Trusting and supporting CHWs will help South Africa beat COVID-19

This is a story about Elizabeth Mkhatshwa from Magudu, (KwaZulu-Natal) shared with us by Grow Great

Without the trust and support of the community of Nkomazi, COVID-19 screenings would not be running as smoothly as they are, Community Health Worker (CHW) Elizabeth Mkhatshwa told the Grow Great Champions* team in a recent interview. While there were reports that CHWs were refused entry and attacked in some parts of Nkomazi while screening and testing people for COVID-19, Mkhatshwa says this was not the case in Magudu, where she stays.

“Our community opened their gates and door for us because they know us. Even though they didn’t know some of our team members, they still welcomed them because they know that they are doing what’s right for them. My community also trusts that I’ll give them the right advice as they can see I’m with the health department – we were given working tools and white overalls that have COVID-19 written on them so that immediately marked us as health professionals that could be trusted. They know me and I’m always friendly with them, so they trust me. Before we even started screening them, our community had heard about the initiative on radio and TV so that made our work easier. They also answered questions truthfully and were helpful,” continues Mkhatshwa.

Mkhatshwa is also grateful for the support given to them by the government and says that even though she was scared at first, she knew that she would be fine as long as she followed safety precautions and drew on her experience as a CHW. She also makes no mistake in ensuring that her family is safe as well.

“We have masks, gloves, screening tools and hand sanitisers – all CHWs [who are part of the mass screening and testing campaign] have them. There is also transport available to get us to work and back. At first I was afraid, feeling that I might eventually get infected with COVID-19 by doing house-to-house visits, but I was ready and confident because it showed that the government trusted me enough to do this important work. I just told myself I’m going to face whatever situation I find myself in head-on. My experience as a CHW has helped me because I’m confident to answer any health-related question confidently. Staying safe does not end at work – when I get home I change clothes and wash them immediately and I would encourage my colleagues to do the same to keep their families safe.”

Mkhatshwa’s daily routine has not changed much since lockdown began. She starts her day by praying, these days for protection against tcoronavirus. She never forgets to put on a smile as she says it helps calm her clients’ nerves. While she would ordinarily visit pregnant women, encouraging them to book their antenatal care visits early at clinic, the focus has now shifted to COVID-19. However, she does still give mothers-to-be the same advice – as well as that relating to COVID-19 – whenever she encounters them.

“I make sure I’m always smiling and laughing to put the patients at ease; it’s important to be friendly to them. We teach them a lot about masks and the importance of always having them on, even if they are homemade. We tell them ‘you are protecting not only yourselves but others as well’. They are worried about treatment. We tell them to wash hands, keep a safe distance from each other, and not touch people as there isn’t one yet. They are anxious for a treatment to be found, so we have to constantly assure them that the government is still researching it and eventually it should be available. Not much has changed. I’m still doing the work I normally do, which is conducting home visits. The only difference is that I’m now focusing on screening and testing for COVID-19, while I would focus on early bookings before. If I do see a pregnant woman, I still tell her to book early at the clinic and explain to them why this is important.”

Nkomazi’s high number of cases has not stopped Mkhatshwa from being optimistic. She believes her community is on the right track as far as containing the spread of the virus.

“People are practising physical distancing and no one enters our clinic without a mask. I think what caused the cases to rise was that there wasn’t enough awareness initially, but now we have someone with a loudhailer in our community reminding people to stay at home until the lockdown ends, and only to leave when they have to buy essentials,” Mkhatshwa shares.

Mkhatshwa’s words of advice for her colleagues? “Use hand sanitiser all the time, wash your clothes regularly and keep a safe distance from your family when you get home in case you have picked it up on your home visits”.

*Grow Great Champions support CHWs like Mkhatshwa and are confident that their hard work will help to flatten the COVID-19 curve. 

Elizabeth’s story was shared with us by our partners at Grow Great. Please visit their website to find out how they’re supporting community health care workers.

Thank you for your bravery and courage!