Circle City Info

‘In a queue to die’: SA nurses work in fear and exhaustion

Nthabeleng, a 28-year-old nurse on the front line of South Africa's Covid pandemic, is exhausted and afraid.

Each day, she begins her shift haunted by the dread of contracting coronavirus and dying, leaving behind a five-year-old daughter. She finishes it numb with fatigue, but the fear has remained.

Every week, a “colleague dies” somewhere, said Nthabeleng, who works in a rural clinic in northern Limpopo province.

That morning, two nurses had died at another clinic in the same province, she said.

“We are also in the queue of dying — we are just waiting for our day,” she said, her voice shrouded in despondency.

Nthabeleng’s name, like those of other healthworkers in this report, has been changed due to a media blackout on reporting from hospitals.

Africa’s worst-infected country may be over the peak of a deadly second wave of coronavirus, but a surge in patient numbers in recent weeks has left nurses drained.

At least 1.46 million infections have been recorded in South Africa, which accounts for 41 percent of the continent’s total cases. Of these, 45,000 have died.

A new, more contagious variant of the virus, has fuelled the spread, and the pressure on hospitals is the worst in the country’s living memory.

Compared to most African countries, South Africa’s health care system is well off, yet workers say they have battled to cope.

Gruelling 12-hour-long shifts, calming panicky patients and shuttling between infected and non-infected patients are all part of Nthabeleng routine at the small clinic where only three nurses work.

“It’s like a supermarket approach — you do everything,” she said by phone as she nervously related her daily routine.

The fear of coronavirus transmitting the virus between patients and catching it herself, runs deep. 

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