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Heroes & Survivors

How This Aid Worker Kept Calm As He Battled Covid-19

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Deserted streets in Kigali during lockdown; image by Steven Muvunyi

Frank Songa, Rwanda’s second confirmed Covid-19 patient, lost his sense of smell and taste, but armed himself with information.   

Imagine not being able to smell your morning coffee or taste your favorite food. This was what Frank Songa mostly experienced as he battled Covid-19. Thankfully, he is recovered and now able to smell his morning cuppa at home in the beautiful hill country of Rwanda.

Research findings strongly link sensory loss (taste and smell) to Covid-19, and Songa, a Rwandan humanitarian aid worker, was deprived of these senses for close to two weeks.

Today, he is one of many patients who have recovered from Covid-19 in the tiny East African country. 

“Food was just that; food! I could not taste it, nor could I smell the strong chlorine used to mop the floors,” says Songa. He is, however, grateful he did not develop severe symptoms.

On March 14, he drove to hospital to get himself tested after experiencing mild symptoms. He was not prepared for the results.

“I had a mild fever and a congested nose. Due to the nature of my work, I am a frequent traveler, so I decided to get tested just to make sure I was fine. On the 15th of March, I got a call from the hospital informing me that I had tested positive for the virus,” says the young man. 

Frank Songa; image supplied

Songa was Rwanda’s second confirmed patient and was taken to the Kanyinya Health Center, one of the three treatment centers accommodating Covid-19 patients in Rwanda. Meanwhile, the process of tracing his contacts began.

While in isolation, he had many questions running amuck in his mind but being armed with the right information helped him keep a level head.

“I read widely, but I also ensured that I sifted through the information I received on the pandemic and this really helped me remain calm,” he says.

He will forever remain indebted to the frontline workers including the team of doctors, nurses, nutritionists, lab technicians and even janitors who journeyed with him on the road to recovery. 

What was even more puzzling to him was the fact that all the services rendered, including tests, accommodation and even meals were all free of charge.

“They did not charge me for anything, all the expenses were covered,” he says, adding that this is not the case in most African countries.

After 22 days in isolation and a series of tests, Songa was finally declared free of the disease and was given a clean chit to return home. This was followed by another 14 days of self-quarantine.

Apart from taking seriously the precautionary measures put in place to curb the spread of Covid-19, Songa cautions against the stigmatization of people who suffer the disease, saying that this would only be regressive and counter-productive in the fight against the pandemic.

By Tesi Kaven

Heroes & Survivors

A Day In The Life Of A Taxi Driver In Lockdown

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Tshepo Ralephata; images by Motlabana Monnakgotla

Tshepo Ralephata has been plying the roads to ferry essential services workers during the Level 5 lockdown in South Africa.

Modern heroes don’t wear capes; they either only don blue scrubs or show the willingness to offer a public service in the time of crisis.

In the time of Covid-19, today’s heroes are the men and women next door, and those on the streets, such as taxi owner, Tshepo Ralephata, who has been plying the roads to ferry essential services workers since the stringent days of the Level 5 lockdown in South Africa.

Ralephata has been working in the taxi industry for over 10 years now, but has never worked under “such life-threatening circumstances” as he is now, he observes. But he has to do so also to look after his family.

“I don’t think about being infected with the virus when I’m on the road because I have to make money, I need to pay rent, the kids have to eat any my partner is unemployed making me the only bread-winner, so I don’t have a choice, I have to work,” says Ralephata.

As a FORBES AFRICA photojournalist looking for great street images, I joined Ralephata in his taxi to document a day in his life in the time of lockdown. His blue Toyota Hiace minibus taxi is his mobile office and the permit to drive during the lockdown sees him working every two days; which has admittedly affected his daily earnings, which has come down from R1,400 to R650.

“We are only allowed to work from 5AM to 10AM and from 4PM to 8PM, the breaks are also an inconvenience. I can also only load 10 passengers at a time, while on the other hand, I buy my own sanitizers to make sure passengers maintain hygiene.”

Indeed, that is what Ralephata did after picking me up at a busstop. He leaned over with a disinfecting sanitizer and sprayed it on to my hands before I entered.

A kilometer into the trip, a young lady entering the taxi refused to be sanitized insisting that she had sanitized at home.

“This is what I deal with some days,” rues Ralephata.

On arrival at a taxi rank, I saw dozens of commuters going about their daily working lives wearing facemasks and gloves, hopping from one taxi to another.

The taxis at the rank are sanitized twice, but Ralephata laments they are not getting much support from the government because they have to buy their own protective gear.

As we wait for the second load of passengers, Ralephata keeps his sanitizer close at hand and stands by the sliding door, spraying every passenger coming in.

On our way home, he tells me about his daily fears.

“When someone coughs or sneezes, I get scared and think that’s the virus. I just wish that the person is not carrying the virus,” he says.

