Doctors Without Borders, or MSF (the acronym for Médecins Sans Frontières), working in South Africa for 20 years now, is committed to making a difference where it matters most. For the last few years, they continue to play a huge role in developing strategies to treat HIV and tuberculosis in communities, and provide care for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence as well as ensuring access to healthcare for refugees and migrants.
When Covid-19 hit our shores in March 2020, like the rest of the world’s medical communities, MSF had to focus on maintaining existing operations within the Southern Africa Region, while also setting up direct response efforts to COVID-19 and fundraising for these.
“MSF specialises in dealing with medical emergency situations,” explains Samantha Ngcolomba, Head of Philanthropy and Partnerships at MSF Southern. “When Covid-19 hit us, we were ready to join forces with the Department of Health, who officially accepted us as a partner working in different communities around the country.”
MSF developed different Covid-19 responses in KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Gauteng, depending on specific needs and gaps in the overall response. Their staff assisted with physical and telephonic contact tracing, the development and dissemination of health promotion materials, decongesting healthcare facilities and providing direct clinical care.
Some of the steps they took to support the Department of Health included:
- Screening for Covid-19 cases in four homeless shelters in Johannesburg;
- Establishing a patient flow system to screen and test for Covid-19 at Mbongolwane District Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal;
- In nearby Eshowe, they enabled 1,500 asymptomatic patients with chronic conditions to collect their medication from pick-up points in communities, saving patients time and money by avoiding trips to the clinic during the Covid-19 pandemic which could put them at risk;
- In Khayelitsha, neighbourhood groups received basic training and information about Covid-19 empowering them with knowledge, and to date over 170 groups were trained;
- In Eshowe and in Rustenburg, MSF installed triage tents and handwashing points at several hospitals and community health centres to support infection control at these facilities;
- In Khayelitsha, MSF teams set up a 60-bed field hospital, where teams provided treatment and care to approximately 241 patients from June till August;
- In Port Elizabeth, MSF dispatched a team of medical staff to support two understaffed hospitals that were struggling to cope with a surge on Covid-19 patients in November and December,
- In early 2021, the MSF teams shifted focus to the Western Cape and Kwazulu-Natal, where they supported increased case management and conducted mentorship and training for healthcare staff as a new wave of Covid-19 infections happened.
“Although these steps were essential, and a combined effort with the various role players was warranted to fight this novel disease, one thing soon became clear: Worldwide, Covid-19 has taken centre stage, while other deadly disease and other health issues have become a secondary priority and at times neglected entirely,” Ngcolomba says.
During the last twelve months, for example, children in many countries around world have not been receiving their routine vaccinations, outbreaks of malaria and measles in African countries have been mostly ignored, and many patients with serious illnesses have avoided or delayed seeking medical care for fear of Covid-19 infection, thus damaging their health and sometimes hastening death.
As the world’s focus shifted more and more to Covid-19, MSF took steps to ensure that their current projects would not take a back seat. Currently, MSF in Southern Africa provides care through existing projects in Khayelitsha (Western Cape) and Eshowe (KZN). Regionally, MSF teams are also working in Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, predominantly focusing on HIV and TB care, while maintaining rapid response capacity on water and sanitation.
To ensure the continuity of these projects, stable fundraising income is essential. “As many donors are now focusing on Covid-19 relief efforts, we run the risk of running out of funds for other important health issues.
“Our fundraising aims are to secure more un-earmarked funds that are not attached to specific relief efforts. By doing so, we can respond quickly and more effectively to medical emergencies when they occur. We also need funds to maintain operations in our existing projects, and for healthcare and medical needs that now lack resources due to the focus on Covid-19. Some needs are pressing, such as malaria, child vaccinations and enduring the continuity of care for HIV or TB patients.
“It is important that medical communities, government bodies and companies realise that although Covid-19 has taken the focus off of other deadly diseases or social issues, these problems have not disappeared! In fact, in many cases, these issues have become worse due to Covid-19, its knock-on effects and restrictions.
“Yes, Covid-19 is huge and a serious challenge, but funnelling funding exclusively to Covid-19-related issues misses the big picture of healthcare needs in these tough times. We need to keep our focus.”