EXCLUSIVE: ‘It’s like a purge, not a surge’ – Health workers on COVID 2nd wave


Doctors and nurses are not coping emotionally and physically with the second wave of COVID-19. And there’s little respite in sight until the vaccine comes.

Professional healthcare workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) attend to a patient inside the temporary ward dedicated to the treatment of possible COVID-19 coronavirus patients at Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria on 11 January 2021. Picture: Phill Magakoe/AFP

JOHANNESBURG – COVID-19 has taken its toll on everyone but for the healthcare frontline workers who have had to resuscitate their own colleagues who contracted the virus, the pain and trauma cuts deep, with no end to the nightmare in sight.

Traumatised and exhausted doctors and nurses are burnt out, anxious and demoralised, standing by helplessly and watching as their frightened patients and colleagues die. Many frontline workers tell the same story – they simply don’t have the time to receive proper counselling.

Some of these workers are pulling 36-hour shifts without any break due to the increasing demand for help in intensive care units (ICU), which have been inundated with critically ill COVID-19 patients.

The pandemic is taking its toll on frontline workers both physically and mentally. Many acknowledge they are depressed, burned out and feel helpless.

Doctor Caroline Lee is an anesthetist at a private hospital in Johannesburg, working in ICU with critically ill COVID-19 patients.

She is often the last person her patients speak to before they pass away in theater. Still covered in layers of personal protective equipment, she spared a few minutes to speak to Eyewitness News.

Because of severe constraints with resources such as oxygen and hospital beds, Lee said the decisions healthcare workers had to make in a split second were scary.

Lee said that in recent weeks, the requests for ICU beds have been endless and it’s a constant, stressful juggle to decide which patient needs intensive care the most.

“Watching your patients suffer in hospital, can’t breathe, it’s a traumatic thing to watch when a patient comes in… Because you want to breathe for them, but you can’t.”

At the time of speaking to us, Lee was working 14 days in a row, and once again on overtime. And there are many others who share similar experiences.


Doctor Tshepile Tlali worked in a COVID-19 hospital in the Eastern Cape until last month – when he moved to Gauteng.

“You often have to make big decisions in terms of who gets an oxygen mask and who doesn’t. What is quite common in the peaks of the waves that we’ve had is the kind of [issues] not having enough oxygen points. And you know, having to lose patients in chairs or in a bed because there is not enough oxygen points, that breaks you.”

Tlali suffered from burn out too. But what made him even more anxious was knowing he couldn’t take a few days off for himself because his colleagues and patients desperately needed him, to the point that he felt grateful he became ill.

“I was going down a dark path, I thought that I couldn’t take a break because everyone else suffers – patients, staff, my colleagues where I was working in the Eastern Cape – we were already working on half of the staff compliment due to people being in self-isolation or quarantine. You feel like you are letting people down, especially when everyone is pulling their weight. But I often say that me getting infected in July was a blessing in disguise because I got to spend two weeks at home. I don’t know what would have happened. I would have crashed.”

He said the helplessness of the situation was unending.

“The amount of sick and dying patients that you have, and ultimately you feel helpless in saving them.”


Watching patients die is almost becoming the norm for many of these frontline workers. A support group has been set up for frontline workers called the Healthcare Workers Care Unit, which offers free support and counselling for staff.

Eyewitness News spoke to three nurses from different provinces – all on condition of anonymity – who shared stories of how coronavirus patients died in front of them and how they watched helplessly as colleagues succumbed to the virus too.

A Western Cape nurse recalled watching many patients leave behind families, including a 28-year-old COVID-19 patient. who died in front of her, leaving behind her five-day-old baby girl. She compared her work at a hospital to that of a morgue.

“Things are so, so rough, it’s tough. I don’t even think we would ever recover from this as healthcare professionals. It’s terrible. You see patients in critical conditions, severely critical conditions, and there’s nothing else that can be done for them … Initially it was adults, more grown-up people that are going through this. But this second wave …. just came for youngsters as well. I remembered I had a 32-year-old patient that had a two-year-old daughter, she was fighting for her life.”

Her voice was low and quivered as she explained the heartbreak she experienced with her patients, seeing anxiety and fear in the eyes of critical patients as they watch others leaving the wards in body bags.

“The patients’ conditions are changing. They are becoming anxious. All the other patients that they had been sharing a cubicle with are no more. They’ve been collected by the undertakers, going to funeral parlors on that trolley, and they’re sitting there on those machines wondering ‘am I next?’.”

“You are wrapping body after body after body on your 12-hour shift. It’s draining. I find myself questioning my passion as well,” she added.

The nurse explained that during the first wave of the pandemic, she watched her patients make full recoveries – they went home after spending just a few days in hospital. But fast forward a few months to the second wave and the picture is dramatically different.

“It’s like a purge rather than a surge – actually the loss of life became a norm. You can see a patient is in a critical condition and there is nothing you can do for them. There is no space in ICU. No beds in high care. It’s terrible,” she said, her voice trembling.


A Limpopo nurse said she was depressed and felt like she was buckling under the pressure and strain of the devastating second wave of COVID-19.

“I’ve been burnt out. I’ve experienced the most emotional exhaustion ever since the pandemic. I’m demoralised, I’m anxious,” she said. “I have lost colleagues to COVID – going to work is the last thing you want to do but you have to. It’s scary. It’s like selling our souls to put bread on the table – I have mouths to feed. But at the end of the day, they might lose their breadwinner.”

For many health workers, death also knocked on their doors. But as a Gauteng nurse explained, there never seemed to be any time to grieve.

“You don’t even have time to process the loss of loved ones because there are people to go and care for at the workplace.”

She said she was always frightened.

“You go home with fear that you might infect them, you lose your loved ones, you don’t even have enough time to process the loss of loved ones because there are people you have to go and care for at the workplace.”

Health workers themselves have succumbed to the virus. Across the country, more than 1,000 of them have died, and in some COVID-19 ICU wards, pictures of colleagues who sacrificed their own lives are hung on the walls to honour them.

While government waits for the first batch of one million vaccines to arrive before the end of the month, there’s renewed hope that things might get better somewhat for healthcare workers, who will receive the first jabs.

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