On International Women’s Day in 2021, SECTION27 salutes women on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been a year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and life has changed irrevocably for everyone across the world. Women are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic and women have also borne a disproportionate burden of the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic. It is for this reason that, on this International Women’s Day, SECTION27 recognises the women who have been at the forefront and who inspire us all to continue our fight for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and other health technologies.

We salute Dr Lydia Cairncross for her commitment to health activism and bridging the disparities between public and private healthcare in South Africa.

Dr Lydia Cairncross is a surgeon at Groote Schuur Hospital, professor at the University of Cape Town, a health activist with the People’s Health Movement (PHM), and a mother of two.

Despite the mammoth challenges faced by Groote Schuur and the healthcare sector during COVID-19, Dr Cairncross believes that the health worker community “managed to pull together very well”. When the first peak of COVID-19 hit Groote Schuur, half of Dr Cairncross’ department went into COVID service. “It was a major realignment and we all did it – all levels of staff, from Heads of Department down, we did that work willingly,” she reflects.

It wasn’t easy sailing. Dr Cairncross and her husband are both doctors, and they were at first worried they would have to stay away from their two young children to keep them safe. After the early shortages of personal-protective equipment were resolved, Dr Cairncross and her husband developed systems to keep their loved ones safe while they were doing shifts in COVID-19 wards.

By November of 2020, Dr Cairncross – like many other healthcare workers – was exhausted. “We had worked so hard and we could see the second wave coming and South Africans sacrificed so much – and yet we had such a big pandemic and so many people died,” she reflects, adding: “I don’t think we even fully understand the full extent of devastation, not just the medical devastation and the deaths, but everything else.”

About treating COVID-19 patients, she said “When I could actually just be a doctor in the ward and look after patients and speak to their families… I felt like I was doing something meaningful. One of the really rewarding things during this time was to be able to face this thing, and help people through.”

Dr Cairncross was vaccinated against COVID-19 on 17 February 2021, and her husband was also vaccinated a week later. Dr Cairncross looks forward to further rollout of the vaccine so that everyone can hug their loved ones again.

“I’m a little bit hopeful, there are successful vaccines that are effective – so there is a chance of getting out of this cycle. But vaccines are just one component, we have to have systems change as well.

Leratong is a cardiovascular physiologist working as a researcher at Baragwanath Hospital. She is passionate about clinical research and science.

Like many of us, Leratong also felt afraid at the onset of the pandemic. “The fear was a direct result of the novelty of the virus. Having a health science background, I at least understood viruses, but because this particular virus was so new, there was so much that I was uncertain of.  In the initial stages, realising how little we knew about the virus – that really was scary.”

As a researcher, Leratong is used to finding the answers to complex questions.  But in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, this wasn’t always possible.  “Most of the time, I was reading as the research was being conducted, and it was constantly changing. There was no easy way to prepare. We were all learning as we were going,” she explains.

“I had to adjust through this all, but there were also a lot of factors that I couldn’t control. The strangeness of having to wear masks and sanitise continually is something I had to become very mindful of.”

“The most fulfilling part of my work has been the ability to still do research. I am also grateful that I still have a job because so many people lost out on their work.” Throughout the pandemic, Leratong’s work as a researcher has informed clinical studies, contributing to how we better navigate this pandemic.

Sister G has two children. Her eldest child has recently completed matric, and her youngest child started grade one this year.

While the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to feelings of fear amongst many people, Sister G served bravely on the frontline. She said that she wasn’t scared of getting sick herself. “We were well prepared for the pandemic. At the hospital, all the equipment we needed was made available quickly. Now I believe we are winning the fight against the virus – we see fewer cases at the hospital.”

“The only thing I did fear was that my family would get sick. I didn’t want them the get infected, so I decided that I would not visit my relatives. It’s only now that I feel comfortable going to see my family.”

“I feel proud of my work as a nurse. While many people sadly did not survivor the virus, I am glad that we were able to treat most patients, and so many people have survived.”

We salute activist, Nobuhle Ajiti for her selfless work on campaigning for an end to gender based violence and the protection of survivors.

Thirty-five-year-old Nobuhle is a GBV survivor. She was gang raped, stabbed and thrown from a moving vehicle. She lived through this horrific experience and is determined that womxn should never have to go through what she has. As a member of the Call-to-Action coalition, she campaigns to bring an end to GBV, but as a survivor she spends a significant amount of time helping survivors out of dangerous situations and working to find them safe accommodation.

