When Elisha Friday Ishaya, Allen S.D. Zomonway and Elalie Tshipeng Kambaj graduated from Africa University, they were excited about providing the best health care possible. Then COVID-19 hit.
The three graduates had been looking forward to working with patients, serving with competent medical teams, garnering financial support from generous donors and improving health outcomes for the communities they serve.
But by Aug. 9, the 55 African Union Member States reporting COVID-19 data had recorded more than a million cases and 23,000 deaths. According to the World Health Organization, more than 10,000 health workers in the 40 African countries that report such data have been infected.
Job descriptions changed overnight, and health care workers faced a host of new challenges, including lack of protective equipment and medication, funding gaps, food insecurity and poor information systems, to name a few.
“Despite the fact that the pandemic has been ongoing globally for over five months,” Ishaya said, “many still don’t believe that the coronavirus exists. All over the major cities, people can be seen not adhering to social distancing guidelines, not using masks, and not wearing gloves or sanitizing their hands.”
Along with being at a high risk of virus transmission, health care workers are exposed to violence as people object to screening or quarantining. As security forces attempt to enforce lockdowns, it is not unusual for health care workers to lose rental contracts, be denied access to shops or transportation, or experience physical assaults.
A 2015 Africa University alumnus with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, Ishaya serves as a perioperative nurse at Federal Medical Centre Keffi in Nigeria. When his hospital became an official coronavirus care center, the number of patients admitted for treatment and emergency surgery increased significantly. “Most of the (other) hospitals,” he said, “are no longer accepting patients due to fear of COVID-19.”
But workers remain steadfast. Ishaya recalled preparations by a 50-member team for surgical separation of conjoined twins.
“I was the team leader for the theater nurses and coordinator,” he said. Days before the scheduled surgery, he was one of 17 of the 50-member medical team who tested positive for COVID-19. The surgery was done with limited personnel. After 14 days of quarantine, he was retested, and the result was negative.
“Glory be to God!” he said.
Zomonway, a registered nurse and the hospital administrator at Ganta United Methodist Mission in Liberia, holds both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Africa University. He recently earned a master’s degree in leadership from Oklahoma City University in the United States.
Focusing on community health, Zomonway ensures that the entire staff, from medical doctors to cleaners, wear masks and take other necessary precautions. Everyone entering the hospital must be masked.
Soliciting financial support is more important than ever. “Most of the patients can’t afford the minimum services fees we charge,” he noted. Liberia’s already-high unemployment rate is now compounded by the pandemic.
“The hospital depends on fees,” Zomonway added, “to pay staff salaries and other running costs, but because the intake has reduced, we have a problem buying fuel to provide continuous electricity.”
He shared the story of Sannie, 50, a laboratory aide at Ganta Hospital. She was experiencing elevated blood sugar and blood pressure, as well as respiratory distress. “Our national health authority has a COVID-19 testing system in place,” Zomonway said, “and we quickly called upon district health authorities to test her. We placed her in our small, but very comfortable, isolation unit.
“Building upon our experience from Ebola, coupled with our institutionalized infection prevention and control measures, the nurse aides, nurses and doctors who cared for Sannie did not contract the virus. Truly, this is a testimony of skills with hope. She has since recovered and is back at work.”
As COVID-19 cases are diagnosed, patients are referred to county health-isolation centers. “Diversified support,” Allen said, “helps us to strengthen our infection prevention and control measures, positioning Ganta Hospital as a providential safety net.”
Kambaj is a health services administrator in Congo. She mediates between the South Congo Conference health facilities and the United Methodist Health Board. She records patient data, writes health-strengthening system reports, oversees project fund management and does market studies.
COVID-19 forced Kambaj to work from home. When she worked in an office, three staff members shared an internet connection. Now she has no internet access.
The biggest worry, she admitted, is contracting the virus. “We are unable to make site visits to facilities for follow-up as we did previously,” she said. “Ongoing and approved projects are on standby, due to limited financial resources.” As funding decreases, fear of unemployment grows.
Still, she said, “I impact my community in health and other social services.”
Kambaj earned a bachelor of health services management degree in 2015. Fluent in English, she gained international recognition in 2017 as a young African Leaders Initiative East Africa alumna and in 2019 as a qualified Mandela Washington Fellow.
She participated in a pandemic-prevention project, teaching people hygiene measures. “We distributed hand soap, face masks and sanitizers,” she explained. “I organized logistics for all sites. We even went to remote areas with no internet access.
“I am proud to have saved lives with my time and skills.”
Dunlap-Berg is a freelance writer and editor based in Carbondale, Illinois.