The world as we know it, has become unfamiliar since the outbreak of COVID-19 in China towards the end of 2019. It’s spread rapidly across the globe and Africa has not been spared. As with any pandemic, those most at risk are the one who are tasked with protection everyone else.  In South Africa, a 21-day day lockdown is under way but thousands of healthcare workers are on the frontline. Nurses from various hospitals and clinics have anonymously shared their experiences with SABC News.

A nurse from a government clinic in Sebokeng, south of Gauteng, says she is afraid to work as they do not have protective gear.

She says, “I am very afraid because we don’t have any masks, they promised us they will come but meanwhile we are working unprotected and the community still comes in numbers to the clinic.”

“The challenges are lack of protective gear and government hasn’t conducted training, we haven’t gone for training on how to deal with the coronavirus. The nurses are using public transport; they are struggling as government has not made arrangements for transporting healthcare workers. As you may have seen on the 1st of April police shot two nurses at the gate while waiting for transport.”

She adds that nurses should be compensated for working during the lockdown as they face enormous risks.

It’s unfair

A nurse from a hospital in Welkom in the Free State says she is afraid that she might contract the disease and infect her family.

However, she still regards her work as all-important. “You cannot abandon the patient. So you are caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s unfair we are expected to screen these patients. As health workers are we going to get an incentive should we contract COVID-19?,” she says.

“We didn’t get training on removing swabs from the patient’s nose. I’m afraid we might infect our families.”

“We have no PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) e.g. masks, protective attire and sanitisers. We are expected to do as usual, not knowing whether a person is infected or not. Patient confidentiality versus one metre that is social distancing, they are impossible.”

“This too will pass”

Another nurse from the same city says she does not fear working under COVID-19 because Ebola came and passed, so the coronavirus will also pass.

She says her only challenge is that management has taken a decision to downsize patients. “They are only taking emergency patients only. This will lead to people losing their lives.”

“I’m afraid you will turn a patient away that really needs help only for them to die when they get home.”

Meanwhile, another nurse who works in Klerksdorp, North West says the president made a correct decision by instituting a lockdown so that people can be away from the virus.

Her main fear like the other nurses is that they have no means of protecting themselves. “We are understaffed, no necessary equipment, like masks.”

Infected healthcare workers

Over the weekend, the Department of Health released a statement stating they are concerned about a number of confirmed COVID-19 cases of health workers, including doctors and nurses in the private and public hospitals.

This comes as 11 medical doctors, a nurse and a neurophysicist have tested positive for the virus.

“They are exposed, not only to their families, but the patients who they are meant to treat. All these health workers are in good condition with most of them having mild or no symptoms. It is only one in the Free State, aged 7, who is in ICU. It must be emphasised that none of these health workers were infected by patients that they were treating. They came into contact with their family members, friends and other colleagues who had tested positive for COVID-19. All individuals who were identified as contacts to these health workers have been put in quarantine and are being monitored,” the statement from the department read.

 

Related: COVID-19 Frontline Workers: Q&A with a South African doctor

 

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize thanked healthcare workers or their dedication.

“We salute them for their dedication to the service of the nation. We will do everything in our power to provide the support required for them to execute their duties.”

INFOGRAPHIC: Infected healthcare workers: 

Health worker’s rights

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says health workers are at the frontline of any outbreak response and as such are exposed to hazards that put them at risk of infection with an outbreak pathogen, in this case, COVID-19.

The WHO elaborates that the hazards include pathogen exposure, long working hours, psychological distress, fatigue, occupational burnout, stigma, and physical and psychological violence.

The organisation says health worker rights include that employers and managers in health facilities must assume overall responsibility to ensure that all necessary preventive and protective measures are taken to minimise occupational safety and health risks by providing information, instruction and training on occupational safety and health.

INFOGRAPHIC: Number of COVID-19 cases in SA: