Phumla Ngaleku has been a care worker long before she got her formal qualification. “I used to look after my own grandmother, and my passion grew from there.” She works at Medi Care Chronic, Acute and Frail Care Centre in Krugersdorp, Gauteng and has been living at the centre as the facility tries to mitigate the risks of the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the globe. 

At a briefing at the start of the lockdown, Minister of Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel indicated that while workers at old age homes were not initially mentioned as essential by President Cyril Ramaphosa, the list had been amended. “We are aware of elderly people and ill people who are absolutely dependent on the care and support that they have, and we will make sure that these are facilitated.”  

Most vulnerable  

Cheryl Brands is the general manager at Medi Care and says they had to act fast when word of the new virus and its impact on the elderly became known. “Our residents are all elderly, and most of them are diabetic and they have high blood pressure.” Her oldest resident is 92yearsold. “We had to put serious measures in place because obviously if one person contracts it, it will spread through our facility and will probably end up losing most of the residents we have here.”   

About a week before South Africa’s official lockdown came into effect on 27 March 2020, Brands says Medi Care had already implemented a facility-wide lockdown of their own, with visiting hours suspended and stringent decontamination protocols in place for any goods coming into the care home.  

Keeping staff members safe, however, was a challenge that few facilities and old age homes were prepared for. “One of the main concerns was to protect the staff from infections,” says Brands. “If we don’t protect the staff, then no measures to protect the residents will be successful.” Many of the care workers live in densely populated townships and rely on public transport to get to and from work.   

A perilous commute   

Brands says at the start of the pandemic, public ignorance was a big challenge to contend with. “When the taxi drivers picked up your staff members, they would not let them into the taxis if they were wearing masks or gloves.” She says there was a public perception that only sick people wore masks, and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) meant you were already infected. “We had to educate the staff, but they had to go out and educate taxi drivers and their own families and neighbours and members of the public on the severity of this problem.”  

One week into the lockdown and the risk of a daily commute on crowded public transport was no longer one that could be taken and staff at Medi Care moved into a make-shift dorm on the premises, jokingly referred to as ‘the hotel’.  

A gaping hole 

While her teenage son lives with his grandmother in the Eastern Cape, Ngaleku’s 4-year old daughter is at home with her husband, who is now the girl’s primary caregiver. “It’s sad because she’s always crying when I call her. She says ‘Mummy, when are you coming home? But I chose this work because I care about people and I like to help those who can’t help themselves.” She hopes that one day her daughter will understand the sacrifices she has had to make during this time. “We are dealing with people  old people  and we have to look after them. Their health is important, and so is mine because if I get sick I can’t help anyone.”  

Four-yearold Amahle Ngaleku struggles with her mother’s absence. “My mummy is gone to look after the old people so that we have food and clothes, but I don’t like it when she is gone,” Amahle explains shyly, speaking in isiXhosa. “It was my birthday and mummy had to work and I was missing her at night. I could not go play with my friends because my mum says I will get sick.” Her voice becomes a whisper. “I hope she can come home again and be with me.”    

Many sacrifices 

At Medi Care, it’s not only the care workers who have made sacrifices. Merriam Moloedi is the facility chef and has not seen her children, who live in the Free State, since January. Her plans to visit them over Easter were put on hold. She also lives in ‘the hotel’ in a bid to protect herself and the elderly residents she works with from the devastating effects of the novel coronavirus.  

She implements stringent hygiene protocols and infection control measures in her kitchen, but also knows the workers here offer more than just physical protection. “At this time, you know what the elderly need most? Our love and our care because right now they can’t see their families either and they feel lonely and they feel lost. They feel like nobody cares about them and we need to show them that we do care.”  

She has been feeling emotional, she admits, her voice cracking, but knows that the elderly residents she cooks for each day are emotional too. “This thing is getting to us and to them, and I miss my family but I can see they miss their families too. It’s our responsibility now as the workers to make them feel at home, feel safe and feel loved.”  

A new normal  

It’s tough, says Brands, and second to staff and resident safety the main priority is to ensure that spirits are high and that includes the spirits of the care workers. “We are watching movies, playing games, singing and laughing, trying to make the best of it.” 

During this time, Brands says we cannot forget to care for the carers, many who leave their own families to ensure others are looked after. “It’s difficult for all of us,” she shrugs. “The staff know that they come here and they risk their lives. They also want to stay at home with the kids and their families, but they’re committed and they’re dedicated to the work that they do and their calling in life.”   

Patience Mazamelela decided as a little girl that she would dedicate her life to helping the elderly. Today, however, she fears for her own family while she is away from home, caring for the elderly family members of others. “When I first heard about the virus, I was so stressed about my mum,” she says, frowning. “She’s not okay, she’s an old woman, 85yearsold and she’s diabetic.”   

Thembeka Mazamelela cares for her 11-yearold grandson while her daughter, Patience, is at work. “I struggle to walk and I don’t always know how to help myself,” she explains. “The little one is the one who is helping me now to make food even though I am scared that he will burn himself.” She says her grandson also helps her with her diabetes medication. “We are surviving without her even though it is difficult. We are scared of this virus but we are safe for now.”  

Eleven-year old Goodman Mazamelela understands that his mother must work, and knows that the work she does is important. “But I am scared,” he adds, “and I am missing my mom. Every time I go to sleep I think of my mom and how we watch TV together at night, and when I watch TV now I watch her favourite shows and I think about her.” He pauses for a moment. “I’m also scared when she goes to work because I am scared that maybe she’s not safe and then she comes home with the virus.” He shrugs and smiles. “But I am still alive and my mom is still alive and my grandmother is still alive, so I am happy.”  

It’s difficult for Patience to leave her mother and her son, but she knows she is safer now that she is staying in the make-shift dormitory at the facility and no longer has to travel on public transport. “The taxis are not a safe environment, and I know I have to stay safe so that the people I look after – the oumas [grandmothers] are also protected.” She knows that she is safer now that she no longer has to catch a taxi to get to and from work. Despite this, she still worries about her own family. “I may be safe now but I am still stressed because I want my family to also be safeas safe as me and the people I look after.”  Health-e News 

For more information on Covid-19 in South Africa, you can call the toll-free line on 0800 029 999, or you can send a message that says “Hi” on WhatsApp to the number 060 012 3456. You can also visit the  SA Coronavirus website.