By Leila Stein
The COVID-19 pandemic required massive response and coordination from the healthcare sector.
In Cape Town, Dr Natacha Berkowitz oversaw this incredible work by City Health.
Dr Berkowitz is a UCT MBChB graduate with a master’s in public health, specialising in epidemiology. She works as an epidemiologist for City Health and was the strategic lead for the COVID-19 pandemic response in the City of Cape Town.
Recently she was awarded the City Health Director’s Award for her work over the last 18 months. The award forms part of the City’s award structure and recognises her leadership and work. In addition, her team also won the Mayor’s Award from their executive director, further deepening the recognition for this vital work.
Planning outbreak response
Dr Berkowitz explains how City Health operates as part of the public health authorities within the City of Cape Town Metro.
“We are part of the City of Cape Town structure, and we have over 100 clinics across the metro which provide primary health care to the most vulnerable in our communities,” she says.
Due to her background in public health, when the COVID-19 pandemic reached Cape Town, she was put in charge of strategic guidance for the department for COVID.
“From planning how we respond to the outbreak, how we restructure our services to test and treat COVID and also to ensure that we carry on the rest of our services in a safe manner,” she explains.
As seen from her use of ‘we’, Dr Berkowitz does not take all the credit herself. Rather she defers to the work of her team.
“What I do is at the management, strategic response level whereas my wonderful operational teams on the ground are the people actually doing the work,” she says.
Tackling the unknown
While Berkowitz has years of experience with public health organisations, the scope and speed of the COVID-19 pandemic posed its own unique challenges.
When discussing what was different about the pandemic, she explains, “Dealing with the unknown, and things changing so quickly has really been the hardest thing.”
However, Dr Berkowitz is not one to dwell on the hardships, explaining that the space for opportunity was also created within this unknown. Personally, Berkowitz explains that her experience in this role has helped her grow professionally and put her theoretical knowledge into practice.
“It sounds cliche, but I don’t do the work for the recognition. The work these past two years has really created a sense of community within the organisation. It felt hugely rewarding to be recognised, and the fact that the recognition came from the Director of the department really had a huge impact.”
“I feel like it’s the teams on the ground that really should get the majority of the recognition. It made me consider that the work that was done was valued, and that made me proud. City Health is a small organisation compared to the provincial Department of Health. We work closely together. I’m immensely proud to be part of the work that was done,” she says.
Coordinating the vaccine rollout
While the pandemic is not over, the arrival of vaccines has been a promising step in a positive direction.
“When the vaccine started rolling out, you kind of got to breathe a sigh of relief. I didn’t realise how emotional I would be when I got my vaccine,” she says.
For Dr Berkowitz, the vaccine provided a potential end to the pandemic, to the loss of life, and its impact on communities’ day-to-day lives.
“So much has been neglected because of this, and so now being offered the opportunity to head towards some sort of end was hugely invigorating. There was a massive amount of excitement amongst my colleagues, and so much energy. I cannot describe to you the energy that my ground staff has to vaccinate,” she says.
So far, 24 million doses have been administered across South Africa, with Dr Berkowitz’s team contributing to the over two and a half million across the Cape Town metro.
While rates have slowed since the vaccine’s arrival, she has seen this as an opportunity to bring vaccinations to those who have not got theirs yet.
“I wish we could get communication out there, get community leaders out there, get teams on the ground, just to answer people’s questions. That’s all they really need,” she says.
On an individual level, she says those who are vaccinated can help by talking about the vaccine with those who are hesitant.
“If people have questions, reach out to reputable sources of information. Ask a doctor. Ask a nurse. Ask an epidemiologist. If you’re unsure, try to find the answers from the right people,” she says.
She explains that tapping into extended networks will help greatly with the spread of correct information.
“We are within the small Jewish community within Cape Town. But we are also part of a larger community, and we all have networks within that. So if you reach out to one person a day with whom you come into contact, and just have a talk about the vaccine, I think that will add huge value,” she says.
The Cape Jewish Chronicle congratulates Dr Berkowitz on her award and thanks her for her incredible work helping to keep Capetonians safe and healthy.
• Published in the PDF edition of the December 2021/January 2022 issue – Click here to get it.
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