The young entrepreneur is aware that his job could put his family at risk.

“When I go home after work, I sanitize my hands before holding the door handle, then I go straight to the bathroom for a hot bath and only then, can I bond with the kids.”

Covid-19 is crippling his business and he prays for a vaccine soon because his liquor store business has also been affected.

Ralephata is not reaching his daily targets but helping the community is as much an important motive for him.

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Heroes & Survivors

‘Confused At First, Then Proud To Be In This Country’

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Kigali's deserted downtown bus terminal in lockdown; image supplied

Rwanda is easing lockdown restrictions from May 4. The recovered Covid-19 patients so far commend the country’s rapid response and the emotional care they received from the frontline health workers.

“Everyone around me was afraid except me,” recalls 23-year-old Eloi Mugabe about that moment when he was taken to get tested for Covid-19 symptoms, at the Kanombe Military Hospital in Rwanda’s capital Kigali. 

Mugabe’s illness started on Day 10 of lockdown in Rwanda when he felt feverish and cold. He had traveled abroad in February, long before the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in Rwanda. But as days went by, his symptoms persisted. He was coughing and even as he self-isolated, his condition worsened as he started to experience breathing issues. He was transferred to Kanyinya Health Centre, one of the three treatment centers set up in Kigali for Covid-19 patients.

For Mugabe, who graduated from the University of Rwanda last year, 2020 was going to be the year when he would debut his business and set up his own music studio.

His initial reaction to the virus was not fear but denial – he was confused as to how he may have contracted it. 

“My mother was shocked but was strong and praying for me and it really helped me,” he recalls. What frightened him, however, were the messages he received from friends and family as soon as they learned he had tested positive. “I don’t know if anybody can handle that.”

At the treatment center, he says people were welcoming and the amenities on offer boosted his morale.

“From testing to treatment, books and internet, we were getting everything for free. I reflected about that and said to myself, ‘I’m proud to be having this in my country’. You looked at everything and realized that the government was really prepared to deal with it,” he says.

Eloi Mugabe on his experience recovering from Covid-19; image supplied

A music enthusiast, Mugabe says he never felt lonely during the 18 days he spent at the center as the internet access enabled him to listen to his favorite songs and interact with friends and relatives.

For two days, he had a bad fever and chest pain; he was subsequently discharged on April 14 after more tests declared him virus-free. 

He says the worst thing about the virus is cutting all human interaction.

“We grew up being hugged by our mums, playing and shaking hands with friends without fear and that’s something I missed the most.”

Mugabe is one of the 120 (out of a total of 255 positive cases) who have recovered from the virus in Rwanda as of May 2.

A 36-year-old man who spoke to FORBES AFRICA on condition of anonymity also overcame the deadly virus. He tested positive a day after the first case was confirmed in Rwanda and says there was too much stigma about it at the time in the country. He experienced fatigue and fever and subsequently lost appetite and his sense of smell when he arrived in Rwanda. He suspects to have been infected at the airports in either Los Angeles or Doha where he transited. He was also taken to the Kanyinya treatment center where he spent 20 days before being discharged. One of the things he remembers while at the center was the emotional care he received.

“There was so much support from doctors, telling you it’s going to be okay and that was extremely motivating,” he recalls.

His wife and a brother also tested positive but have also since been discharged. He believes contact-tracing and the rapid response have been crucial for Rwanda’s success at curbing the virus so far. He also commends the people’s willingness to cooperate with health officials.

“The goodwill to say ‘let me go to the hospital and not put other people at risk’ is a critical factor,” he says.

Misinformation has been a worrying issue during this pandemic and he says people who recovered from the virus can play a critical role in dispelling that.

Rwanda confirmed its first case on March 14 and a few days later, the government moved to impose what became Africa’s first total lockdown, closing borders, prohibiting gatherings and unnecessary movements while allowing only essential services to go on.

Acting early meant Rwanda avoided a scenario where patients were turned away because hospitals were overwhelmed.

Dr Menelas Nkeshimana, who’s leading the case management sub-cell at Rwanda’s joint task force for Covid-19, says: “One of the strategies that made this possible is applying what we know is working and applying it early.” 

“The doctors checked on me like five times a day telling us ‘this is something we can beat’ and that puts you in a positive mood,” adds the Covid-19 survivor Mugabe.

Rwanda is aiming for a step-by-step phased reopening after the lockdown.

Dr Sabin Nsanzimana, the Director General of the Rwanda Biomedical Centre, says vigilance must be maintained. “This pandemic continues to surprise many countries and we should adapt our interventions accordingly,” he says. 

“It requires everyone’s collaboration. We have seen a few incidents of people refusing to comply with restriction measures and that can slow us down,” says Nkeshimana.

The government has made face masks mandatory and authorized a number of local factories to manufacture them in addition to other personal protective equipment.

– Steven Muvunyi

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