Meet the sheroes serving on the frontline during South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown

COSMO speaks to the doctors and nurses risking their lives so you can stay at home.

As South Africa enters an extended national lockdown, heroic women (and men) are risking exposure to the COVID-19 virus on a daily basis as they care for the sick. The most recent reports reveal that Mzansi has now reached a total of 1 934 confirmed cases and 18 deaths. The top two provinces with the highest number of confirmed cases are Gauteng and the Western Cape. President Ramaphosa has urged all South Africans to comply with lockdown rules and regulations to flatten the curve of infection.

READ MORE: The coronavirus lockdown rules everyone in SA has to follow

As we all stay home and slowly adjust to a new normal of Zoom meetings, WFH workouts and dressing from the waist up, South Africa’s medical sector is working tirelessly to fight the virus pandemic from the frontlines. Nurses, doctors, paramedics, and cleaning and kitchen staff report for duty at all hours of the day to ensure that we are able to stay home and stay safe. Last Friday, we asked you to nominate fierce women in your lives who are working on the ground during the coronavirus lockdown.

We chose four women to share their stories, as they wake up each day to carry out the country’s most essential jobs. Here are their stories:

Dr Ashlyn Job

Dr Ashlyn Job, 27, works in Gauteng and has been serving on the frontline with her colleagues in the fight against COVID-19. However, because she has asthma, Ashlyn was at a higher risk of contracting the virus. She tested positive for the virus and has since been in self-isolation. She has used the time to share her experience on platforms like YouTube and Instagram.

Q: How did you react when you first heard you tested positive for COVID-19?

A: As soon as I got tested, I had to go into self-isolation. Fortunately, I live with my family so I stayed in my room and did not share a bathroom with anyone. We make sure to not share any towels or face cloths. I use my own dishes and they need to be washed separately. My family leaves my food on the floor in front of my door, and when I’m done I wash the dishes in a separate Tupperware container in my room. Of course, I wash my hands and we have hand sanitiser all over the house.

I felt a sense of calm because I finally knew what was wrong with me and how to treat it. I am anxious because I’m worried about the long-term side effects. But I’m a person who makes lists when I’m anxious, and I’ve already made a list of game plans to help me when I’m out of self-isolation.

Q: What has been the toughest moment for you since being diagnosed with COVID-19? 

A: The anxiety. It took six days for them to give me my results and, during those six days, I went through so many emotions. I was reading up on what coronavirus is and what the long-term side effects are, and that’s what made me so anxious. What will happen going forward? Will my lungs be compromised forever? Or am I just going to come out of this with just an inspiring story to tell? During that time, I eventually switched off the TV, went off Instagram and Facebook, and didn’t want to hear anything about coronavirus. And I was sick as well, which made things worse. There were times when I couldn’t breathe, but my mother is also a healthcare worker and she monitored my health.

Q: Did you feel prepared/trained for this type of crisis when it hit? 

A: Yes and no. In med school, you don’t get trained in epidemic or pandemic management. You read about it and you understand the definition of it, but in the back of your mind you think of it like the Black Plague. We did learn about crisis/disaster management, but when things like this happen, you can’t help but feel you don’t know enough. It’s really scary because you’re not only dealing with the fact that there is a virus going around, but that you’re also responsible for helping other people.

Q: What is the first thing you will do when this lockdown is over?

A: I just want to leave my room. For the past two weeks, I’ve been stuck in the four walls of my bedroom and I would love to spend time with my family. And I really, really want to be able to wash my hair. I think I will end up running down the street once this is all over!

Dr Anele Ntanjana

Dr Anele Ntanjana, 30, is an emergency-medicine medical officer in Gauteng. The hospital she works at had undergone multiple logistical changes since the beginning of the year, including getting doctors from other departments, securing bed space, ICU space and extra nursing staff in preparation for an increase in demand. She is considered high-risk because she works at a central hospital that has been on the frontline since the very first cases of COVID-19 were revealed in Gauteng. She is also a wife and mother to her nine-month-old baby.
Q: What does a typical day at work look like for you?
A: When I get to work, I get dressed in my personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes a mask, apron and face shield. We then do a handover with the team coming off shift, and our team will usually have a short meeting to check on each other and make sure no one is burnt out. As a team leader, should I identify any member who is unwell or exhausted, I have to report this to my consultant. We then head to the areas to which we are assigned, which can often require even more PPE. These areas include a COVID-19 emergency section for new patients that are unstable and possibly have COVID-19, a ward for stable patients awaiting results, a ward for patients who are confirmed positive but relatively stable, a section for screening new patients and testing those who meet the criteria, a general triage section, and the general emergency department for all other medical emergencies. Throughout the shift, as the team leader, I have to oversee all these areas, ensuring no one place or person becomes overwhelmed.
Q: How has the current state of lockdown affected you and your job?
A: This period has personally resulted in a lot of social changes. I will be unable to see my extended family until this crisis is over, even beyond the cessation of the lockdown. My mother is the recipient of a kidney transplant and is on immunosuppressant medication, and as of late has been quite ill. So because she is high-risk, I can’t visit her. I recognise that by virtue of me working in a central hospital that has been on the frontline since the very first cases of COVID-19 in Gauteng were revealed, I am considered high-risk personnel. That, coupled with the responsibility of ensuring my team’s wellbeing, has been a considerable call to personally rise to the occasion. My job has become even more meaningful than before.
Q: What hygiene practices have you put into place in your own life to prevent infection?

