Op-ed

Community Health Worker Day: Celebrating our frontline heroes

By Ofentse Mboweni 9 April 2021

SEDIBENG, SOUTH AFRICA - AUGUST 18: A team of Community Health Workers on a door to door testing and screening campaign on August 18, 2020 in Sedibeng, South Africa. According to media reports, Gauteng has adopted a strategy targeting hotspot areas as they have a high number of COVID-19 active cases. (Photo by Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo)

One thing that most of us can agree on is that the past year has shown us how critical our healthcare workforce is. The heroism that healthcare workers have demonstrated during this period has inspired many. The World Health Organization sets aside a week in April every year to celebrate the crucial work our healthcare workers do. This year World Health Worker Week will be celebrated from 5-9 April.

As has become tradition, the Grow Great Campaign carves out a day each World Health Worker Week to celebrate a special cadre of healthcare workers i.e. Community Health Workers (CHWs), who are all too often forgotten when we speak about our country’s front line healthcare workers. On this day we show our deep gratitude to CHWs and thank them for the hard work they do, delivering quality healthcare to the doorsteps of millions of South Africans.

Our country is privileged to have a CHW workforce of about 60,000 to 70, 000 brave men and women who have historically been instrumental in the fight against HIV, TB and contributed to improving maternal and child health outcomes across communities in South Africa. These are men and women who care for the communities they serve and go as far as to cook and feed those unable to do so themselves. Over the last year, CHWs have played a critical role in the fight against the largest global pandemic we have seen in recent history. At great personal risk to themselves, CHWs went from door-to-door in communities across SA, screening households for Covid-19 and ensuring that the vulnerable were connected to basic primary healthcare, that they would otherwise be unable to access.

Yet despite their service to our country, CHWs remain among the least recognised and supported healthcare professionals. They are poorly and erratically remunerated and even the status of their jobs is precarious, with close to 50,000 of them having to renew their contracts yearly.

Over 5,000 CHWs in the Eastern Cape were expected to lose their jobs by the end of last month (March 2021) after the provincial government said it could not renew their contracts owing to a lack of funds. While this cohort was specifically contracted to assist with Covid-19 efforts under the National Disaster Fund, the termination of the contracts is a huge blow to CHWs’ fight to be taken in as permanent employees by the government. Similarly, in November last year, CHWs affiliated with The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union took to the streets demanding permanent employment.

That CHWs continue to have to fight for job security illustrates how they continue to be undervalued despite the critical service they have provided in our communities for years. We as a country cannot afford to neglect the workforce that is best placed to identify those who have slipped through the cracks. We owe it to our frontline healthcare workers and the vulnerable communities who depend on them to provide them with the income security and the support that they deserve to continue their valiant fight at the front line.

This World Health Worker Week, we call on government to secure the livelihoods of our country’s CHWs. They have consistently put up a fierce fight against numerous diseases with very little support or resources and continue to ensure the good health of mothers, children, the poor and elderly. Increased support from government for CHWs is critical to bolstering our health system against future pandemics and ensuring equitable access to good quality healthcare for all South Africans. DM/MC

Ofentse Mboweni is a communications officer at Grow Great campaign.

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