Staff Stories of Hope and Courage

07/08/2020

The Coronavirus pandemic has touched lives across the globe. Here at home, in South Africa, case numbers are rising and have reached Nelson Mandela University.

With nearly two dozen staff testing positive, Occupational Health Centre, Social Work Intern, Inga Gule asked them to tell their stories, offering encouragement and strength to those who may find themselves, or a loved one infected and affected by COVID-19.


The psychological impact of COVID-19 is as important to understand as the virus itself.

A manifestation of fear, which leads to inconsistent psychological behaviour among people during infectious disease outbreaks, is a common phenomenon, with any gender or socio-demographic status at risk.

The University has reported 21 positive cases among staff members. According to a study conducted by Cyrus (2020), 53.8% of COVID-19 patients in the study, rated the psychological impact of the outbreak as moderate to severe.

How has being infected by this virus impacted our staff? How have they coped and what can we learn from their experiences?

I was spending time with my kids when I got the call from my doctor after testing for Coronavirus. The doctor told me that I was positive and I was shocked. My kids could see that I was not okay. I went outside; I couldn’t even tell where I was going. I came back to my senses in the middle of the street. I decided to call my friend, who encouraged me to go back to my kids.

My interviews revealed that respondents experienced a profound and broad spectrum of psychological feelings following their virus diagnosis.

They reported fear and anxiety, heightened concern about falling sick or dying, helplessness, projecting blame onto others who were ill – all reactions potentially triggering a mental breakdown.

Other respondents reported feelings of shock and more severe psychiatric morbidities, varying from depression and anxiety to panic attacks and psychosis.

After I was discharged from my isolation place, I went to the tuckshop to buy airtime. People who were around started walking away (from me) and I could hear that they were talking about me.

Isolation is one of the main preventative measures for curbing the spread of COVID-19.

While this is a logical and safe medical guideline, its impact on those who are isolated must be acknowledged. Respondents described the isolation process as difficult and stressful.

Most respondents are parents, so their children immediately became a primarily concern.

During isolation, staff members recounted that they had also experienced shame, guilt or stigmatisation – further traumas over and above the shock of a positive diagnosis.

Studies report a high prevalence of psychological distress with a longer duration of isolation or quarantine, and an increased prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms that correlate with depressive symptoms.

This was evident when staff members told me that they were not fit to return to work, as they had been very distressed by the circumstances surrounding their COVID-19 diagnoses and isolation.

They also reported deprived sleep and disorientated sleeping patterns.

In order for me to beat this virus, I had to change my mindset first. So, it was either me or COVID-19. I chose me and came out victorious.

What these respondents wanted their colleagues, friends and family to know, however, is that the Coronavirus is not the end of the world.

Fighting and winning was their only option.

A changed mindset was only the beginning of their journey – there was much to be done.

As one respondent wisely said: “You have to be well-informed about (the virus). Know what to take to treat the symptoms; educate yourself about what you should and should not do and, lastly – listen and adhere to your doctor’s or health care provider’s instructions.”

A strong and reliable support team was highlighted as a vital cog in the virus-fighting machine, playing a pivotal role in the recovery process.

Staff members drew invaluable support from family members, friends, Wellness@Work and the Occupational Health Centre.

“It was my family that kept me going,especially my kids; I had to beat this virus for them. They called me almost every day. I can`t thank the sisters at the Occupational Health Centre enough; every morning they called to check up on me. They provided me with the necessary information and counselling through telephone calls”.

Routine emerged as another important step during isolation – it helped staff members to adjust to their ‘new normal’ life.

What appears to have assisted people overall were the following factors:

  • A positive mindset
  • Having necessary information about COVID-19
  • Practising and adhering to measures for treating symptoms
  • Having a strong and reliable support system in place.

The Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the fragility of mental resilience and the need for provision of psychological intervention for both infected and affected staff.

Helping them to get back on their feet must be a team effort.