A:  My everyday personal hygiene schedule (that I’ve also advised my team to adopt) is as follows:

  • Wear two hair covers. Both get washed every day. Take the first one off after work, the second one off at home and wash them immediately.
  • Bring clothes to change into after handover. Take scrubs off after work and change at work. Wash scrubs and second set of clothes immediately when you get home.
  • Shower immediately when you get home, even if you have showered at work. Change into new clothes. Wash the clothes you got changed into at work at the end of the shift.
  • Wear PPE throughout the shift, even when it’s hot and you don’t want to. Wash hands and disinfect frequently according to protocol.
  • Have a plan in case you get exposed. Have a place where you can stay while waiting for results. Even keep an extra bag with toiletries and clothes and extra scrubs. And keep the keys for that place in your car. So if you get exposed you can go straight there and don’t expose your family.
  • The car you use for work should be driven by you and you alone. Disinfect the car and your hands before going back into the house every day.
  • Take shoes off before entering your house. All shoes worn outside the house or at work must not touch the floors at home.
  • Do not touch any immediate family members until you’ve showered, and keys and cellphones should be disinfected.
Q: What has been the ‘realest’ moment for you during the COVID-19 pandemic thus far?
A: The ‘realest’ moment for me was before lockdown when I was inadvertently exposed to a potential patient, and could not go home while awaiting that patient’s results. The realisation that I would not be seeing my husband and nine-month-old daughter – not only while awaiting results, but also potentially for two to three weeks thereafter should the patient’s results come back positive – was somewhat devastating. My husband visited during this time but just stood in the street making sure not to touch the gate and keeping a safe distance. We were both quite sad. Thankfully the results were negative, the patient has since recovered, and I have not fallen ill since the beginning of this crisis. However, the reality that this may happen again, that I may be separated from my immediate family for stretches of time, is very real.

Dr Lynn Booysen

Dr Lynn Booysen, 33, is a paediatric registrar at a hospital in Cape Town. ‘As doctors, we are trained to be ready for anything, but this is the stuff of movies, and we never thought it would happen in real life and that we would live through it ourselves. That being said, The Department of Health set in course a plan to make us feel prepared. In our department, we had multiple preparation and planning meetings even before South Africa was known to have any cases of COVID-19,’ she says. Lynne’s day-to-day duties remain the same for the most part. This includes ensuring every patient she sees is cared for and protected. As can be expected, the atmosphere is tense at times, but everyone is fully on board.

Q: Why did you choose to go into this line of work?

A: My brother was born with congenital eye disease. He was cared for within the government sector throughout the years at minimal cost to my parents. It is now my dream to have a paediatric clinic one day that will offer services to families who cannot afford to go to a pediatrician.

Q: How has the state of lockdown affected you?

A: The worst part is that I cannot see any of my friends or family. I live alone and did not want to go and stay with my parents, who had offered, to avoid putting them at risk. So the solitude outside of work hours has been difficult at times.
Q: What hygiene practices have you put into place in your own life to prevent infection?
A: I’ve made sure to have hand sanitiser with me all the time. I use it after every contact I have with someone or with any surface. I wear mostly scrubs at work, and take them off immediately when I get home and put them in the washing machine with warm water. Also, when I am working with patients with respiratory symptoms, I make sure to wear personal protective gear.
Q: What keeps you getting up for work every day?
A: Other than the kids I work with daily, one of the reasons is our President’s announcement of the national lockdown. I have so much pride that there was a swift response and the best possible decision was made despite the difficulties that would inevitably come with it. Our wellbeing as a nation was the top priority.

Q: What has been the ‘realest’ moment for you during the COVID-19 pandemic thus far?

A: It was when my brother informed me that our mom had been coughing. Even though I know my parents have been so careful and have been self-isolating, even since before the lockdown was announced, just the realisation that this disease is so close to home is scary. And none of us or our loved ones are immune. This is why we, as South Africans, have to take this seriously or else it could be our very own loved ones who succumb to this. PS: my mom is okay now. It passed quickly and was not COVID-19-related. Phew!

Noxolo Zwedala

Noxolo Zwedala is a 28-year-old registered nurse. When COSMO spoke to her just before 7pm on Wednesday, she was about to go to work. Going to work in a hospital or clinic during the COVID-19 lockdown is a terrifying prospect for most of us. This is a typical day for her.
Q: What does an average shift look like for you during this pandemic?

A: A typical day at work consists of several consultations with clients in the infectious disease unit. It includes a lot of counselling and health education. All Department of Health facilities had to adjust all daily activities and prioritise the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a daily exercise that we are all learning from as healthcare workers.

Q: How does this pandemic affect your day-to-day activities?
A: I leave my work clothes and shoes in the garage and shower first thing when I get home. Bags and stationery remain in the car as I don’t want to bring any bacteria home that could potentially harm my family. My line of work requires me to wash my hands all the time, so that hasn’t changed.

Q: Did you feel prepared for this type of crisis when it hit?

A: My experience of working in ICU came in handy in terms of training, as you get to manage patients with various kinds of infections, and infection prevention and control is a daily duty.

Q: What is the first thing you will do when this lockdown is over?

Lockdown being over won’t mean that we are free from COVID-19, so I will still take it easy and keep social distancing. Ideally, I would love to travel and attend my graduation ceremony. 😊

So many young doctors and nurses are doing incredible things to help fight this virus, but it’s not just the clinicians – the ward cleaners, the drivers, the scientists and the cooks are all working flat-out to try to keep everyone safe, day and night. The thought of staying home for another three weeks might seem like a massive inconvenience to you, but we all need to be patient right now.

We need to say home, respect social-distancing measures, stop the spread of the virus and minimise an influx of sick people into our hospitals. If you’re feeling hopeless right now, think about this: a typical workday for a nurse or doctor on the COVID-19 frontline.