Olivia and the inter-agency State Task Force assessing buildings for use as a COVID-19 centre.
24 Sep 2020
Humanitarian COVID-19 response in South Sudan

Olivia Wellesley-Cole’s work has taken her around the world doing what she can to help others. This year, it took her to Yambio in the Western Equatoria State in South Sudan to help coordinate the response to COVID-19 with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Working as a Humanitarian Affairs Officer for OCHA in South Sudan this year, Olivia has played an important role in helping the country prepare for COVID-19. Initially, Olivia’s role was to prepare for Ebola but the situation quickly changed as COVID-19 became a bigger threat for the country.

“By the time I arrived in South Sudan in February 2020, it was pretty clear the cases of Ebola in the neighbouring country of Democratic Republic of Congo were going down and COVID-19 was emerging as the new threat. A lot of preparation had been done for Ebola, which could be used for COVID-19. There had been a lot of investment in health facilities, handwashing facilities and isolation centres.”

South Sudan confirmed its first COVID-19 case on 5 April 2020, and the country faced a raft of challenges in containing the spread.

“The way of preventing infection is to wash your hands but when you don’t have regular access to water and soap, this is not possible,” explains Olivia. “The issue of lockdown was also challenging, as most people need to go out each day to get food. When they are on the brink of starvation, they just need to work to earn money to feed their families. The threat of COVID-19 is not as real as the threat of going hungry.”

“Many people do not have electricity or access to the internet, which means things are done a little differently. In some instances, meetings have to take place face-to-face; some Government offices do not have WIFI, which means no online meetings.”

“Many foreigners may see the society here as poor but I do not see it that way. People are rich in the lives they lead with their families and community.”


Born in London, Olivia spent the early part of her life with her family in Sierra Leone where she received her education. She excelled, and a national scholarship took her to Wales where she studied electronic engineering. This led to a career in telecommunications and she moved to Sydney in the late 80s.

It was the war in Sierra Leone and her involvement with the Sierra Leone community in Australia during the 90s that spurred Olivia to change career paths – she lobbied the Australian Government to accept refugees fleeing the atrocities of the war. With her sights set on helping others and being able to speak up on their behalf, Olivia went on to study international law at Sydney University. Ever since she has worked in various protection and coordination roles in conflict zones around the world.

“Coordination is a process, and in my roles I want to demonstrate a good process that will remain after I leave. My job is to coordinate meetings and get people to talk through the agenda and get them to stick to the point. I am not a technical specialist but my job is to understand the flow of the conversation, get everyone to contribute and to ask for clarification.”

When action was needed to speed up COVID-19 testing in Yambio and get it done locally, Olivia coordinated meetings for a State task force, led by the Ministry of Health, and a high-level task force, which includes the State’s Head of National Security, Police Commissioner, Ministers, the UN and NGOs, to request a decentralised approach.

“We used concerted advocacy, sending a letter to the Ministry of Health in Juba from the Governor and those of us in the UN copied the letter to our relevant counterparts. Our request was for test machines to be set-up and configured for COVID-19. In a week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Ministry in Juba had agreed for two specialists to come and set up the three machines and to train the technicians. I would say this was my biggest achievement during the deployment.”


In March, with COVID-19 cases increasing globally, RedR Australia gave its deployees the option to return home. Olivia explained how she wanted to remain in South Sudan and do what she could do to help.

“I had only just arrived. We are emergency workers and I had previous experience working on the Ebola response in West Africa so I knew what it was like to work in a live environment. This is what I do, and leaving because COVID-19 was coming just did not make sense – I could see there was work to be done.”

When Olivia finally returned to Sydney, Australia at the beginning of August, 2,472 cases had been reported in South Sudan.

Olivia’s next move is to Japan, as soon as international travel resumes, where she is studying a Masters of Peace degree. Awarded a Rotary Peace Fellowship, she is undertaking the degree at the International Christian University in Tokyo in September 2020. She has started classes online and hopes to be able to get to Japan in early 2021.

If you are interested in becoming a humanitarian with RedR Australia, learn more about our standby roster or explore our training courses.

Olivia-Wellesley Cole (left) at a Ministry of Health meeting held under the shade of a Mango tree. Olivia's deployment was funded by the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.