A health worker receives her COVID-19 vaccination.

Hero Nurses Risk Their Lives to Save COVID-19 Patients in South Africa

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On March 5, 2020, South Africa confirmed its first COVID-19 case. Since then, the country has reported the highest number of confirmed cases on the continent— 1,578,450 as of April 28, with 54,285 deaths. At Livingstone Hospital in Eastern Cape, Zanele Julia Mqhele and Mxolisi Mphokeli are among the brave frontline health workers who tested positive. Below, they share their stories: 


Fighting for breath, a trauma nurse refused to give up


Twenty years ago, Mqhele (below) began training to become a trauma nurse, and she has never looked back.  "For me, this is the best profession ever," she says. "I can never want to be anything else."


As the pandemic took hold, more and more patients and hospital staff tested positive. One day, Mqhele found herself gasping for breath. "I was unfortunate to be one of those that had severe symptoms," she says. "I thought to myself, Is this my turn to die? No, I cannot die. Not now." 


Zanele Julia Mqhele's story:

Even before the pandemic hit, there was a staff shortage at Liviingstone and nurses were overworked, says Mphokeli (below), who began his nursing career 12 years ago. As more and more patients arrived, suffering from COVID-19, the hospital made the quick decision to transform a basement parking level into a fully equipped COVID ward, with Mphokeli in charge.


As sick patients flowed in, a hospital's basement parking area became a COVID-19 ward


"It was kind of chaotic at first, you understand? Because really, we couldn't understand how we were going to tackle this," he says. "I'm happy because I was leading that ward, because there were lots of patients that came out alive, out of that establishment."


On July 2, 2020, Mphokeli himself was sent home to quarantine after testing positive. "At first I thought, This is not going to hit me. I never thought that I had COVID-19 at the time." His youngest child "was crying, thinking that I'm going to die, but I was lucky that within my immediate family up until now, at least no one [died] because of COVID-19."  


Mxolisi Mphokeli's story: 


On February 17, 2021, South Africa started rolling out COVID-19 vaccines. Mphokeli was one of the first people in his city to be vaccinated. To protect families and communities and stop the spread of COVID-19, UNICEF is leading on delivery of vaccines through the COVAX Facility — 2 billion doses to 190 countries by the end of 2021, including the equitable distribution of 1.2 billion doses to low- and middle-income countries


In the race to end the pandemic, the equitable distribution of vaccines is crucial


"In the race to defeat this virus, equity is not a 'nice to have' — it's a necessity," says UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. "Each time the virus is transmitted somewhere in the world, it can evolve and new variants could emerge. This threatens recovery everywhere." 


Your generous contribution can help UNICEF support hero health workers and distribute COVID-19 vaccine doses worldwide through COVAX. Please donate. 


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Top photo: A health worker receives her COVID-19 vaccination. © UNICEF/UN0436317/Cho Mayak. Videos: Tong Su

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