Community Care Workers – Heroes on the front line

This is an opinion piece written by Malini Mohana, a Gauteng-based clinical psychologist in community service

A version of this first appeared in the Star Newspaper on the 10th of June. Sadly, our friend and colleague Malini passed away a week later.

By Malini Mohana

“I am of certain convinced that the greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind of domestic affairs whilst the world whirls as a maddening dreidel,” said Florence Nightingale 150 years ago. 

That statement is just as true today, as the COVID-19 pandemic places its burden on community care workers across the nation. While the general population is required to protect themselves by exercising social distancing, working from home or self-isolating, our community care workers are often required to do the exact opposite in performing their jobs. Our systemic inequality has left the vulnerable most exposed to the destruction of the virus.

Many of these vulnerable individuals work within community care systems themselves – healthcare workers, child and youth care workers, social workers, hospital and community clinic staff. Without consistent access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and adequate medical and social support networks, the work that they are required to do may leave them feeling anxious, angry or undervalued. They are expected, often in already difficult circumstances, to expose themselves to hundreds or thousands of people during the course of the pandemic. This personal exposure is not only risky to other patients or community members, but to the care workers, and their loved ones, themselves.

The fear of becoming ill, infecting others, or losing employment are some of the concerns taking centre stage in this time. The previous psychologically positive experiences of their work may become harder to access, potentially leaving many feeling ‘sacrificed’ for the greater good

In light of the human devastation caused by the virus, it would be an injustice to simplify the individual complexity of each care worker. South Africa’s social disparities cannot be made to disappear in the face of this crisis. These inequalities uniquely affect individuals – both financially and emotionally. In situations where a care worker may feel unable or unwilling to expose themselves to the risks of COVID19, the cost of losing an income may feel too high. Accessing their own medical care or even basic necessities (hand sanitiser, food, transport) may not always be a possibility. And despite the psychological toll of facing frontline challenges, mental health care is not easily accessible. The requirements of social distancing also mean that they may not be able to call on their normal social support systems, increasing feelings of loneliness and isolation. In this way, community care workers often pay a personal price in their commitment to care for others.

Nationally and globally, it is evident that in the fight against the pandemic, the frontline protectors require as much protection. Care workers are simultaneously the heroes and the victims of the effects of the pandemic. The importance of supporting these individuals not only impacts their own well-being, and the help that they are able and willing to provide, but the trajectory of the pandemic itself. This means acknowledging South Africa’s social complexity and how it impacts its community care workers, but also careful considerations on how to assist them at different levels.

Much of the government and corporate effort is being directed towards facility-based care. This is appropriate in the acute phase of the pandemic. However, assuming that lockdown has managed to flatten the curve and reduce the peak, these gains will only be sustained if there is a high level of protection at primary and community care level. Community health workers and other care workers are likely to be ‘at the bottom of the pile’ when it comes to protection, yet they will be at high risk entering people’s homes or supporting nurses in primary care facilities.

That is why Masked Heroes is being established as a national campaign to support, equip and inspire community care workers delivering professional services during the COVID19 outbreak in South Africa. The campaign – set to launch later in June – is coordinated by the DG Murray Trust (DGMT) with support from REDISA and the Centre for Learning on Evaluation and Results at the University of the Witwatersrand. Coca-Cola Bottlers (SA) has generously offered its distribution network to provide personal protective equipment, information and support to over one hundred thousand community care workers across South Africa involved in health, social support and relief services. This drive will be implemented through a network of 300 non-government organisations acting as connectors to community care workers. These connectors will also be involved in providing and connecting care workers to psychosocial support.

Internationally we have seen huge appreciation and solidarity for care workers in various countries, and in South Africa these workers still face a steep hill to the peak of the epidemic. Show your support by joining the Masked Heroes campaign. You can start by nominating a community care worker whom you think should be celebrated on the Masked Heroes’ social media platforms. Most powerfully, if you know a community care worker, reach out and be there for them by connecting them to the Masked Heroes campaign or other support networks. In this way, we can all do our part to care for our carers.

Service.Masked Heroes is funded by The Solidarity Fund, The Elma South Africa Foundation, the Coca-Cola South Africa System, made up of the Coca-Cola SA Franchise and our bottling partners Coca-Cola Beverages SA (CCBSA) and Coca-Cola Peninsula Beverages (CCPB), The Johnson and Johnson Foundation, The Entertainment Industry Foundation, The Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project and The H.W. Goldsmith Foundation. DGMT is a South African foundation committed to developing South Africa’s potential through public innovation and strategic investment. Malini Mohana is a clinical psychologist in community service, based in Gauteng.

There is no passion to be found in playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.