South Africa: So much for taking a break…

Eben was ready for a good break from his work with MSF. The COVID-19 pandemic had other ideas...

Eben and the MSF team at Eshowe, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa

Those of you who read my last blog would have noticed that I had very good intentions to take some time off. My plan was to rest and spend time with my partner, family and friends.

Fast-forward a couple of weeks after my return home to South Africa. We found ourselves plunged into the COVID-19 pandemic.

I was busy preparing for the full national lockdown, starting towards the end of March. To be honest I was actually looking forward to spend the time with my partner, having spent months away from home on my last assignment in Iraq.

But it was not to be…

The call

The call came early on a Saturday afternoon: “We need you to go to the MSF project in Eshowe, KwaZulu Natal, for three months. How soon can you leave?”

Eshowe is a beautiful town on the East Coast of South Africa. Since all air travel was suspended, I took a cross-country road trip to get there.

My beloved home

It is unusual for me to be deployed within my home country. As part of adhering to our founding principles – of independence, impartiality and neutrality – MSF always employs a combination of locally-hired and international staff in all our projects worldwide. Since joining MSF in 2017, I have always worked abroad as part of an international staff team.

Due to the flight restrictions and border closures worldwide, many MSF teams, including South Africa, have been unable to bring in international staff to fill gaps and ramp up operations. Hence, I found myself in the unusual position of being deployed within my beloved home country.


The MSF project in Eshowe is largely focussed on supporting the local community with HIV and TB treatment. (In fact, it's  famous for reaching the 90-90-90 HIV targets ahead of schedule. You can read more about that here.)

People living with HIV or TB are a particularly high-risk category of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I arrived in Eshowe in early April. True to South African hospitality, I was quickly introduced to everyone in our very committed and hardworking team.

My role for the next three months would be project administrator. This meant I would be responsible for all HR and finance-related management in the project.

One of my main tasks was to recruit and coach a replacement to take over from me at the end of my assignment. I was also responsible for overseeing other urgent recruitments to support our ongoing COVID-19 response in partnership with the provincial department of health.

Oh, and of course, constant budget reviews and adjustments.

Exhaustion and pride

As I’m sitting here typing this, it is the last few days before I head home for some long overdue time with my partner and family.

Looking back over the past three months, I suddenly understand why I feel so exhausted.

But at the same time I am immensely proud to have been part of a team of extraordinary humanitarians. Frontline staff coming to work every day, despite the personal risk of exposure to the virus to themselves and their families. Committed professionals working long hours, days and weeks.

Working in an administrative support role, often based in an office rather than a medical setting, it can be all too easy to forget the real reason why we are there. Because of that, whenever I am on an assignment, I always make it a priority to visit our medical facilities.

This time was no exception.

I recently had the opportunity to spend a morning at two medical facilities MSF supports, as you will see from some of the pictures in this blog post.

MSF assisted these facilities with COVID-19 preparedness, including installing hand-washing stations at clinics. It was really encouraging to witness community members in a very rural setting wearing face masks and washing their hands when arriving at the clinic.


As part of our COVID-19 response and in an effort to minimize the potential risks of exposure to our current HIV and TB patients, our team embarked on a huge "decanting" initiative.

Basically, to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the team worked to "decongest" clinics. So, instead of our patients coming to a clinic to collect their TB and HIV medications, we go to them.

This was and continues to be a huge logistical undertaking. We have about 17,000 patients, living in a largely rural community, with extended distances between them.

Once again, my MSF colleagues in Eshowe were trend-setters, and many other partners are now looking at our model as an example.

One last thing...

I am indebted to my partner, Fran, for her continued love, support and encouragement while I’m away on MSF assignments.

The COVID-19 pandemic is unfortunately projected to remain a reality in our lives for the foreseeable future. It has brought with it great needs for help, which will only continue.

Now, more than ever, we need support to allow us to continue providing much-needed medical care to communities during these times. If you're reading this, please consider making a donation today.

Thank you, take care, and stay safe!


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