As part of New Frame’s special coverage of the impact Covid-19 has had on our lives, Njabulo Ngidi spent the month of July in conversation with Teboho Makwetla*. She is a nurse at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, one of the country’s designated Covid-19 hospitals.
On 1 July, there were 45 944 Covid-19 positive cases and 244 deaths in Gauteng. By the end of the month, the positive cases were at 175 272 with 2 035 recorded deaths. Some of those infections and deaths included healthcare workers. The health minister, Zweli Mkhize, announced on 5 August that 24 104 health workers were infected and 181 had lost their lives. This is Makwetla’s experience of being in the eye of the storm, told in her own words.
It’s hard for me to wake up in the morning knowing what awaits me at work. I count the days until the weekend when I am off and I can breathe a small sigh of relief. I wake up at 4am, but just before I leave the bed I spend a few moments thinking about what I will experience when my shift starts at 6am.
Makwetla, who stays in Johannesburg’s East Rand, speaks about her job with passion. Her voice is warm and, when she talks about how she got into nursing and the joy she gets at seeing her patient get better, she gets animated. But when the conversation shifts to Covid-19, her tone softens and her voice is tinged with pain. It’s not just dealing with the pandemic that upsets her, but the poor treatment nurses have received from those who are supposed to protect them.
Being a nurse has always been my dream. I have been doing it for 40 years. I was 17 years old when I started. I was attracted to the profession because of my passion of caring for people. It’s something that I take great pride in doing.
But recently, that passion has taken a strain with what has been happening in the country because of Covid-19 and the treatment we have received as nurses. It’s been tough. We are very stressed. The worst part is that the employer is very inconsistent because when some people [nurses] test positive, instead of spending 14 days in quarantine [as initially stipulated by the department of health] they spend seven days. They continued to do this even when the government said people should be in quarantine for 10 days.
The situation is very tense because a lot of people are testing positive. The issue of compliance is a serious one. People are asked to come back to work after seven days and some are just being called back after a few days. Those who work in my unit, I tell them to stay at home and I will take it from there when they come back because they must come back after 10 days and then go to the Wellness Centre where they are checked and then tested. Only after the results come back negative are they allowed to return to work. They have to go home and wait two more days before their results return.
The protectors unprotected
The people who have tested positive are told to come back early, which means that they must come and infect us. It’s not right at all. That’s why we are stressed. When you wake up in the morning, you ask yourself where am I going? Is this the day I also get the virus? At one point there were a number of nurses who were booked off sick because of Covid.
What makes the situation worse is that on top of everything we are going through, this year we didn’t get any salary increment, and, on top of that, most of our family members haven’t been working or have lost their jobs because of Covid-19. We are among a few people who are still working and getting a full salary, which means that there are a lot of responsibilities we now have and more mouths to feed.
The government must pay us better. We put our lives at risk to keep the country alive. We deserve better. They have shown that they have the money, when you look at how much money they are splashing in other things but then turn around and don’t want to give us an increase.
It doesn’t help that in most cases we are understaffed. The number of nurses who work per shift depend on the unit. In my unit, I always have two sisters, one staff nurse and two nursing assistants. There was a day when everyone was off sick and I was the only one there, which meant that I had to get people from somewhere to assist. When you get people from another unit to assist you, you start by doing orientation. When you are doing orientation almost every day you get stressed because you have to find the balance between nursing your patients and doing orientation for the new people.
Makwetla’s first response when asked if she attends counselling is laughter, before dismissing the question. She dismisses it not just because she doesn’t believe in it, but because of the added trauma it brings instead of easing her load.
There are so many things that are stressing us, beyond dealing with the virus that has killed so many people including nurses. We are offered counselling to help us deal with what we are going through, but I don’t like it. When you come back from there you are more depressed than you were before you went to see them. I just pray to try and cope because what else can one do? We are now at the mercy of the one above.
Impact on intimacy
The almost one-hour-long commute she undertakes every morning and in the afternoon when she knocks off at 4pm gives her a moment of introspection. When she leaves home, she uses the time to brace herself for what she will experience when she gets to work. When she goes home, she still does so with a heavy heart as there are some checks and balances she has to undergo before she can spend time with her family.
There are a lot of things that I miss, like going out, meeting friends and being with family. But one is grateful that they still have life and a job. I am very vigilant of my surroundings and keeping my distance when I go to the mall. I carry my own sanitiser and try to not loiter around the mall much, but go to the shops that I need things from and then head straight back home.
I am really scared, but I have to put on a brave face for my family and patients. I am also doing this to feed my children, so I have no choice but to put on a brave face and do the best I can for my family and my patients.
When I get home, I start at the garage. There are clothes that I leave there when I go to work in the morning. I change in the garage and put all my work clothes in a plastic. Those clothes are washed separately. I then go straight to the bathroom to have a bath before I wear my pyjamas and then I can safely interact with my family. It’s not like before when I would get home, relax with them, have a cup of coffee, bond with them a little bit before I take a bath and have supper. For their safety, I have to make sure that I follow this process before I sit with them.
My family, just like me, is very stressed about my work and its proximity to the virus. In June my husband had a serious bout of flu. My children asked me, ‘Don’t you think you came back with Covid-19 and infected our father?’ I had to open my phone and show them my result because when one of my staff tested positive, we were all made to test. I showed them my results, and told them, ‘Look I am negative’. It was a very stressful period for everyone in the family. He got better and returned to his normal self. I was a bit worried with the way it attacked him, I thought that maybe I brought Covid-19 into the household and infected him.
* Not her real name.