South African medical professionals celebrate after a sharp drop in Covid cases

Issued on: 04/03/2021 – 04:06

Thembisa (South Africa) (AFP)

After a year fighting the coronavirus, exhausted health workers in South Africa are celebrating a decline in cases but fear another wave of infections – a scenario that could materialize in a few months.

“We are now relieved because the numbers have dropped and the patients are no longer so sick,” said nurse Constance Mathibela to AFP at Thembisa Hospital in a community east of Johannesburg.

After the epidemic peaked, the hospital was “almost full every day,” she recalled.

“There wasn’t a time when we had an empty (Covid) station. It was just a continuous (flow of) things.”

South Africa recorded its first case of coronavirus on March 5 last year.

Since then, there have been two virus storms with over 1.5 million cases and more than 50,000 deaths – the highest in all of Africa.

But on Sunday, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared that the second wave, fueled by a new, more contagious variant, was now over.

The nationwide number of new infections every day fell to just over 500 this week after peaking at more than 21,000 on Jan. 7.

Ramaphosa’s announcement was welcome news for many medical professionals who were being driven to the brink of burnout.

Since a vaccination campaign only started last month, they are also preparing for a possible third wave.

Scientists believe it could land with the onset of winter in the southern hemisphere around May or June.

– ‘Very scary’ –

Workers at Thembisa – the public hospital of a community alternatively called Tembisa – relived the waves of earlier waves.

“In the beginning it was very scary because we didn’t know Covid at all,” said Mathibela, the first nurse to work in a Covid-19 ward in the hospital.

Another senior nurse, Salome Nkoana, said that in those early days, frontline workers struggled to care for patients with an unknown infection and feared they might get sick too.

“Every day when I went home I would pray … ‘God, can you please help me get through this?'”

“Now I’m exhausted, I have to go,” said the nurse in blue scrubs as she went through the patients’ notes.

One of the most under-documented aspects of the epidemic is the psychological distress on health workers as they watched patients struggle with the disease and die.

“We were all so depressed,” said Nkoana, recalling one terrible day that five patients died.

“We were very stressed emotionally,” remarked Phuti Kobo, 39, another ward manager. “One death (alone) is enough to traumatize nurses.”

“If you had more than five in a day it was a real trauma, but we made it all.”

Now the “wards are much quieter … no more ventilated patients,” she added cheerfully.

In the men’s ward, a Covid 19 patient lay on a bed in green and white striped hospital pajamas and listened to music through his headphones – a therapy for anxiety while undergoing treatment.

AFP was granted hospital access following multiple inquiries amid a de facto media outage at health facilities during the pandemic.

– fear of the third wave –

The daily number of Covid recordings at Thembisa has fallen by around 80 percent from around 100 to around 20 compared to the high at the beginning of this year.

But the wear off can only be temporary.

“We’re just imagining how worse it will be, how bad it will be,” Kobo said.

“Will it be the same as the first or second wave, or will it be worse?”

On the positive side, the enemy is far better known today than it was a year ago.

The hospital’s clinical director, Dr. Saziwe Mbekeli said planning for a possible new surge in cases was already underway.

“We’ll be a lot wiser as we get closer to the third wave,” Kobo said. “We are ready.”

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