Covid-19: Don’t put other people’s lives at risk, urges hospital cleaner

Thembelani Zake has had the disease and sees its effects daily in his work

By Tariro Washinyira

23 February 2021

Hospital cleaner Thembelani Zake sees the impact of Covid-19 daily in his work. Photo supplied

Thembelani Zake, 29, is a cleaner at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town. He had Covid-19 last year and sees the impact of the disease daily in his work.

Zake has been working in the cleansing department for a year. His work involves handing out food trays to patients, and cleaning and sluicing wards, isolation rooms and offices. He hasn’t been vaccinated yet and doesn’t know when his turn will come. But, like several of his colleagues, he has already contracted Covid-19.

“I was at home for seven days. I suffered from diarrhoea, loss of smell and taste and I was very tired. I only wanted to sleep. I did not have an appetite.” He says he isolated for seven days, alone at home. He had already sent his small children to live with his mother, and his girlfriend was away on leave.

He drank lots of hot coffee and soup, he says, and put the heater on to deal with the chills.

“When I came back to work, I was still weak and was advised to just carry on as my body will get back to normal again. I was a bit scared to enter the work environment, but it didn’t take long for me to settle in again. At this moment I am doing very well and feel like my old self again.”

But the work, he says, is very hard. Previously the cleaners did not wear masks but now they must wear a mask, as well as an apron and gloves. And the cleaning team is under increased pressure, with the need to thoroughly clean more frequently than before and the increased number of patients.

“I start work at 7am. Before Covid-19 I used to take a tea break but I don’t take tea breaks any more. I take my tea and lunch break together at 1pm because we are very busy in the morning. I bring extra clothes to work in and then take off my work clothes and put them in a bag before I go home. I finish work at 7pm and I get home at 8pm. I work shifts. Two shifts on, two shifts off; one weekend on and then one off.”

“At first I felt as if I cannot breathe because of wearing the mask all the time but I am getting used to it. “

As someone who witnesses the impact of Covid-19, Zake said his message to fellow South Africans is: Where possible, stay at home. “Don’t put other people’s lives at risk. If you go to malls, make sure to wear a mask. Observe social distancing. Wash your hands and sanitise regularly.”

Jolene Veldman, 45, is a housekeeping supervisor for the Trauma Emergency Ward at Tygerberg Hospital. She allocates duties to the cleaners and ensures that duties are done. Since the suspension of visits she hands over messages or parcels to patients when the nursing staff are too busy.

Veldman who lives with her eight-year-old daughter and three sons, has been working at Tygerberg Hospital for ten years, including three years as a cleaner. She is constantly worried that her family may get infected because of the work she does.

“When on duty I wear a mask. We are in an area that is really busy. We are up and down the entire day disinfecting surfaces all the time. It is scary to see many people losing their lives. The whole day you’re thinking about the fact that you never know who is positive or not.”

“We were used to the deaths in the Trauma Unit. It happens on a daily basis. But the pandemic aroused new fears and a lot of people around us died.”