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Rock-solid women lead the way

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Whether it be through healthcare, altruism, or leadership, many women have made their mark in fighting against COVID-19 or simply helping others survive this pandemic. There are too many to celebrate, so we have picked the following three inspirational stories for Women’s Day.

Managing an influx of COVID-19 patients, Dr Andrea Mendelsohn is a family physician and senior medical officer in a HIV/TB primary healthcare clinic in the Western Cape Provincial Community Health Centre in Retreat. “Since March, we’ve completely reorganised the hospital into COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 sides,” she says.

In addition to her work in facilitating these changes and managing infection control, Mendelsohn has been instrumental in setting up testing protocols. She’s raised money for an innovative COVID-19 testing booth as well as for cloth masks for patients.

“With COVID-19, the fact that anyone can theoretically be symptomatic has taken things to a new level,” she says. “We’re the first stop for patients, and easily have 100 people come in with symptoms daily. For us, the virus peaked at the end of June, when we were seeing an increasing number of very sick people who needed to be put on oxygen and then referred to hospitals as we don’t admit patients.”

While COVID-19 cases are now stabilising, among the enduring challenges Mendelsohn faces are the barriers to doctor-patient relationships. “As a primary care doctor, I’m used to sitting with patients and learning about their stories,” she says. “Yet, much of COVID-19 has been about seeing sick people as quickly as possible to minimise infection risks and send them home or to hospital.”

Constantly wearing PPE (personal protective equipment) is also exhausting, as is the intensity that each day brings. “We’ve all reached out for support in different ways, and we’re starting to think about how we move to a sustainable future beyond triage.”

Mendelsohn has also shared her expertise with Cape Town’s Herzlia School to help it formulate safe strategies for handling the pandemic. A wife and mother of two, Mendelsohn is aware of reducing the risk to her family.

Speaking of the unique challenges women face, Mendelsohn bemoans the societal pressure they’re subject to, especially when it comes to maintaining a work-life balance. “I don’t think I do it perfectly, I don’t think most people do,” she says. “Women in work still face a lot of complexities and self-imposed guilt. I find my work satisfying and challenging though, and I wouldn’t want to give up trying to find that balance.”

For 23-year-old psychology student Jayde Ronthal, lockdown has been a chance to give back. Managing girls’ learning programmes at various educational institutions, she’s also the director of The Friendship Circle, a non-profit organisation for Jewish children with special needs.

When lockdown started, she and a group of four female friends sourced worksheets and made up educational packs for the students at Sandringham High School who weren’t receiving any work during the pandemic. The Emunah welfare organisation helped with printing.

“These students were stuck at home, with no work to do,” says Ronthal. “We’re all blessed to have roofs over our heads, fridges full of food, and desks and computers to work from. It was time to think of others, and how we could fulfil their needs.”

While they initially provided printed notes, it presented logistical challenges, so the group now sends PDF work packs via WhatsApp. To date, the group has distributed work to hundreds of students throughout Sandringham High School, as well as to a number of others at Northview High School and Maryvale College.

Together with her Israel-based friend, Dudu Azaraf, Ronthal also co-founded Ayekah. “We help struggling Jewish families get proper Shabbos meals,” she says. While these people are supported by Jewish welfare organisations, their need is so great that providing an adequate Shabbos meal remains a challenge. “Shabbos is so important to us personally, it’s a time for families. Just because these people are struggling doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be able to enjoy a decent Shabbos meal with their families.”

Together with two volunteers, Ronthal packs meals for 48 families each week. Food comes from various kosher stores and caterers who either donate or provide their goods at cost price. These costs are covered through Ayekah’s fundraising efforts. “This was something we could do to help change the lives of people in our community,” says Ronthal. “It’s incredibly fulfilling to help people at this time.”

For Jacqui Biess, the owner of renowned family business Charly’s Bakery, lockdown has been about innovation and supporting her 25 staff members. Sensing what was to come, Biess began planning for lockdown before it was even announced, looking into options regarding business bond repayments and UIF (Unemployment Insurance Fund) income for her staff.

In mid-January, as travel dwindled due to the pandemic, so too did the bakery’s turnover. “Our business has always been 40% to 50% tourist driven,” says Biess. So, from January onwards, Biess and her daughters, Alex and Dani, with whom she runs the business, stopped taking salaries. “To be able to pay our staff, we realised we wouldn’t be able to pay ourselves,” says Biess.

“When lockdown was announced, I contacted our suppliers, and ordered a survival box for each of our staff with non-perishable food,” says Biess. “We had no idea how long it would be until they got any income.”

Later, when UIF-COVID-19 TERS was announced, the team worked tirelessly. “It was a hell of a thing, but we managed to get all three months of UIF paid out in full for every employee,” says Biess. “We’ve worked together a long time, and I know that I’m literally their only lifeline. Although it’s been incredibly scary, our staff didn’t feel that desperation because they knew money was coming.”

When the lockdown was extended, Biess investigated crowdfunding options. “We worked frantically to create 36 different rewards and experiences in exchange for the money we raised.” From vouchers to learning experiences at the bakery, Charly’s also asked customers to fund random acts of kindness, which allowed the business to continue giving back. Ultimately, they raised R352 000 to keep afloat and cover pension and health benefits for their staff.

While Charly’s is now trading again under strict COVID-19 protocols, it’s making only about 30% of its usual turnover. “We’re trying to be as creative as we can to keep going,” says Biess. “We’re selling experiences and cupcake DIY kits for Zoom parties. I’m running the bakery from home because I have Crohn’s disease, so Alex and Dani are managing everything onsite. We’re all aware of what we’re fighting for – we’re fighting to survive. We hope and pray we will.”

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