A day in the life of a Health Minister, in a time of pandemic

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South Africa‘s Dr Zweli Mkhize diarises a typical day in the life of a Health Minister, in the days of pandemic, writing in The Times.

 

Dr Zweli Mkhize writes of his experience working with COVID-19:

Twice a week, I trolley home a foothill of folders stamped with the national department of health logo and containing policy submissions, reports from various divisions in the department, notes from committees that require my advice, outstanding authorisations, and minutes from the meetings of multilateral forums.

Tucked underneath are troves of lists from medicine pricing committees; reports outlining issues faced by medical councils; submissions by ministerial advisory committees (MACs) focused on maternal and child health, microbicide resistance, cancer treatment and mental health; and documents outlining statutory issues.

Last night was one such night: the first document was opened at 9pm; the last was closed at ten minutes to three. That was two-and-a-half hours ago.

Did I single out priority issues? Have all my concerns and recommendations been forwarded to the relevant people? Perhaps I missed something?

Covid-19 has been a herald of change, influencing the way we act socially as human beings, how we conduct our work, earn our livelihoods and acquire knowledge. The virus has ripped through the old normal and forced its way into the lives of citizens across the globe.

It’s 7am and the first media house calls in. A quick stretch and it’s time for the second. Then the third and the fourth, with enough time between the two for a hurried breakfast plate of boiled eggs and seeded bread accompanied by a cup of rooibos tea.

The focus of the media is ever-fluctuating — and necessarily so. When our first case of Covid-19 emerged, we were flooded with questions about the nature of the virus, its anticipated epidemiological trajectory, and our preventative plan. Now, we are in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak and the debate is robust.

Time for a bit of necessary multi-tasking. With one hand tapping vigorously on my phone screen, replying to questions by comrades in cabinet, the other is sifting through multiple tabs on my computer’s browser in an attempt to catch up on the news of the day while waiting for a scheduled Zoom meeting with Western Cape health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo and her team.

I receive three reports from the Western Cape government daily: a status report, a record of deaths, and another answering any queries I forwarded earlier.

The phenomenon in the Western Cape is not uncommon in societies around the world, but it is something I worry about most.

Every day, I come across people who know of others who have contracted Covid-19 and are either asymptomatic or have mild illnesses. This has created a perception that the disease is innocuous, and therefore there are some who adopt a laid-back approach towards it.

Dozens are dying daily and others savour each breath on a ventilator — and yet this is not evidence enough to make people wary of Covid-19. I wonder, then, how we get South Africans to comprehend the difficulty of the situation, the extent to which the infection can cause severe illness or death, and the behavioural changes needed to resume economic activity without worsening the spread of the virus?

I turn away from my desk as the meeting ends — there is a lump in my throat as I think about this further.

My fear is that by the time these pockets of society come to realise the severity of the virus, it will be far too late. Neglecting the warnings undermines all our efforts to contain the spread and prevent our health-care facilities from becoming overwhelmed.

I fear then for our health-care workers on the frontline who have valiantly put the lives of others before their own — what is to become of them should our infrastructure become overburdened?

Alas, as Florence Nightingale once said, “very little can be done under the spirit of fear”. We have done, and are doing, everything in our power to prevent such an outcome, I reassure myself.

Read Dr Mkhize’s full day in The Times

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