Badr Kazi has worked in disaster relief and humanitarian aid since 1992. He and the nonprofit he works for, Gift of the Givers, have responded to some of the world’s worst crises, both ongoing and acute, in dozens of countries.
In South Africa, where they’re based, Covid-19 has been a unique challenge.
“We were in Haiti after the earthquake, doing complicated surgeries without many implements, surgical kits, and so forth. Nothing matches Covid,” Kazi said in an interview with Direct Relief. “It is a crisis without a real beginning or end… It’s added a further burden on the economy and NGOs to get formerly middle class families going again.”
A South African government report from 2015 found almost half of the country lives below the poverty line, and the pandemic has exacerbated economic strain on many.
Though the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in South Africa was announced on March 5, 2020, Kazi, director of partnerships for the nonprofit, had been preparing for weeks. He and his colleagues were anticipating the coming disaster, because of both firsthand perspectives from Wuhan and their own knowledge of gaps in the South African health system.
“I remember his words after he returned from Wuhan…’We’ve got to prepare for this virus. We’re totally underprepared’,” Kazi said, recalling what Gift of the Givers founder Dr. Imtiaz Sooliman told the group’s members.
Beyond Sooliman’s trip, which was undertaken with the goal of helping to repatriate South African nationals, Gift of the Givers had been working with the South African health care system since 1992, helping to provide requested support while also offering broader safety net services. Their prior experience enabled the nonprofit to spin into action effectively when the pandemic took hold in South Africa.
“We understood the dynamic that exists,” Kazi said.
Their first priority was to secure PPE for frontline healthcare workers and establish triage tents outside hospitals in the country’s biggest cities — where the virus first appeared — so that patients could be screened. Their work enabled hospitals to continue treating patients who needed care for chronic, acute, and other non-Covid-19 ailments.
Gift of the Givers also equipped those tents and paid for healthcare providers to staff them. They added additional tents in rural areas once the pandemic extended beyond cities.
“When we started supporting initiations that were not on the [government’s] radar, it allowed them to work at maximum levels again,” he said.
Gift of the Givers also took on specific projects based on specific needs. In the Eastern Cape province, the group worked to expand and improve housing options for doctors, in attempt to draw the doctors to underserved communities in the region.
Once the first wave of Covid-19 patients subsided, the group shifted their focus to a longer-range approach, considering how to best support hospitals and clinics in future waves of the pandemic — as well as once the pandemic is over. For this, they began to renovate parts of hospitals that were lesser-used due to financial impediments, thus increasing local capacity.
In addition to facing more than 1.5 million confirmed cases and more than 51,110 deaths, as well as dealing with a variant that some data show renders some vaccines less effective. South Africa has also paid a heavy price economically, having implemented some of the most restrictive lockdowns in the world.
“During lockdowns, people are more conscious, wearing masks, sanitizing and all, but now we have economic pressure because people are losing their jobs,” said Direct Relief’s Rita Tshimanga, who is based in Johannesburg. She also noted the conditions in the nation’s townships, where residents live in crowded conditions.
“You don’t ask those people to social distance, where are they going to have that social distance from? Also, some people don’t care anymore, they’re tired.”
She also noted the pandemic’s negative impact on tourism, an industry that employs, directly and indirectly, more than 9% of the total population and contributed 7% to its GDP.
“By the time you want to go on holiday, you’re not sure if it will be possible. Economically we have been hit very hard,” she said.
In line with its broad founding mandate in 1992, Gift of the Givers has continued to respond to these financial challenges as well, offering food support to vulnerable populations as well as career consulting and other direct social support programs as well.
Because of the trust-based relationships they’ve established across religious and political groups, they even engage in hostage negotiations.
As the pandemic in South Africa moves past the one-year mark, Gift of the Givers is continuing to respond to Covid-19 needs in its home country, along with Somalia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. They’ve also identified almost two dozen countries in Africa that currently require additional support.
Direct Relief granted the nonprofit $100,000 to help them with legacy programs, which will continue operating after the pandemic ends, such as the hospital infrastructure projects and supplies needed to care for chronic disease patients. These projects will seek to build on existing relationships and proven methods that have been strengthened during the past year. Direct Relief also recently dedicated $2.5 million for emergency Covid-19 grants around the world.
“We’ve heightened key private-public partnerships. We’ve shown the private sector you can get involved in government programs if you approach the sector in an open-minded way,” said Kazi.
As the vaccines continue to be rolled out in South Africa and the region, Gift of the Givers has been tasked by the national government with providing logistical support. To date, only 145,000 doses have been administered to a population of over 58 million people, according to the country’s National Department of Health.
“We don’t see the situation improving until the end of the year. There is also an imminent threat of a third wave, as early as April, when South Africa goes into winter. We’re expecting numbers to spike,” he said.
“I don’t know if we are optimistic, ” said Tshimanga. “But just hope this thing will end one day.”
This post was originally published on Direct Relief.