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By Jessie Taylor

 

Combating Covid Together 

South Africa’s healthcare workers, along with other essential frontline workers, face the highest risk for infection from the Coronavirus. However, these workers have continued to hold the line in the county’s fight against the pandemic.

As South Africa stares down a potential third wave, Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize has lauded the efforts of healthcare workers, saying they have helped lessen the effects of the Covid-19.

Marking the first anniversary since Covid-19 hit South African shores, Mkhize called how his morale was boosted by nurses at Grey’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg, where the first case of Covid-19 was treated. A team of nurses started signing that they did not fear the virus and would be ready to nurse all patients – an act that filled the health minister with hope.

Mkhize has publicly thanked all frontline workers, including doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, psychologists, medical technicians, pharmacists, porters and general workers, lab technicians, environmental health practitioners, dentists and dental technicians and optometrists for their service.

He has also remarked on their commitment and resilience. It is these characteristics that have been most marked in the response by healthcare workers. Many have been left exhausted, physically and mentally, by the toll the virus has taken, but have continued to serve at healthcare facilities.

“To those of our health workers who have braved it all to face the challenge of our COVID-19 enemy, we say thank you, we say thank you for your dedication,” Mkhize said.

“We have seen … health workers holding each other, comforting each other and crying sometimes when they lose one of their colleagues … your hard work has not gone unnoticed. We want you to know SA is grateful for you, the African continent is grateful to you and humanity as a whole is grateful to you. You are the unsung heroes of our struggle against an unseen enemy. You have not flinched, you have made sure that humanity is saved.”

 

First responders, despite personal risks

Healthcare workers are among those at highest risk for contracting any virus or infectious diseases, according to the National Institute of Occupational Health, and this is no different with Covid-19.

One of the classes of healthcare workers most impacted by the pandemic has been the healthcare system’s first line of defence, and those who provide the most one-on-one care to ill patients: nurses. Nurses have been a critical component in the treatment of Covid-19. They make up around 65% of the healthcare workforce and form the backbone of South Africa’s health system, according to a report released by the Human Sciences Research Council.

“Nurses are the backbone of any health system. Today, many nurses find themselves on the frontline in the battle against Covid-19. This report is a stark reminder of the unique role they play, and a wakeup call to ensure they get the support they need to keep the world healthy,’ the report stated.

 

Perception on Risk 

The report found that healthcare workers across all provinces felt they were at risk for contracting Covid-19. However, nurses believed they were at a higher risk, a perception that has been proven correct based on the infection rates among healthcare workers. While reports on the number of healthcare workers have been sporadic, in August last year over half of all infections among healthcare workers had been in nurses. Comparatively, around 6% of the positive Covid-19 cases had been recorded in doctors. According to the report, healthcare workers felt their highest risk factors for infection were, after their profession, the general public not following guidelines and a lack of personal protective equipment.

But a key concern for healthcare workers is passing the virus on to their loved ones – and nurses were the most concerned about this, the report found. Also, one in five healthcare workers said they were severely distressed by the idea of potential infection. The public sector had been overwhelmingly affected by infections among healthcare workers, with more than 70% of cases reported in the public sector. However, South Africa’s cases remain low compared to the global average – possibly as a result of strong efforts by the government to bolster the health services.

According to a statement released by the national Department of Health, the overall infection rate amongst health care workers as compared to the total number of cases identified nationally is 5%. This is well below the global average of 10%.

To address the concerns of healthcare workers, and support the healthcare system, these frontline workers have been prioritised for the country’s vaccine rollout. As of the beginning of April, almost 270 000 healthcare workers had been vaccinated – just one of the ways the government is demonstrating its commitment to protecting frontline workers.

“This workforce remains at the front line of our battle against Covid-19 and it is in our interest as government to ensure that they are protected,” Mkhize said.