Covid-19 chronicles: a day at a testing facility

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Limpho Sello

TEARS involuntarily well up in Thabo’s eyes as he struggles to deal with the pain of a swab stuck in his nostrils.

The pain is unbearable but after repeatedly blowing his nose for at least two hours, the swab finally comes out.

This is part of the experience of testing for the deadly Coronavirus (Covid-19) disease which has so far infected 576 people and caused 13 deaths in Lesotho.

Thabo is one of many people who came to the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital (Queen II) at Lakeside, Maseru to test for Covid-19 on Tuesday morning.

He has a history of travelling to neighbouring South Africa, a hotspot for Covid-19. By yesterday, South Africa had recorded 471 123 infections and 7497 deaths to cement its unenviable position as the country with the highest infections in Africa and the fifth highest in the world.

It is therefore no wonder that Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro’s government is determined to ensure that everyone who has a history of travelling to South Africa must be tested for Covid-19 upon arrival in Lesotho.

But as the Lesotho Times crew found after spending the whole of Tuesday at Queen II, testing for Covid-19 is not the straightforward business that it ought to be.

Shortages of testing kits, shortages of health workers and the lackadaisical approach of the clearly overwhelmed few health workers all combine to delay what should be a 15-minute exercise to test for Covid-19.

Queen II can only test 50 people per day but as the Lesotho Times observed on Tuesday, even this paltry figure is often not attained due to a number of reasons, including staff and equipment shortages.

These failures can only frustrate the efforts to stop the spread of the deadly virus.

By 7am, this reporter is already at Queen II. Thabo and many others who had braved the chilly wintry conditions are already queuing up to be tested.

But the trademark laxity of health workers of the facility is on full display and testing the nerves of even the most patient of people.

This reporter, who was sixth in the que, only got tested at about 5.30pm after having arrived at 7am.

The long wait to be tested allowed this reporter to interact with other people and hear their stories.

“I work in South Africa as an unskilled labourer at one of the construction companies,” Thabo says.

“I came home for personal commitments. I passed through the Maputsoe border post. Some of the soldiers wanted to take us to a quarantine facility but we begged them not to. Fortunately for us, money talks and it does wonders. I paid M150 and I was allowed to go home without ever being quarantined.”

He shrugs when it is put to him that his corruption in which saw him paid M150 to the soldiers to avoid being quarantined could fuel the spread of the deadly virus.

“Not all people from South Africa have Coronavirus. I don’t have that thing. If I did, it could have killed me,” he says.  But how would he know when he has not been tested? Such attitudes, it seems, are unhelpful to efforts to combat the spread of the virus.

Thabo is livid at the delays which have seen him come to the facility for five days only to leave without being tested.

“Every time the clinicians have turned me away because they can only test 50 people per day.”

Today is his lucky day because the nurses have been moved by his plight. He is allowed to jump the que but a painful experience awaits him.

It is then that the swab used for testing gets stuck in his nose. For a good two hours, it does not come out despite his repeatedly blowing his nose to get it out.

The pain appears unbearable and tears well up in his eyes and drip down his cheeks as he jumps about. Eventually the swab comes out and a second test is done. This time he is told he can go home.

Meanwhile, 30-year-old Lerato from Ha Thamae, Maseru, is complaining about the long wait to get tested.

“Had it not been for the nosy community policing members, I wouldn’t have come to be tested.

“Waiting to test for Covid-19 is like waiting for Jesus to come. I am slowly losing my patience. I do not have Corona. I just came to test because I do not want silly community policing members in my village on my case. They would have come looking for me because I arrived in the country on Sunday evening from South Africa.

“I came from South Africa to see my sick mother. I am a member of a WhatsApp group for people who illegally cross the border. We share information on how best we can gain entry into the country without being quarantined. I paid M150 to safely cross the border with the assistance of army officers,” Lerato says.

Because of the limited space outside the park homes used as a makeshift hospital, it is difficult for 50 patients to observe social distancing. Health officials at the facility are not bothered by the failure to observe the health protocols.

The first person was only tested at 10.40 am and from that time until midday only two more people were tested.

The third person emerges from the swabbing room to announce that the health workers are now breaking for lunch. This means another hour or two of idling before the tests can resume.

A doctor comes out and confirms what the last person to be tested has just said.

“I will be back after 1pm. I am sure Dr Khothatso Tankiso will also be back by then for us to continue with the testing,” the doctor says.

Unlike Thabo who kept on returning for five days, some of the impatient people say they may never return. This will only help spread the virus if they are already infected.

Slightly after 2pm, Dr Khothatso and his colleague finally return. At this point, people begin jostling to be the first to get tested. There is zero social testing as some of the people block the door.

Some of the people are factory workers. They are in a dilemma. They can only return to work if they produce their test results to their employer.

But each day spent at waiting to be tested means loss of income because of the no work no pay policy.

It is now 3. 20 pm and Dr Khothatso comes out to address the crowd.

“We have to give some people priority,” he says.

“Some of them have to leave the country for further medical attention in South Africa and they cannot be allowed to cross the border without Covid-19 testing certificates. Please be patient with us. The services are slow because four of our colleagues have tested positive for Covid-19 and are now in quarantine. As part of management, there are other duties that I have to do besides testing you,” Dr Khothatso says.

Exhausted suspects physically point out individuals who should be allowed to jump the que. One of them is frail old man. He trudges into the testing room and almost half an hour later, he slowly emerges, supported by a young lady, probably his daughter.

He stumbles and the lady makes a valiant effort to steady him and break his fall.

Another Covid-19 suspect rushes to help and in that moment, the fear of the virus is suspended. All that matters is helping another human being.

Only when the old man has been helped to a chair does it appear to dawn on others that close contact with each other could increase their chances of infection. A small hand sanitiser bottle is produced by a man and shared among 20 people.

At this point only seven people have been tested and Dr Khothatso announces that he will only test 36 people in total for the day.

At 4pm, before that number is reached, Dr Khothatso re-emerges to inform the people that only eight swabs are left meaning that the tests cannot continue.

“We are left with only eight swabs. The rest of you on the list will have to come back tomorrow,” Dr Khothatso says.

It is not the sort of announcement that would elicit a standing ovation. One woman from Ha-Mofoka lady raises her voice and demands something to show the police that she actually came to the testing facility.

She says she will be arrested if she cannot prove that it was not her fault that she was not tested.

“I am going to give you a note which you will present to the police. But I will make it clear that you did not test. You will have to come back for a test tomorrow,” Dr Khothatso says.

Even then, there are no guarantees that hers will be a better fate than that of Thabo who had to return on five consecutive days before he could get tested.

As she and other disappointed disappear into the darkness that is beginning to envelop the Maseru evening, Dr Khothatso remains with the few people lucky enough to be tested that day.

At such a snail pace of doing things, it is clear that those without the patience will not be tested. It will take forever to test the country’s entire 2, 1 million population.

By then the virus would have probably spread like wildfire due to the lackadaisical approach of health workers and the public’s failure to observe social distancing and other health protocols.

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