How community organisations are coping with the Covid-19 pandemic

From rural Limpopo to Fourways in Johannesburg, NGOs, community- and volunteer-based organisations have had to innovate to survive

MES is trying to create sustainable income by knitting scarves and blankets to sell.
MES is trying to create sustainable income by knitting scarves and blankets to sell.
Image: Supplied/Discovery Foundation

Christine du Preez, founder of the award-winning HIV and Aids education and treatment programme, Hlokomela, in Hoedspruit, Limpopo said they were spared the Covid-19 virus in Hoedspruit until June 5 2020 — but the impact railroaded the community nonetheless.

There is still an urgent need to address the impact Covid-19 is having on farmworkers and members of the community in terms of their livelihood.

“It’s huge. Suddenly there are no tourists in our area. All the lodge workers went home because everything was locked down. The Hoedspruit area is almost 100% farmworkers who are working because the production of citrus must go on.”  

“The game has changed, and the problem is that we didn’t have funding for Covid-19,” says Du Preez. “People don’t have food and that is a huge problem in our area. But the Hoedspruit community came together, and already we’ve given thousands of food parcels to farmworkers and community workers who don’t have jobs.”

The team’s #walking4hope campaign had supporters from around the world track their steps to raise funds for food parcels. 

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Nompilos are at the forefront of fighting the pandemic 

Hlokomela has 82 nompilos or peer caregivers who help the team. “Our nompilos are the forefront people to help us with screening. Every day, we take them to farms where they screen farm workers. At the end of the day they come back to Hlokomela and we give the data to the department of health,” says Du Preez.

“Then people still need to get their chronic medicine for their day-to-day ailments, and that is when they come to the clinics.” In addition to funding, the Discovery Fund provided a grant for personal protective equipment (PPEs) for the team.

The clinics were adapted for the pandemic, and room was made to accommodate testing for those who might become infected. Meanwhile, the nompilos continue to educate people in Hoedspruit on preventive measures, and Hlokomela’s sewing project also made 15,500 buffs to protect farmworkers. “We’re lucky that we haven’t felt the virus here yet, but if we read about Joburg, the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, we realise it’s coming for us,” says Du Preez.  

How a hospital deep in the Eastern Cape planned ahead

Dr Ben Gaunt is the clinical manager at Zithulele Hospital, which is on the front line of the fight against Covid-19 in their rural setting. “We are experiencing the calm before the storm, but we have already been receiving overflow from other hospitals, including from Mthatha,” he says. A small number of patients with Covid-19 were treated at the hospital with minimal loss of life.

Gaunt says while a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPEs) were a stress factor for the health-care team, Zithulele has received a grant from the Discovery Fund for PPEs. “There is significant stress mentally and emotionally for health care workers when there is a shortage of PPEs, as you can imagine. So the current supply of protective equipment to keep them safe has a huge positive impact on staff morale.” 

Zithulele, meanwhile, has continued with its ARV and TB outreach programme, which experienced disruptions due to physical distancing, but had to adjust to them. Zithulele’s skills development programme it runs with the Jabulani Rural Health Foundation also had to adapt. The programme upskills eight women from the community as part of a gap-year programme, and the women are now sewing masks.

Jabulani community networks kicked in to empower the community in lockdown. They have distributed care packs including seedlings, masks, educational material and basic foodstuff. 

Witkoppen Clinic has an isolated Covid-19 unit where one doctor and two primary care nurses are on duty.
Witkoppen Clinic has an isolated Covid-19 unit where one doctor and two primary care nurses are on duty.
Image: Supplied/Discovery Foundation

An insight into inner city life  

Mould Empower Serve (MES), a not-for-profit company that aims to “Change the heart of the city!” in SA’s inner cities, operates in Johannesburg, Kempton Park, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. It provides aftercare facilities for preschoolers and warm, safe spaces to live for homeless adults. 

At the start of lockdown, the overnight shelters of MES had to adjust to become lockdown shelters. The fact that residents couldn’t go out daily to earn income had a negative impact, says Leona Pienaar, MES CEO.

