, we mobilized to secure financing as soon as possible, knowing that the capacity of the health system in Kosovo is not very good, and we will need more equipment and other interventions to fight the pandemic. We also need more financing for PPE and tests and all the other stuff.

From the beginning, we started having consultations with the Ministry of Health and with the other counterparts in order to find the needs of the health system. We started negotiating different loans. At the office, at that point, we were only three people: only the head of division, my boss and my colleague. We had another colleague who was in Washington at that point doing a secondment program at the World Bank. And then after that, we hired other staff from the Young Cell Scheme, offering experience and expertise in different fields.

My colleagues and I were staying at the Ministry late hours discussing needs and trying to come up with the exact needs at that point. We started negotiations with the World Bank, where I was the lead negotiator. We also started negotiating with the Council of Europe Development Bank. We started negotiating a loan with the European Union for micro-financial assistance. I was also lead negotiator with EBRD on helping public entities overcome this pandemic. And also the Rapid Financing Instrument, which is with the IMF, and other parts of financing. We were having lots of different meetings and all of these meetings were done virtually with all the possible financial institutions and donors, so we were doing Webex all day. It was a crazy time. 

Right at the beginning, there was a decision from the Ministry of Health that only essential staff works, and we were considered essential staff, so we went to the office every day. So the rule of 90 minutes per day was not for me. We were working full-time — even more than full-time. We were at the office until late hours. Double time. So we were moving back and forth with the Ministry of Health and other ministries, because we were also coordinating some of the measures of the emergency package, which was led by the Ministry of Finance. We were going either to the Ministry of Economy or the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Labor. So we were everywhere, just the three of us, because we had to coordinate. Our other colleague joined us in April. 

We were spending most of the time at the office in different meetings. At that point, my family was obligated to stay home since their business was closed on orders of the government. It was only me from my home who was going to work, so I had double responsibility in the sense that, if I got the virus, then I would be the transmitter to my family. That was quite a burden for me at that point, because I was the only one going to work. Every time I was coming home, I was kind of scared that I had something.

There was one day at a Ministry of Health meeting with a medical institution, which was, of course, the most at-risk, where a guy at the meeting was tested positive. And then the Ministry of Health called us and said, “Stay in. Don’t go anywhere because we are being tested. And if we are positive, then you will need to be tested.” So we had to stay until late hours at work, not knowing if we had to be tested, if we had the virus. It was kind of scary.

And then around 10:00 pm, we were informed that all of them were negative, so we didn’t have to be tested. That was a relief because everything was going into my mind: who I met and all of my contacts. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was this way. When the lockdown was going on, there was more pressure on us going to work because we had to think more about our families. On the other hand, we had to secure financing as fast as we could. All other countries were asking for funding from the same financial institutions and donors, and we had to reach the same path and secure financing. Within one month, we secured more than 250 million euros of financing for Kosovo. We do not normally do 250 million in a span of two years, and we had to do it in a very short period of time in the beginning, in April and May, when the negotiations were happening and most of the financing was secured.

You become personally linked with every project because you have to identify the needs. We also met with different counterparts who will be dealing with the project and see what their needs are. We had the World Bank project covering the health and social assistance schemes and other measures from the emergency package for households with no income at all. We had to tackle these needs. We had to see how many people there were and tried to do the best as fast as we could. It was an interesting time. For me, it was a huge experience because pandemics do not happen often, and securing financing for our country at this point made me and my colleagues frontline fighters as well. This is more or less what we have done during the pandemic.

Now we are a bit more relieved, even though we are now dealing with the implementation of the projects. Now I am meeting with the University Clinical Health Center, looking to see how we can intervene at the Infectious Disease Clinic, what should be done, what is more important, what is an emergency, and what other needs are. Now it’s the interesting part of the projects we have negotiated, to see the implementation of them, to see those happen. Overall, the funding to help the health system to cope better with the pandemic has been secured. It has become even more important as the numbers have increased.

This work has definitely affected me psychologically, as I had to be cautious all the time as the only person in my family going out every day. I had to wash my hands and wear a mask all the time. So the most obvious thing was that I couldn’t see my family. I’m married and live with my husband, but I couldn’t visit my parents. I didn’t visit them at all for the first three months because they are older and I was scared that I might transmit something.

