Change the world


Taking physical and emotional care of Nelson Mandela University’s 29 000 students and 4 000 staff is a huge responsibility at the best of times.  Throw in a taciturn global pandemic and you accept that you will be stretched as healthcare workers at an institution of higher education.

However, nothing could have prepared us for the journey we have travelled to date, not even the sobering predictions of our late Executive Dean of the Health Faculty,- Professor Lungile Pepeta, as to the speed and voracity of the highly contagious nature of COVID-19.  Back then, late in March, as lockdown began, we knew it would be challenging, but we never anticipated the complexities, the sheer volume of work, nor the physical and emotional toll it would have on us as frontline workers.

As individuals, who chose nursing, social work, occupational health and the like as a profession, we are generally passionate about caring for others.  We tend to make sacrifices and put others first.  It’s who we are.  The uncertainties and anxieties that have come with the pandemic, made us realise early on, that we must work smartly.  If we don’t look after ourselves, we are not going to be able to look after others.  Self-care has been an important strategy, towards saving lives, while enabling our students to complete the 2020 Academic Year.

As frontline workers, we play a key role, particularly in ensuring compliance of COVID-19 prevention measures, of disease surveillance and in managing the supporting health processes.  It is something we started before President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a National State of Disaster in mid-March, as we adapted the World Health Organisation’s workplace compliance documents to our particular needs. And, it’s what we are still doing today, with even greater intent, in a bid to break the chain of transmissions, especially within our off-campus residences.

Altogether we have captured 300 000 screenings at our entrances, via the online university self-screening tool and in our COVID-19 Centre to date; and have attended to the needs of 190 staff and 213 students who have tested positive; both on and off campus and to their hundreds of contacts.  Most of these cases have been recorded in the second wave which, with Nelson Mandela Bay declared a hot spot, is not surprising. 

What we learnt during the first wave, especially during the peak in July, has helped us to largely stem the spread of the virus in our residences through stringent quarantine measures and mass screenings. This is in addition to scaling right back on mask-to-mask academic activities on campus and ensuring compliance of all other COVID-19 prevention measures.  In principle, all staff and students who can work and study remotely are continuing to do so.  

From our experiences, we know that we are certainly more effective when we work together.  We work with our partners in Higher Health, the local Department of Health who have assisted us with mass screening, and an external service provider that helps with on-campus screenings and with our own multi-stakeholder Coronavirus Task Team (CTT) at the University.  It is in the latter weekly meetings where we collectively share progress, identify challenges and action improvements.  

As frontline workers we have adapted the way we work (in smaller, rotational teams); we’ve introduced new processes and we have repurposed our work.  Our healthcare colleagues with comorbidities, for example, now run the administrative “war room” for contact tracing and the like.  We have also increased the number of healthcare workers to try meet the demands.

But carrying out both our basic primary health care responsibilities and COVID-19 care management is extremely tough for both the Occupational Health and Student Health Services teams.

We are constantly seeking solutions.  While we have COVID-19 compliance guidelines, there was nothing specific for workplace compliance and so we introduced our own standard operating procedures in line with regulations to guide us.  We have no choice but to do this because we are dealing with people’s lives.

To counter the stark realities of this responsibility, we hold regular wellness sessions and are constantly training and educating ourselves (and others).  We have created a safe environment for our healthcare teams and invested in the correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).  The University transformed its tennis club into our new COVID-19 Screening Centre.  All this has been a huge help.

The fact that remains, however, is that our work is with those directly impacted by the virus – the positive cases, and the persons under investigation.  While you anticipate the worst-case scenario, when it actually happens, it hits you.  We have lost seven University staff members, and many of us have lost our own friends and family members to the virus.  Even our own healthcare workers have been infected too. 

It’s not just the deaths; it’s the anxieties.  Our hearts go out to those who test positive and those who are PUIs and are isolating; and to our students whose residences need to be placed under quarantine for their own safety to stop the spread of the virus and break the chain of transmissions.  They are all frightened.  Sometimes, we are too.

And that’s why self-care is so important.  Staff are given time off and responsibilities are rotated. Many, for example, will have the opportunity of handing over an olive tree - our “trees of victory” campaign directed at staff members who recover from COVID-19, as a symbolic reminder of their journey.  We have access to our University wellness specialists; we dance (the Jerusalema) and seek lighter moments 

It has been a nine-month rollercoaster ride and we’re tired. However, we’ve learnt and grown much and are passionate about what we do.  We will continue to adapt our processes, to partner with others in seeking solutions, and be there to support our staff and students once we close on 22 December and have a good break.

Sister Valencia Benjamin is head of Occupational Health Services and Sister Althea Hawkins is head of Student Health Services at Nelson Mandela University.

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057