“Throughout lockdown, shelters were overcrowded and so I often had survivors staying at my place when I couldn’t find a safe place for them to go,” says Nobuhle. “Some survivors were forced to return to their perpetrators because there were no places of safety available.”

Some shelters made it clear that they would not be taking in migrant womxn or LGBTI survivors. For this reason, Nobuhle, a Zimbabwean citizen, opened her home to those womxn who could find no safe haven.  Nobuhle says what keeps her going is that she understands what survivors go through.

“What happened to me should not be in vain,” she says. “I want what I went through to mean something.”

“I live in Alexandra close to my mother and five children. My youngest and I stay together whilst my older three children live with their granny.”

Busisiwe, affectionately known as Sis Busi, is an Office Assistant at SECTION27. She speaks fondly of her working environment stating, “Working here feels like being part of a family. I have learnt so much during my time here both from the people I work with and the clients who come in. When I first started, I did not know how to use a computer but now I do. I am really glad to be here helping to make a difference.”

The COVID-19 Pandemic forced many into a ‘new normal’ whilst bringing about numerous fears and challenges. “Travelling to work has become difficult. I try to constantly sanitise and wear a mask, however, the taxis do not enforce the law. There is no social distancing, many do not wear masks or sanitise and that worries me because I have to go home to my elderly mother. Schools are not strict about wearing masks, which is why I am worried when I send my smallest child to school. I am afraid when I take my mum to the hospital because she is old and I don’t want her to pick up something when she is only fetching her medicine.” Sis Busi explains how she had to acclimatise to the new normal, from not being able to use a computer to now ordering groceries online, “I have to order certain items online because the queues are too long, and it is not safe going to shops during month end with the huge crowds.”

Sis Busi says that despite all the challenges, she feels a lot safer coming into work knowing that there are strict regulations in place, with a monitored number of individuals allowed at work.

Kauthaar’s community is plagued with poverty and the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation. The students at her school had no access to internet, making online education impossible.

“When schools finally opened it was an emotional rollercoaster, we tried our best to ensure learners had access to sanitisers and masks but coming from a community that lacked resources, we had to rely on government provisions and had to ration the little we received.”

Kauthaar explains that as a result of the prolonged absence from school during the lockdown period, literacy rates had drastically declined. “Learners returned to school with a mental block,” she said. “We had to go the extra mile to catch-up with the syllabus.”

While her main focus was the learners’ academic performance, their psychological well-being was equally important, says Kauthaar. “Students would come to school feeling helpless as they would internalise the issues faced by their parents. Many do not receive any assistance at home and therefore we had to try to give them as much time during school hours.

“We were expected to be teachers, doctors, police officers and psychologists. Having extra help would have eased the load for many educators. It would have been useful having teaching assistants,” says Kauthaar.

Navigating the new normal meant that Kauthaar and fellow educators had to work with students to teach new ways of showing love, kindness and affection to each other.

“It was tough remaining positive and hopeful for the kids,” she says. “No matter what challenges you faced personally, it was important to walk through the classroom with a smile as the students already had too much on their plate. “I always try to put a smile on my face and hope for the best each day.”

Community healthcare worker and TB activist Moifo Portia Muedi is determined to “eliminate” TB not only in her community of Mamelodi, but across South Africa too.

Muedi has worked as a community healthcare worker (CHW) for over 12 years and believes that “more household visits are still very important” to combat TB, HIV, malnutrition, chronic illnesses and now COVID-19. “Education is key,” Muedi says. “The better people know the symptoms of a disease, the better. You can seek medical care early, and you can be cured – unlike if you wait until you have complications… I think education is still very important.”

Muedi, a single mother of three, works for TB Proof, a non-governmental organisation that aims to end TB. Muedi says that she was “fortunate” that she worked for TB Proof during COVID-19, because they supplied her with personal-protective equipment , data and airtime, sanitisers and allowed her to work remotely during lockdown. Other CHWs were not as lucky, and Muedi is concerned about her colleagues’ working conditions: “CHWs who were going door to door had many challenges. They were periods where CHWs didn’t have PPE at all.”

Muedi is worried that TB has been forced to take a backseat in the time of COVID-19. Because not enough CHWs are employed, Muedi reports, CHWs previously doing TB screening in communities had to stop doing TB health interventions and focus on COVID-19. “COVID-19 and TB are both respiratory diseases. But TB is still a major cause of death. COVID-19 shouldn’t be prioritised over TB. Coughs should both be screened for COVID-19 and TB and not only COVID.”

SECTION27 salutes all the health frontline workers and activists who despite all sorts of obstacles, have shown immense leadership in changing people’s lives for the better.