South Africa

A new return-to-work norm in the battle against Covid-19

A new return-to-work norm in the battle against Covid-19

In the weeks and months that lie ahead, our health care workers will be at war.

From the clinic in the dusty streets of Phuthaditjhaba, to the halls of Steve Biko Memorial Hospital in our nation’s capital, our doctors and nurses will be surrounded by casualties.

And as we approach a peak in coronavirus infections, our health care facilities will be the theatre in which this battle will unfold.

Covid-19 has become our common foe, a pathogen which has taken hold in communities across our nine provinces and represents the greatest health crisis of our lifetime.

It is an enemy which is unseen and indiscriminate.

It has already claimed the lives of more than 700 of our brothers and sisters and sickened millions as it continues its indiscriminate spread through communities the world over.

We have watched some of the most advanced hospital systems around the world, be it in the UK or in New York, put to rout by the virus.

But watching the devastating effect of the pandemic on shores far from ours has allowed us to steal a march on our adversary. Our national lockdown, which has been in place in varying scales since March, was a move which bought us valuable time to prepare for the onslaught we face.

Since the announcement of the lockdown, an unprecedented occurrence in the history of our nation, we have been able to effectively flatten the curve of infections.  Nearly 15,000 health care workers became the tip of the sword, as part of an aggressive testing and public screening campaign which was designed to curtail the spread of the disease.

We have marshalled the resources of laboratories, both private and public, to conduct more than 800,000 tests to date. Of the nearly 36,000 South Africans who have already fallen victim to the virus, more than half have recovered completely, with many pulled back from the brink of death by the dedicated health staff in our hospitals.

By delaying this exponential rise, which left unchecked would have seen our health care sector overwhelmed, we have already scored key victories in this war.

Through our interventions, the capacity of our hospitals has been increased by thousands with the construction of field hospitals and additional wards to accommodate the sick.

Our bed capacity has been buttressed, with places like the Cape Town International Convention Centre and Nasrec being transformed into field hospitals.

Through our partners at the department of trade, industry and competition, we have secured tens of millions of units of personal protection equipment for our health care workers.

Moreover, we have laid the foundation for the building of 20,000 ventilator systems to increase our high care and critical care capacity.

With every day that passes, the plans we have put into action ahead of the peak of this virus take shape, all part of our robust and holistic health response. We know that the time we have used to prepare our health care system has not come without a cost, one borne by every SA citizen.

The lockdown has exacted a toll on our economy, and has meant sacrificing personal freedoms so that we may save lives. This has been a bitter pill for many of our countrymen and women, knowing the history of our land and of our people, where the attainment of these freedoms was hard fought during the battle against the apartheid regime. But sacrifice for the benefit of the greater good is an inalienable pillar of what it means to be South African. Now, as it was then, it is pivotal that the people of this country are united in the fight against an enemy which threatens our way of life.

During this new level of our risk-adjusted strategy, millions of people will return to work as our country reopens.

Social distancing will now become the charge of every citizen, if we are to mitigate the impact of the virus while building the sustainable future of our country.

We will all be called to fight this battle in some small way, the conscription of each us helping to push back Covid-19 and ensure our country will prosper once we have emerged victorious.

While our health care workers will be on the front lines, it is the duty of us all to maintain social distancing and do what we can to limit the spread of Covid-19.

As you return to work, take care to wash your hands regularly with soap or alcohol-based hand sanitiser. Wear cloth masks while in public and disinfect work surfaces and homes regularly.

This is now the charge of every man, woman and child as we engage this foe. Do this knowing that every small act may save the life of someone’s son or daughter.

Dr Pillay is National department of health deputy director-general for NHI