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Frontline healthcare workers wearing a protective mask
Insights: South Africa

Creating a lifeline for the community of Khayelitsha during COVID-19

Thashlin Govender

COVID-19 has created an unpredictable medical emergency across the world. In South Africa, the number of available hospital beds is rapidly declining, while the need for medical and health professionals is growing every day. The Western Cape is the country’s COVID-19 epicentre, and in its midst lies Khayelitsha — a COVID-19 hotspot struggling to provide healthcare for its low-income community of almost 500,000 people.

The living environment in the Khayelitsha township has created the conditions for an inevitable spread of the virus, as many households consist of seven to 10 family members in informal housing, with limited to no water supply and sanitation. As the number of cases in the community has grown, the Khayelitsha District Hospital has rapidly become overburdened, putting frontline healthcare workers under tremendous pressure. Immediate access to additional healthcare capacity closer to home would ease the pressure on the district hospital and avoid travel to the city for care and treatment for patients as COVID-19 continues to spread. Khayelitsha needs a lifeline to fight COVID-19, and heroes to step in and support the community.

Doctors Without Borders: A life-saving partnership

That lifeline has come from Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, abbreviated as MSF) Southern Africa. MSF has been working in Khayelitsha for 20 years, first pioneering antiretroviral treatment for pregnant women, then developing integrated HIV and Tuberculosis (TB) care and patient support groups aimed at involving and empowering communities to ensure they both understand and receive needed treatment. The MSF team has strong relationships with local health authorities — as well as the University of Cape Town for medical operational research — and they are deeply familiar with the needs of the Khayelitsha community.

MSF recently deployed a team of medical professionals and support staff to bolster the Khayelitsha District Hospital by running a nearby field hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic. The team converted a sports hall into a fully-functional 60-bed field hospital — increasing total capacity at the Khayelitsha District Hospital to 360 beds. The field hospital meets the growing demand for in-patient care and treats moderate to severe COVID-19 patients with dedicated nursing care, essential medicines, and the provision of oxygen for patients struggling to breathe. In addition to the necessary frontline capacity, the partnership with MSF provides PPE and water, sanitation, and hygiene for the field hospital.

Recognizing the essential needs in Khayelitsha, the MSF team is also maintaining its services for people with HIV and TB. It is vital that patients remain on their treatment regimens, and MSF is helping by working with community networks to deliver medicines directly to patients’ homes, minimising the need to visit health facilities where COVID-19 could be transmitted.

We are grateful to have the opportunity to partner with MSF on such important work, and for the unwavering care and around the clock time the MSF team invested to support the Khayelitsha community as they fight this pandemic. While this effort is making a difference every day, MSF will need additional support to help communities like Khayelitsha treat and fight COVID-19 as the epidemic nears its peak phase. As the team continues this important work, we’re humbled to be able to participate, and encourage others to do the same through a contribution to its COVID-19 Crisis Fund.  Donations ensure the MSF team can rapidly support vulnerable communities and overwhelmed healthcare systems when the needs are great during emergencies.  

Watch this video to hear from MSF team members and Khayelitsha District Hospital staff on how the field hospital was built and learn how integral the additional frontline workers will be as they fight the virus alongside the people of Khayelitsha.


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