Health workers fill out documents before performing tests for Covid-19 at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg. Picture: AFP/MICHELE SPATARI
Health workers fill out documents before performing tests for Covid-19 at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg. Picture: AFP/MICHELE SPATARI

The critical role nurses play in protecting and caring for our communities cannot be overstated. They are in many ways the face of health care. 

They are generally the first point of contact for members of the public at clinics and hospitals. At the start of life, and often at its end, we depend on nurses for more than just their medical expertise.

Their skills extend beyond stitching up wounds, administering medication and checking vitals. In times of uncertainty and fear, nurses are also an important source of comfort and reassurance, providing a shoulder to cry on or a hand to hold.

International Nurses Day, May 12, is commemorated annually on the birthday of the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale. In SA and across the continent, we also remember Cecilia Makiwane on this day. On January 7 1908, Makiwane became the first black woman in Africa to be licensed as a nurse.

Born in Alice in the Eastern Cape, Makiwane lost her mother at an early age and was raised by her father. She studied first as a teacher before discovering her calling in nursing. An early activist for women’s rights and in the anti-pass movement, Makiwane is remembered for her indomitable spirit and her unwavering dedication and commitment to the craft.

Today, Makiwane’s memory reminds us of how far we have come over the course of the past 112 years, and of the strides that have been made in the nursing profession. It also reminds us to continue to strive for excellence in everything we do.

As a department, we recognise the need to prioritise the nursing profession along with the well-being of nurses. Strengthening nursing education, training and practice is thus one of our strategic objectives.

In line with this, in 2019 the National Health Council approved our national policy for nursing education and training, as well as the re-establishment of clinical training platforms in health establishments, to strengthen clinical training for nurses.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the daily sacrifices nurses make for our health and safety

A ministerial task team was also appointed to review and redevelop our nursing strategy, and three core nursing curriculums were finalised. In addition, public nursing colleges were re-organised to enable provinces to better respond to the demands placed on them, while improving local communities’ access to public nursing colleges.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the daily sacrifices nurses make for our health and safety. While most of us have been shuttered away in the safety of our homes, these unsung heroes have been deep in the trenches, putting their lives and those of their loved ones on the line to beat this virus.

Unfortunately, more than 500 healthcare workers, among them a number of nurses, have so far tested positive for Covid-19 in SA. Tragically, a nurse in the Western Cape has succumbed to the virus.

Many countries around the world have recently experienced shortages in masks, gloves, ventilators and other items that health workers need to be able to do their jobs effectively. This is the result of a global surge in demand for these products.

We have been working around the clock to avoid this situation in SA and have developed a centralised personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement strategy to serve both the public and private sectors, led by the department of health and the National Treasury, in partnership with Business for SA. This is allowing the country to scale orders, manage price escalations and alleviate internal pressures.

The role nurses and other healthcare workers have to play in securing our victory over this pandemic cannot be overstated. But they are not martyrs and their safety while at work is of paramount importance.

The provision of PPE is an important part of keeping nurses and other healthcare workers safe, but so too is staying home, regularly washing our hands, and adhering to social-distancing protocols.

If you have been exposed to the virus you must self-isolate at home for 14 days so as not to risk spreading the virus further. If this is not possible, you must submit to being placed under quarantine at a state facility. This is the only way to break the cycle of infection and is crucial to keeping all South Africans — including our nurses and healthcare workers — safe right now.

We are thus all called on to play our part in protecting our nurses and healthcare workers. And this International Nurses Day it is the best way we can thank them for all that they are giving up for us.

• Manzi is health minister Zweli Mkhize’s spokesperson.