Cleaners, the unsung heroes at the COVID-19 frontline
"I am at a very high risk of being infected because I am very close to the patients and I touch everywhere”
Everywhere in the world, people have repeatedly been told to frequently wash hands with soap and running water as well as sanitize and clean surfaces around them to avoid catching COVID-19, among other infections.
In homes, cleaning surfaces has become a routine. In health facilities, the situation is not any different. Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces have been heightened to reduce the risk of infection as well as provide health workers and patients with decent and clean places to work and get medical attention. Behind this enhanced hygiene are the cleaners or hygienists, the unsung heroes in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s a few minutes after 7am at Kikuube Health Centre IV, Kikuube District, Western Uganda. The facility is visited on a daily basis by hundreds of patients from all corners of the district. Children, women, men, old and young, stroll in during a light morning drizzle.
In a tiny room is 27-year-old Yusto Katahoire, the chief hygienist or cleaner at the health facility. He is in charge of the general cleanliness at the health facility, a job he has done for the last 10 years. Upon arrival, the first thing he does is slot on his protective gear before touching anything. It is COVID-19 times, so he has to protect himself before anything else.
One by one, he puts on the different elements of his protective equipment that include his overalls, gum boots, plastic apron, heavy duty gloves (these after surgical gloves), goggles and then finally his mask. With the gear in place, he is ready to start his daily duties.
Life and work before COVID-19
When Yustos first heard of COVID-19, he worried because of the nature of his job and remembered the insufficient protection he had at the time. “I felt unsafe and knew for sure I would be among the first people to catch the disease. I had also heard that many health workers were getting infected and some were dying.”
“My personal protective equipment was very old with holes and many components were missing. I am at a very high risk of being infected because I am very close to the patients and I touch everywhere,”
The cleaning equipment was not any better. The cleaning team used shrubs from the bush and local booms to clean floors with plain water.
UNICEF support brings relief
The situation is very different today. Thanks to UNICEF support, health facilities, including Kikuube Health Centre IV, Yusto’s duty station, have received sets of complete personal protective equipment (PPE) for use by all frontline workers to enhance their safety during COVID-19. UNICEF has also provided health facilities with water, sanitation and hygiene supplies that include chlorine, hand sanitizers, liquid soap, handwashing stations and cleaning equipment to enhance infection prevention and control.
No wonder, today, Yustos is more confident at work, and feels safer and energized to serve. Well clad in his complete protective gear, he goes about his daily tasks.
“My new PPE is modern, and I feel safer when I wear it,”
His first stop is at a huge drum at the verandah of the facility, where he mixes chlorine granules with water. He must measure the right quantities for handwashing and cleaning surfaces. Once the chlorinated water is ready, his team of two distributes the water to all handwashing stations placed all over the health centre. The water will be used by patients later as they access the various sections for health services.
He then proceeds to use some of the chlorinated water to clean the floors, patients’ benches, and workstations, as well as providing some to other health workers to clean their instruments and equipment. They must reduce the risk of infection at the health centre. In a few minutes, all corners of the facility are clean and disinfected, way before more health workers and patients trickle in.
The general cleaning of the facility is done twice a day but Yutos is available any time to clean after patients. Without cleaners like Yustos, health facilities would be unsafe for patients and health workers, especially during pandemics such as COVID-19.
With the new PPE, Yustos feels safer and ensures that he always wears his gear properly to avoid getting infected.
Yustos is also among the healthy facility personnel that received training on infection prevention and control supported by UNICEF. From the training he learnt how to mix the chlorinated water and how to effectively clean the facility.
When asked why he keeps doing what he does despite the risks involved, Yustos mentions that being appreciated for keeping the health facility clean and reducing the risk of infection makes him very proud.
“I consider myself a brave person because I dedicated myself to work in such a public place with high risk of getting sick, especially during such times,”