'We buried them because of Covid-19': Nurses drained as virus cases climb

02 December 2020 - 06:00 By nomahlubi sonjica
Nurses on the frontline of the battle against the coronavirus complain of being physically and emotionally drained.
Nurses on the frontline of the battle against the coronavirus complain of being physically and emotionally drained.
Image: Gallo Images/Darren Stewart

With the year 2020 drawing to a close, nurses across SA say they are emotionally and physically drained as they battle on the Covid-19 frontline.

Sister Lama Peega, who works at Carletonville district hospital on the West Rand, has been a nurse for more than 25 years. She has not has taken leave since President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the national state of disaster in March.

“We were expected to leave our families behind to go and work. It has not been an easy task. We panicked when we were told to work during the pandemic. Having to go back home after a shift was very traumatic because you had to go share a bed with your husband and hug your children. It was scary. I don’t know how we survived,” Peega said.

The Covid-19 pandemic came at a time when Carletonville hospital, like other public health facilities, experienced staff shortages.

“Some among us fell along the way. We buried them because of Covid-19,” Peega said.

She said they also faced a challenge of nurses being off from work because they tested positive for Covid-19 and were required to isolate for 14 days.

“The burden on those who were at the frontline became even greater. We had to work overtime throughout to cover other wards. I am working at the theatre section [as a midwife]. When I am off, I would be requested to assist in Covid-19 wards,” she said.

The hospital has two wards reserved for Covid-19 cases, she said.

Health should be seen as a human right, not a commodity.
Lama Peega

“I had to move from my specialty to become a generalist. It’s not easy, but the support we have for each other as colleagues and the support from the managers has been amazing.”

The oaths she took as a nurse and the values of ubuntu are also what have kept Peega and her colleagues going during this period.

“We were guided by the oaths we took and the core values of the nursing profession.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Peega said she discovered there is inequality in the health-care system. The treatment patients receive in public hospitals is not the same as that experienced by patients in private hospitals, she said.

“It will take political willingness to address the inequality between the public and private health-care system. Health should be seen as a human right, not a commodity.

“This period has also changed people’s perception of nurses. Before we were seen as monsters, but during Covid-19, society has loved us and they appreciate the work we do. The treat us as heroes. I get random hugs even in the streets from people who appreciate what I do.”

Asked how she was feeling mentally and physically, Peega said: “Yesterday I was working in the maternity ward for overtime and told them to not call me today [on Tuesday] because I am tired and I need to rest. This morning I was called again and asked to come to work because there are not enough nurses.”

She said some of her colleagues refused to work overtime as they were emotionally and physically drained.

“It’s worse now because it is December and we are needed more than ever, but we are tired.”

'We do not have capacity'

A nurse who works at a Port Elizabeth hospital, who did not want to be identified for fear of intimidation, painted a grim picture of how nurses and doctors were struggling to cope as Covid-19 cases were reaching alarming numbers.

She told TimesLIVE at her hospital alone, more than 470 health-care workers had tested positive for Covid-19 since March.

“As I am talking to you, I am busy scanning the results of two of our doctors who have tested positive. I have to e-mail them the results. Our colleagues are perishing. This is traumatising.

“We do not have capacity to deal with these cases. Every day, more than one staff member tests positive. You wonder who is going to be next and who is going to work in this hospital if everyone around you is testing positive every day,” the nurse said.

She said it was hard to deal with the strain of Covid-19 as some patients who had been admitted without signs of having the virus later test positive because of exposure during their stay at the facility.

“This leads to us having to test all patients and staff.”

The nurse, who has 24 years’ experience, said the hospital was struggling to accommodate Covid-19 patients.

“Our ICU has 16 beds, and 12 of those are designated for Covid-19 cases.”

The hospital, she said, also had a ward for patients who were under investigation or those who had tested and were waiting for their results. This unit is also not able to accommodate all patients.

“Some patients are taken to the field hospital to wait for their results because we do not have space. We take others to the TB hospital.”

With staff shortages a “huge” challenge, the nurse said the ratio of nurse to patient was 1 to 40.

You are on your own here. We are physically and emotionally drained but we don't even get debriefed.

“A lot of people resign and others take early retirement. This is a problem because a nurse cannot handle too many tasks at once. Unfortunately, someone suffers in that process.”

Part of her job involves receiving Covid-19 results and calling a patient’s relatives to inform them of their loved one’s results when they test positive.

“I trace people who have been in contact with patients and forward their details to the district office for them to conduct home visits and tests. This is a challenge because most of our patients only register their names and surnames. They don’t give us their addresses. Some patients just disappear.”

She complained about lack of support from management.

“No-one gives you a pat on the back to say ‘well done’. You are on your own here. We are physically and emotionally drained but we don't even get debriefed.”

She said Port Elizabeth was experiencing a spike in Covid-19 cases because people were not following protocol.

“It would be a good idea if we could go back to level 4 or 5. Taverns should only sell takeaways. The youth are the ones who are spreading this virus because they throw parties and go home to the elderly, who are already vulnerable.”