COVID-19 Frontline Workers I: A medical doctor shares his story

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With South Africa under lockdown in attempts to slow down the transmission of COVID-19, thousands of health workers are in the frontline. SABC News is profiling one such worker – Dr Gontse Gabanakgosi – who has his own private practice in Evaton on the Vaal and also works for the Netcare group.

How does it feel like working during this lockdown?

Well, I don’t have negative thoughts or feelings about working during the lockdown. We took an oath to serve and we are the frontline. As anyone should be, I have a lot of anxiety with regard to the outbreak, also given our demographics in South Africa.

What are your fears?

For me, my biggest fear is unknowingly contracting the virus and transmitting it to my loved ones. In as much as we are taking all the precautions, there is still a high risk of transmission. We are at the highest risk since we are pretty much going to be in contact with COVID-19 every day. So, I’ve kept my social distance with the family too. My parents are elderly with comorbid diseases, so they are an even bigger risk. Even if I may get it, I am statistically more likely to recover than they are. So, imagine the anxiety of possibly transmitting the virus to your own parents and they don’t survive that. Another fear would be our healthcare system as a whole. We’ve never dealt with this before; we’re doing a lot of right things.

Have you changed the way you work?

It’s a bit tricky based again on my population group. My practice is in Evaton, a township in the south of Gauteng. So, a large proportion of my patients don’t have internet access allowing for online consultations. What we have done is to reduce the numbers. Those with internet and are more educated, tech-wise, we email scripts and their medication is delivered to them at home. Pharmacy Direct and MediStop help in this regard. Those that can be seen at home, like the elderly, we do home visits or consultations. These are patients already known to us because it does pose a security risk. We are trying to make use of an appointment system that is coming along good. The rest are walk-ins. So, we space them apart on the practice to allow social distancing.

Concerns for 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.

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize thanked healthcare workers for 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

Healthcare workers’ rights

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says healthcare workers are on the frontline of any outbreak response and as such are exposed to 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 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 to their healthcare workers by providing information, instruction and training on occupational safety and health.

INFOGRAPHIC: How to protect yourself from COVID-19: