COVID-19 Frontliner Perspectives

Dr Katendi Changula tells #lusakahelps about working inside one of Zambia’s COVID-19 testing laboratories.

Doctor Katendi Changula has a beguiling smile and a laugh that ripples across the corridors at the University of Zambia School of Veterinary Medicine. Her strength and positivity comes across as she talks, but one can also tell how tired she is.

Since January she has been part of a small unit, set up by the Zambian Government, working on testing samples for the novel coronavirus. In mid-March this year Zambia had its first two documented positives, and since then Katendi and her team have worked every day of the week, including weekends, and often until the early hours of the next day, doing everything they can to increase the national testing rate. This week Daniel James Bridges, one of our Lusaka Helps members, caught up with Dr Katendi at the lab to ask her more about daily life on the frontlines of the covid fight:

Dan: What impact would you say the epidemic has had on you personally Dr Katendi?

Katendi: “Honestly, COVID-19 is very scary for me. No one knows what the future holds and as we see it unfolding in other countries we cannot help but be fearful of the same trajectory playing out here. So you have that anxiety about it. As well as an anxiety that you may even get it yourself. And then there’s the pressure of having to do all these tests and feeling responsible for every patient, and wanting to do a good job.

Dan: In what way has the onset of covid-19 changed the way you work?

Katendi: “Wow. It’s changed a lot! Long hours are one of the major changes. From the time we got the first positive we’ve been working every day. No holidays or weekends. We’ve been here every single day since mid-March. Often we work until after midnight, sometimes going up to 3am.This is now normal for us.The other thing that’s changed is our team. We were initially four, but we’ve had three other people be trained and join us, bringing us to 7 total”.

Dan: This sounds exhausting.

Katendi: It is. I now get home so late and even if you get a few hours of rest, you start the next day feeling exhausted. It’s both a physical and a mental exhaustion. We have to make sure the correct result comes out – the patient relies on us – and that’s a big responsibility to carry all day every day. We are concerned about the human lives behind the samples, and have to be constantly careful about how we handle them, as lives are at stake. There is no room for human error.”

Dan: What was your work before the pandemic?
Katendi: “Before COVID-19 I was lecturing and also doing research on infectious diseases caused by viruses. In fact I specialise in Ebola Virus and do surveillance of Ebola virus in bats. A few years back, I was actually conducting research on coronaviruses in bats but I had discontinued it.”

Dan: And how has this affected your normal work?
Katendi: (laughs) It has totally transformed it! These days I am totally focused on testing samples for COVID-19. Normally I am a lecturer at the Vet school, but nowadays university is closed, although we are still teaching online. Previously I would have rotated between research and lecturing. Now, after spending all my time in the lab, I need to prepare online lessons and quizzes. At times I’m so exhausted that I fall asleep immediately after I sit down and open my laptop! I can’t do any of my normal work or experiments. My whole life now revolves around the Coronavirus.”

#Lusakahelps says a massive THANK YOU to Katendi Changula-Chitanga and all of those working at the labs for all that they are doing. 👏❤️

Note: Dr Katendi works at the UNZA School of Veterinary Medicine BSL3 lab, one of only three labs in Zambia that currently performs COVID-19 testing

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