As billions of people around the world hunker down to dodge the dreaded coronavirus disease, which has claimed about 2,2 million lives around the world, they are those among us brave enough to leave their homes every day to face it.
The novel virus does not have a cure yet, nor have vaccines begun to be rolled out in Zimbabwe, which means each time one steps out of their home they are making a life or death decision.
But it is a call that healthcare and other frontline workers selflessly make every day to try and push back the raging pandemic.
In order for societies to enjoy a modicum of normalcy, there are countless people, from drivers, security personnel and shop attendants, among others, who are putting their lives on the line.
But nothing can be as distressing as having a front-row seat to the unfolding calamity.
“Each time I leave home for work, I am not sure if I will return Covid-19 free,” said Mable Chidhakwa, a Nyaradzo Funeral Services employee, as she shared her experiences, fears and hope with The Sunday Mail Society.
“The days are long, arduous and often lonely. Showing up for work is a matter of life or death. The pandemic has completely changed every aspect of our lives, including relations.”
The 51-year-old hearse driver and mother of two — who doubles as the services manager, mortician and funeral director — spends most of her days with the dead, ferrying Covid-19 victims to their final resting place.
“Not many people are willing to do this job, but it has to be done. A lot is riding on our shoulders. We cannot stop now, though at times the pressure gets overwhelming.”
Hearse drivers work round the clock to take bodies to and from hospitals or homes.
But between their normal routines, they counsel and comfort clients.
Mable, who has been in the business for 10 years, said more than anything else, the pandemic has made people increasingly fretful about death.
“Families are now afraid of their dead. They don’t even want to come close to the bodies. It breaks my heart,” she said.
“They are so afraid of contracting the virus despite having personal protective equipment (PPE), observing social distancing and every other precaution.”
She, too, has not be spared by the scourge as she contracted the disease sometime last year.
And Mable feels it was her husband’s support that made her pull through.
“It is considered a death sentence. However, I got support from my husband who stood by me through thick and thin,” she said.
“I still face discrimination from friends and relatives in the community. They are afraid of the fact that I handle Covid-19 bodies at work.
“I no longer have visitors at home, even from my immediate family. I try, but in vain, to explain to them that I am taking all necessary precautions to stay safe.”
But nothing could have prepared her for the first removal of a Covid-19 victim in Darwendale.
“When we got there everyone was just scared, but health officials told us what to do in terms of using PPE. However, instead of putting on one pair of gloves, I wore more than four pairs, because we were afraid,” she recounts.
The country is currently in the grip of a second wave of the pandemic, which has seen an exponential increase in infection and mortality rates.
About 800 of the 1 160 deaths recorded by Friday were in January alone.
The battle is already taking a toll on Norman Chaibva, a paramedic for a local ambulance service — Ambulance 24 — who has been assisting Covid-19 patients since the disease was first recorded in the country in March last year.
His ordinary shift is 12 hours long and he rarely gets off days due to staff shortages and soaring demand for their service.
“I have lost weight in the past weeks due to the pressure at work. I used to weigh 82kg but I am now down to 71kg. The workload is no longer like in the past,” he said.
His most touching encounter was when he went to ferry a Covid-19 patient, who greeted him with a smile but sadly died before they could get to a hospital.
“It was a matter of 15 minutes that later haunted me for days. I still feel I let the patient down and could have done more to save him.
“Every time someone dies, I feel like a part of me has gone with them. I feel like this will be me one day,” he said.
Witnessing all the illness and death has given Chaibva a new perspective on life and death.
“Every day is a reminder that life is fleeting and that we are blessed with it. However, my only fear is to contract the disease and pass it on to my close family members and friends.”
Hygiene is one of the many ways to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Offices and homes need to be constantly disinfected while bedding and other facilities in hospitals need to be kept virus-free.
“I still fear I might get Covid-19 from some workplaces we clean. Door handles, computers, toilets, etcetera, are a high risk. But if we do not do it, who will?” asked Hazel Gomwe, who works for Double Action Cleaners.
However, the 21-year-old feels personal protective equipment provides an assuring and much-needed layer of protection. Every time she goes home, she takes a hot bath and steams.
“I do this to make sure my family and I are safe from Covid-19. There isn’t much we can do but we hope all this shall pass,” she said.
For Gilbert Mukono, who works for Harare City Council’s refuse collection department, getting into contact with disposed items always make him fear for the worst.
While it is highly recommended to burn or bury PPE, some dispose them in garbage bins.
“Unfortunately, working from home is one luxury we don’t have. It is our duty to safely dispose of the Covid-19 virus you throw away as litter,” he said.
“However, at times I get worried that I will end up developing a mental condition of sorts. Due to the pandemic, I have become alert, even to minor changes in my health and newsfeeds on the virus. That is affecting me a lot. Personally, I think I could do with professional counselling.”
It is the same fear that haunts public transport driver Wilson Chihwa.
“This second wave has proven to be lethal. But I still have that sense of honour. I want to do everything I can to make sure that passengers are taken care of and protected,” said the commuter omnibus driver who operates under the Zupco franchise.
“But there are instances when I look at passengers and feel like I am transporting the virus. You have people coming from all walks of life on the bus. This has made me realise the importance of correct and consistent use of PPE.
“ . . . as a former military man, I feel proud to be able to do my part, especially for the ones that may be going to the hospital for Covid-19 or any other treatment. My motto is to serve the public first. That keeps me going.”
Mental health experts argue that exposure to stress for prolonged periods can have harmful consequences on the emotional and mental well-being of frontline workers.
Similarly, they advise that those actively involved in the fight against Covid-19 need to be helped to cope with the stress.
“Surveys have shown that healthcare workers and nurses in particular are anxious, overwhelmed, physically and emotionally burned out, and worried about exposing their loved ones. This will lead to stress,” warns psychologist and a mental health coach Dr Nathan Murinda.
Stress, he added, can lead to more severe mental health conditions such psychosis or suicide if left untreated.
“A major health crisis inevitably leads to a rise in psychological trauma. We should ensure that frontline workers have access to the support they need,” he urged.
“It is critical to identify signs of anxiety and depression early on and intervene quickly. Key workers should be supported through a supportive environment, psychological care and by making sure they are well-informed.”
Despite the extraordinary odds of fighting an invisible enemy, frontline workers continue to troop out every day to fight humanity’s most pressing existential threat in modern history.
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