On the other side, the thing that affected me the most was the pressure I felt. I felt a burden when I went to work every day, as I thought that I might get something and pass it on to my family. That was the most crucial thing, which I am happy didn’t result in anything. To this day, I haven’t had COVID-19 and fingers crossed that I will not.

I was spending a lot of time at work and was meeting lots of people, so I was at high risk of becoming infected. I haven’t been meeting my friends other than my colleagues up to now. Every decision I have to take, whether it is to go on vacation or something else, I have to consider multiple times whether it’s smart or not. Like with everyone else, COVID-19 has changed the way I live and see things. During the beginning, since I spent very little time at home, I didn’t see my loved ones often. I was only sleeping at home. But I was happy and am grateful to my husband who was cooking for me. I was just eating and sleeping [at home]. It was an interesting time to live in in the beginning. Now that the economy’s open a bit, it’s more different. We get to go out a bit more. It  kind of resembles the reality we used to live in.

Throughout this pandemic, I saw that I am more capable of doing a lot of work in a short time and seeing things on a bigger scale and having the energy to do it all. Before the pandemic, I just lived the regular routine of my life.  My division works differently than others, as we initiate projects and ideas, and we work as a business-oriented division within the Ministry of Finance, and we think about new projects and meet with different beneficiaries and possible beneficiaries. We deal with the educational, health, and energy efficiency sectors, as well as others. We try to see the needs in these sectors and make them better. 

And then when the pandemic hit, we knew when we were going to work but we didn’t know what was going to happen every day. Different stuff came up. I learned I am capable of doing a lot more. I self-doubted a lot more before. I now have more energy to do a lot at the same time. I can initiate. I can see the big picture of different things.

I also saw how important my and my colleagues’ jobs are. We are kind of prejudiced by outsiders. Even I  judged public service before I started working in public service. I thought they didn’t do anything. Actually, after this, you see that our job is very important, especially the public servants considered essential staff who were working full-time during the pandemic. They are the front line of COVID-19 from the other side. We were not dealing with patients, but we were dealing with other matters that were coming up.

I think it’s important to begin to appreciate public servants. I’m not saying that we are perfect. I am saying that there are people who work a lot and really care about the institutions they work in. I have learned about the impact of my job. All eyes were on us as we did what we did. It’s important to understand what is happening behind the scenes. Of course, it is important to have political will, support of the government, and support of the political parties, but it is just as important to have public servants who will do their work.

Thankfully we had very supportive ministers of finance. The current and former ministers were supportive of all the work we’ve done so far. They were also very supportive of the new things we brought to the table. It is important to have political support to push things forward and to do more things.

I do not think the pandemic in Kosovo has been different than what happened in other countries, especially during the lockdown. Many other countries were in lockdown. But I would say that we could see how nature in Kosovo flourished during the time people were not going out. We could see more green areas and could hear the birds singing. We never hear them, but instead all the cars, buses, and traffic that are buzzing in Prishtina especially. We could breathe air more easily without as many people around. However, it was sad for me to walk on the streets without any people around. I would see only dogs when I was walking to and from work. There were no cabs or anything else. On the other hand, nature needed a bit of calmness to thrive a bit.

People should not judge as their first thought because there are people who work in institutions who do a lot of work. My colleagues are great, and they are doing great work. We are all young people who have motivation to do good work. Sometimes people need to see behind the politics. It’s different when you are working in a public institution and you are having direct impacts, rather than being outside. I think people at public institutions can see the impact they are having, especially those people who want to do work.

The problem is that young people, especially my generation and friends, would not like to work in public service because of the low salaries and prospects. But when you compare it to the impacts and effects of your work, you see that the benefits are much bigger. I know that people have different priorities, but people should think about what they can do for society and do impactful work, which can sometimes be best done from the public institutions, as well as civil society organizations.

We should start to look at the work of public institutions in a different light and be more motivated to work for the public, especially the youth who think that public service is not for them. I used to think that public service is not for me, but now I see that I can do a lot of work with some motivation. 

Bjondina Rexha is a Senior Officer for International Financial Cooperation at the Ministry of Finance. She holds an MA from Central European University in Global Economic Relations and a BA from the University of Prishtina in Banking, Finance and Accounting. Ms. Rexha shares with us a first-person account about her experiences while in quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Illustration by Renea Begolli