Initiative provides free, safe beds for health workers during pandemic

Doctors and nurses can get free, safe accommodation during the Covid-19 pandemic through Ubuntu Beds, an initiative started by Once in Cape Town CEO Kim Whitaker.
Doctors and nurses can get free, safe accommodation during the Covid-19 pandemic through Ubuntu Beds, an initiative started by Once in Cape Town CEO Kim Whitaker.
Image: Once in Cape Town

Two doctors who need safe accommodation during the Covid-19 pandemic — offered at no cost by Ubuntu Beds to health-care workers on the front lines — will be the first to check in on Tuesday in Johannesburg.

Ubuntu Beds has more than 2,000 beds available, and by Monday night about 500 health-care workers from six provinces had applied for accommodation.

“The numbers are always growing. Most of them want to move out of their homes to protect their loved ones from the risk of infection,” said Kim Whitaker, founder of Ubuntu Beds. “Many people commute back and forth to hospitals in public transport and this is a concern for patients.”

Whitaker has recovered from a mild case of Covid-19 after arriving back from Germany on March 11.

Whitaker got the idea to offer sponsored beds after listening to an Italian hotelier — at the epicentre of thousands of deaths in Lombardy — on a Zoom call talking about what he wished he had done two or three weeks before the crisis hit.

“I would have organised accommodation for doctors and nurses in hotels all standing empty. The nurses and doctors are nervous to go home. They don’t want their families infected. They are sleeping in cars,” he said.

The founder and CEO of Once in Cape Town and Once in Joburg “posh hostels”, Whitaker thought: “This is what I should do. I’ve got 50 rooms in Cape Town and 50 rooms in Johannesburg.”

To date nearly 200 guest houses, lodges, hotels, hostels and bed and breakfast establishments have signed up to offer  accommodation.

When Whitaker started calling hospitals to offer beds to staff, managers were a “bit overwhelmed” with priorities like masks and staff rosters, so she had another idea.

The Johannesburg design agency Nicework supported the initiative and built a website for Ubuntu Beds, on which accommodation could be listed as available, donors could contribute and health-care workers could apply for beds.

“They could access it themselves, and we could see the demand on a national level rather than from each hospital.”

Ubuntu Beds has had nearly 200 individual applications and a few groups applying for teams of 20 to 25 people.

They are trying to match hospital staff to the nearest accommodation so they can walk to work.

For example, the Once in Cape Town upmarket hostel in Gardens is less than a kilometre from Mediclinic Cape Town.

The SA Pandemic Intervention and Relief Effort (SPIRE) — which has received R100m from the FirstRand Foundation, FNB and RMB — will help to fund Ubuntu Beds, said Whitaker.


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