Covid-19: Heroes

The heroes who fight the virus head-on

Doctors, nurses and bus cleaners all play vital role

29 March 2020 - 00:00

While the rest of the country is corralled behind closed doors, SA's Covid-19 heroes are at the frontline in the war on the disease.

This week, doctors, nurses and even bus cleaners spoke of their sacrifices in fighting the coronavirus, and their pleas to South Africans to stay at home.

In her mask, scrubs and even disposable underwear, Mandisa Ntanzi, 31, may not look like a soldier, but she has been caring for Covid-19 patients at Durban's Addington Hospital for the past three weeks.

The nursing sister volunteered to work in the isolation ward and uses her smile and humour as tools of the trade. "That is how I deal with difficult situations, I find the light and I hang on to it. I laugh, I make the hopeless get a sense of normality with care, medicine, love, but also humour," she said.

"My job is to make sure no-one dies. Our patients do not get visitors, so not only do we check their vitals and administer medication, we give emotional care."

Ntanzi's biggest fear is not that her daughter and brother with whom she lives will fall ill with Covid-19, but that the country's health system will become overwhelmed. In Port Elizabeth, Dr John Black, the head of the Covid-19 ward in Livingstone Hospital shares this fear.

There are two Covid-19 patients in private hospitals in Port Elizabeth.

"The stock shortages of protective equipment being used unnecessarily in the community, staff shortages and overcrowded wards all make the potential dangers much greater," he said.

"We are a dual-doctor family and the fear of bringing the infection home to our loved ones causes high levels of anxiety. Knowing the risks, we have no other option but to send our children to live with their grandparents in order to protect everyone."

Black says he and his wife now fret over what they could have contaminated and are paranoid about hand washing.

"If each of us does not adhere to the lockdown and limit social interaction, it will allow the virus to propagate unchecked.

As doctors we will have to decide who gets a ventilator, who gets a bed, who lives or dies. Arrogant or ignorant disregard for the social distancing rules comes at a very high price for the community as well as for those having to deal personally with the consequences on the frontline," he said.

Black's colleague, Dr Lia Boretti, an infectious diseases doctor at Livingstone Hospital, says she's "terrified, exhausted and scared".

She and her husband, also a doctor, are faced with moving their six-year-old daughter and three-year-old twins to relatives to protect them from their parents.

Her message to South Africans is: "Every day we put our own lives and those of our loved ones at risk to save you.

We sacrifice so much of ourselves, yet people cannot adhere to the simplest rules. Day one of lockdown and hundreds of South Africans are out and about. People insist on travelling despite being advised differently. This selfish behaviour will kill thousands of South Africans."

Epson Chiolane, 48, from Tsakane township in Ekurhuleni, is doing his bit to ensure that doesn't happen. He has been cleaning metro buses twice a day during the outbreak to "make sure that everybody is safe and arrives at their destinations safely".

He said initially he spent sleepless nights thinking about the outbreak and why people were dying throughout the world.

"We don't want to lose lives and every morning when I get here I remind everyone that we are cleaners and what we are doing now is very important and we should remain focused."

One person who has been fighting the virus for weeks now is Ahmed Bham, the head of disaster medicine at the national department of health. He was on the mission to bring South Africans back from Wuhan, China, to the quarantine site in Limpopo.

But as the quarantine draws to an end, Bham admitted there was anxiety. They left Wuhan when the epidemic was dying down, only to arrive back in SA when it was escalating.

When he is eventually allowed to leave the quarantine site, Limpopo's The Ranch Resort, Bham won't be going home. "I know I already have tasks allocated to me. I will be going to other provinces to oversee some quarantine facilities. No family time for me."