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Rural areas in Mpumalanga need all the help they can get during the COVID-19 outbreak

Now more than ever, the crucial and selfless work of healthcare professionals is needed — and this is especially true in rural, underserved areas that have experienced chronic shortages of healthcare workers.


In Bushbuckridge Local Municipality in Mpumalanga, the Tshemba Foundation operates a medical volunteer programme based in the province.

Established in 2014, the Tshemba Foundation’s volunteer healthcare worker project was created to connect medical professionals – with the requisite knowledge, skills, experience and a desire to give back – with the most vulnerable members on South Africa’s socio-economic spectrum through its partnership with the provincial health department and the local Tintswalo Hospital. The Tshemba Foundation’s model comprises the recruiting of local and international healthcare professionals to provide life-saving medical care, along with the aim of upskilling and training local healthcare staff, and putting systems and procedures in place that help hospitals such as Tintswalo provide quality healthcare for more patients.

The novel coronavirus has infected more than 4-million people and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives globally, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In South Africa, the number of confirmed cases and deaths is rising each day and will continue to do so as the virus spreads and trudges towards its peak. 

Tshemba Foundation volunteers are primarily placed at Tinstwalo Hospital — one of 33 hospitals in Mpumalanga. The hospital serves around 300 000 people in the Bushbuckridge Local Municipality (Tshemba Foundation)

This is why the Tshemba Foundation and its volunteers, in collaboration with Tintswalo Hospital, have begun preparing the Bushbuckridge area community – along with doctors and nurses – for a probable outbreak of the coronavirus. Despite there being no confirmed cases in the area as yet, all involved stakeholders are taking all the necessary precautions to curtail the possible spread of the virus. 

For one, Tshemba Foundation volunteers, along with the help of Tintswalo’s staff, are converting an abandoned house on the hospital premises into an isolation ward for patients who may show possible symptoms of the virus. This is to minimise contact with other patients before they are tested. Volunteers are also providing training to auxiliary Tintswalo Hospital personnel on how to protect themselves and others. Additionally, they are also assisting up to 40 other local clinics to prepare for a COVID-19 outbreak by training staff on how to screen patients for the virus and giving much-needed support to the local nurses on the ground.

A team of volunteer doctors are converting an abandoned building at Tintswalo Hospital into a special COVID-19 ward. (Tshemba Foundation)

Due to limited resources, some of the volunteers have created the Hlayelani Frontline Support Fund and made an open call for donations through a crowdfunding campaign to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) and all that is necessary to ensure the safety of frontline healthcare workers in the area.

In addition, each member of the Foundation’s COVID-19 Task Team calls in daily to the local radio station, RFM, to educate the community about the virus. During their calls, the doctors dispel myths, debunk fake news and inform listeners about the preventative measures they can take to help curb the spread of the virus and protect themselves.  Despite the efforts undertaken by frontline workers from the Tshemba Foundation, and staff at the often-beleaguered Tintswalo Hospital, there is still a need for more hands.

“Tintswalo’s young community service doctors and Tshemba volunteers have been co-ordinating the Tintswalo response and we are, so far, ahead of the curve. However, being ahead of the curve today is no cause for complacency and sadly when the surge comes we will be overwhelmed,” says Tshemba Foundation Chief Medical Officer, John Gear.

With the advent of the coronavirus in South Africa and subsequent lockdown regulations, the intake of international volunteer doctors has been paused indefinitely, while the recruitment of local doctors has to be strictly monitored to ensure compliance and best practice. However, the ongoing shortage of doctors in the public health sector has made this increasingly difficult.

As such, the Tshemba Foundation is calling on South African doctors with the capacity to help, to volunteer for as long as they can. Doctors from low-risk areas (Mpumalanga, Northern Cape, North West, Limpopo and Free State) are welcome to sign up as soon as possible. Doctors in high-risk areas (Gauteng, Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal) who would like to volunteer when it is safe to do so, are also encouraged to get in touch. 

For more information, visit Tshemba Foundation’s website.

Hlabangani Mtshali is a writer and creative who has done journalistic work for Pretoria News and The Citizen and currently works in advertising.