“In the shelters, we challenge the culture of handouts and charge R20 a day for a bed and meal which homeless people can work for, or peddle in the streets. We also sell booklets with vouchers for a night, which people buy and handout at the traffic lights,” she says.

Revenue has been affected with people forced to stay at home. “With 300 beds in the shelters, this has created a loss of income and increased expenses due to the demand on meals,” says Pienaar.

Virtual volunteerism and fundraising are options for the team, not only to keep the homes going, but to ensure all safety protocols are put in place for toddlers in their crèches and children in their aftercare facilities once their mothers return to work. 

Not-for-profit company MES, provides aftercare facilities for preschoolers and warm, safe spaces to live for homeless adults.
Not-for-profit company MES, provides aftercare facilities for preschoolers and warm, safe spaces to live for homeless adults.
Image: Supplied/Discovery Foundation

In preparation for the pandemic, one of its Johannesburg shelters has been classed as an isolation unit, staffed with four nurses from the MES Impilo service. The team has also delivered 3,000 food parcels and distributed 148,000 meals since the beginning of the pandemic. Pienaar says, to keep the mood light, a few resident women and people with disabilities staged a fashion show, with clothes they’ve been knitting to keep their entrepreneurial skills going.

“They are trying to create sustainable income by knitting scarves and blankets to sell,” she says. More wool is needed.

“We know we will need additional nurses should the Covid-19 peak hit us. And for our other projects, we actually need to relook at the business models, as well as how we operate and what training our staff will need for the future to be sustainable,” says Pienaar.

Among the hardest hit 

Dr Jean Bassett, executive director of the Witkoppen Clinic, which services about 1.4-million people from informal settlements near Fourways, Johannesburg, says the pressure has already peaked in the centre. 

Health workers at Witkoppen Clinic.
Health workers at Witkoppen Clinic.
Image: Supplied/Discovery Foundation

“We normally do HIV counselling, TB screening and have a mobile clinic. This all stopped because physical distancing was a problem.”

About 120 community health workers have been deployed to screen people in the community and check on food security and medicine continuation. 

“In the informal settlement, our team is doing door-to-door screening, and at the same time, checking in on newly diagnosed HIV patients or others who need to be referred for care,” says Bassett. 

There has been no disruption of HIV and TB medication services. PPEs were in short supply, but a batch has since been received from the Gift of the Givers via the Discovery Fund.

“Some community-based services have come to a halt — such as our project for orphans and vulnerable children, which operates out of containers where social distancing cannot be maintained.

“Our child health services including immunisation, funded by Discovery, has continued with little or no adverse impact. On a typical day about 300 people queue for health care services, including vaccines at our clinic. Because we posted on social media that Witkoppen Clinic is still open for services and children can be fast-tracked, most children came for their immunisations,” she says.

Bassett says it is becoming untenable in the area. “The situation on the ground is dire as people have no food, so food security is a problem. Our dietitian is working 12-hour days to try to get people access to healthy food.”   

The clinic has an isolated Covid-19 unit where one doctor and two primary care nurses are on duty. “We have had to set up a dedicated Covid-19 unit to help keep doctors and patients safe. With only five emergency beds available, they can’t risk contaminating the rest of the facility,” she says. 

“They have to stay in the unit and not mix with the rest of the clinic so as to protect themselves and the rest of us. We had to adapt quickly to the situation,” says Bassett. 

In addition, health care workers have to be isolated for two weeks at a time should they be exposed to the virus, which creates gaps in care. “The more health care workers are exposed to Covid-19, the more the health care system will take strain,” she says.   

Some challenges include doing resuscitations of severely ill patients every day, which the team has never had to do before. In addition, stigma prevents patients from revealing their illness until it is too late. How the pandemic will play out in months to come, is to be seen. 

What makes us human? 

It’s not about what we say, but what we do. Being a force for social good means recognising and actively contributing to the health of all South Africans. The Discovery Fund is a true embodiment of Discovery’s core purpose of making people healthier. We are committed to strengthening the public health care system and to support and empower our partners, mentioned in the article above, to cope with the pandemic. 

This article was paid for by the Discovery Foundation.