/ 2 April 2020

Who takes care of essential workers?

Community health worker
First responders: Community health workers like Sisanda Kulima started organising themselves weeks ago to prepare for their efforts to fight the spread of the coronavirus in townships. (Paul Botes)

Recently conversations between daughter and father have been reduced to one liners. It is an anomaly because dad is usually very chatty. But no one has been bold enough to break the tension.

“I sense that he does not want to say if he is frustrated or if he is scared, or if he is anxious, or if he does not know where his headspace is at. I saw him before the lockdown and he looked very drained and withdrawn for someone who is talkative,” Andiswa Jikijela told the Mail & Guardian this week.

Not everyone is on lockdown. President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that people classified as essential services workers would be expected to work during the 21-day lockdown being used as a measure to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Jikijela’s father, who works as a general manager at a prison hospital in the Eastern Cape, falls into the essential category –the health sector –and is therefore working during this period.

Jikijela says she is worried about him.

“During this time one wants their family and loved ones around, but at this point it is difficult, because being an essential worker means you take care of everyone else but yourself and your family.”

Her biggest worry, understandably, has been about whether her father has come into contact with somebody who has the coronavirus during his line of duty.

“He is meant to take care of everyone around him, colleagues and so on but who is taking care of him?

“If he gets this thing he cannot have us there because there is social distancing and if a person contracts the virus they must self-isolate. So, who is going to take care of him? And my dad is not young anymore.” The tone in her voice betrays her fear.

She tells M&G that she has been trying to keep in regular contact with her father since they cannot see each other in person.

“When I ask him how he is, all he says is ‘I am fine’. And I know that is not him. My dad talks; he is very expressive but lately our conversations have been reduced to ‘I am fine’. So I am not sure whether he is saying he is fine because he does not want to worry us or he is really fine.”

She shudders to think what inmates will do if they get frustrated by the limitations that have been brought about by the severe restrictions. She recalls when, because inmates were frustrated by one thing or the other, violence erupted and her father’s colleagues had been stabbed.

Her biggest discomfort is that their conversations have since become brief.

“I do not know what to say to him to make him feel better. And it is also not like I can go see him. I am hopeless at this moment.”

Jikijela says she cannot bring herself to think about the worst that could happen to her father. She tries to block the thought and to also not think about the severity of this moment.

She watches movies, plays with the children and does yoga with her daughter to distract herself because she says if she were to allow herself to think deeply about the situation she would probably lose her mind.

“My prayer is that God keeps him safe through everything. I cannot bring myself to pray for more except to say that,”  she says.

The government’s response to Covid-19 has focused on saving lives and securing the economy, with little attention given to mental health. The M&G will continue to examine how people are coping and give ideas of what people are doing to help themselves and each other.