Act against Aids

Annual Report: “At some point this storm too will be over”

The year of 2020 was dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, with work at Newlands Clinic shaped by lockdowns, precautionary measures, and growing poverty. In this interview, our clinic manager, Marion Mukasa-Batende, describes how the team is pulling together to provide the best possible care to patients.

Clinic Manager, HIV treatment, Meeting, Ruedi Luethy Foundation, Act against Aids, annual report 2020

The coronavirus has turned the world upside-down. In mid-March 2020, life in Switzerland suddenly came to a standstill. How was it in Zimbabwe?
Things really heated up at the end of March when the government declared a lockdown. We immediately contacted the entire team via WhatsApp. Over the weekend we had to ask as many patients as possible to come to the clinic so we could supply them with HIV drugs. At that point, it wasn’t clear at all whether they’d be able to even come to the clinic after that.

Where did it go from there?
The clinic remained functional with two teams alternating on a weekly basis. Some activities, like dental health or group therapies were put on hold. We however provided counselling and followed up patients through phone calls and the use of social media platforms such as WhatsApp. Patients requiring medicines or food and those with acute problems came to the clinic. We resorted to using one entrance where Covid-19 screening was done, temperature was taken, and hands were sanitized for everyone entering the clinic. Anyone with suspected Covid-19 symptoms was seen by a doctor and referred for testing and further management to the responsible public health institutions.

Has the coronavirus pandemic affected Newlands Clinic badly?
As the number of cases of local transmission increased, so did the anxiety amongst staff. We were constantly reminding each other to observe the Covid-19 restrictions and encouraging patients to also protect themselves at home. Among the Newlands Clinic staff, ten individuals were diagnosed, two had moderate symptoms. All the infections were acquired outside of the workplace, and everyone is back at work and healthy. Social distancing, mask wearing and hand sanitisation were adhered to by all the staff.

How has the situation affected treatment?
Some patients did have difficulties accessing the clinic and we sent photos of their appointment slips to them and they utilised their national OI/ART cards to pass through the roadblocks. The Women’s Health Centre was closed in April 2020, and for a time we had to discontinue home visits. We call patients who miss their appointments to find out the reason for missing and to check whether they’re getting enough to eat and have the drugs they need. If a member of the team lives close to one of the patients facing challenges to come to the clinic, the staff assists by dropping off items. Even without the coronavirus pandemic, there’s great poverty in Zimbabwe.

How are people coping?
The economic situation is very tough. People find ways and means to fend for their families even in the lockdown. Staying at home and not having a meal on the table for the children is very difficult. Patients seen at the clinic are fortunate that they can get nutritional support. Someone said to me: “If I get Covid-19 I could die. But if I stay at home I’ll die of starvation.” That’s a fairly accurate description of many people’s situation.

To what extent can projects like the vocational skills training programme and group therapy still be held?
It’s been difficult. Unfortunately, we had to stop the group therapy sessions for people such as young mothers and young people and adherence groups. To make up for this we offered as much support as we could per phone. To some extent, we’ve also had to put the vocational skills training programme on hold. But despite everything, last year we were able to launch our Women’s Economic Empowerment Project to help female patients build a livelihood.

How is the team doing?
The pandemic affects us all. But we’re relatively privileged: we’re able to go to work and support each other, and we get wages, masks, protective clothing and are enabled to live our daily lives. I can simply say we should pass on some positivity to our patients. We want to give them as much security and stability as possible.

Ruedi Lüthy hasn’t been able to come to the clinic for over a year. How’s that affecting people?
We miss him very much. We’ve learned so much from Prof, as we call him. We see how passionate Prof is, about what he does, and we have caught on to that and now we share this with other people. He shows the importance and true meaning of compassion. Through Prof’s humbleness, we have learnt that everyone is important.

Please read more in our Annual Report 2020.