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SAfrica Loses Media Medical Personality to COVID-19

A woman walks past newspaper billboards during the coronavirus disease outbreak in Johannesburg, South Africa, Feb. 8, 2021.
A woman walks past newspaper billboards during the coronavirus disease outbreak in Johannesburg, South Africa, Feb. 8, 2021.

COVID-19 has claimed the life of one of South Africa’s best-known medical practitioners.

Dr. Sindi van Zyl died of coronavirus complications over the weekend after being hospitalized since February, She was 45.

Van Zyl spend the past 15 years giving health advice to many South Africans. She often appeared on television and hosted a radio show.

Van Zyl’s relaxed and friendly style - plus a unique ability to explain medicine, illnesses and treatment in ways that people could easily understand - endeared her to millions.

Up until about a year ago, the 45-year-old doctor had spent her career serving HIV-infected patients in the public sector.

Sometimes, when some of them needed specialized medicine, van Zyl would pay out of her own pocket.

But financial troubles forced her to join a private hospital.

Last November, six weeks before she became seriously ill with COVID-19, van Zyl told VOA working at a private hospital was “depressing” her.

“I think what I’m struggling with is the business side of being in private practice,” she said.

Van Zyl was earning more, but she wasn’t happy. In the private sector where, she said, humanity was taken out of medicine and replaced by profit motives.

“I think I went into private practice quite naïve,' she told VOA. "I never thought I’d have the words ‘medicine’ and ‘business’ in the same sentence and that’s really what’s starting to get under my skin.

"What I’ve come to realize is that (private) hospitals sell beds," she said. "It’s like a washing machine. A patient gets admitted and you have to see how many cycles you can get out of this person before they’re discharged.”

Van Zyl planned to leave private practice as soon as she’d saved enough for her two young children’s education.But as her condition worsened, her family began fund raising efforts to pay her medical bills.

South African Medical Association vice-chair, Dr. Mvuyisi Mzukwa, remembers her as “one of the nicest human beings” he’s ever met.

“It’s a very huge loss if you see the stature of this hero in our country, who has gone beyond the profession, who served communities, gave free medical advice; very humble and very loving as well," he said. "Her love for the profession, I don’t know what to say. It goes beyond my expressions.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, van Zyl fought for access to personal protective equipment for nurses and doctors. But even when protected, Mzukwa says she never lost her “terror” of getting COVID-19 because she had an underlying medical condition.

“We’ve got a (long) list of healthcare workers who’ve lost their lives in the battle, that includes nurses, doctor," he said. "We’ve lost our colleagues due to COVID-19.

"Some of our colleagues have lost their jobs, some they have closed down their practices," he said. "On top of that, now we’re seeing new challenges, where our colleagues are being killed, robbed at gunpoint, by criminals.”

Van Zyl lamented that vaccines weren’t being rolled out fast enough in South Africa, the nation with the most infections and deaths on the continent, Mzukwa said,

“Obviously we are not impressed with the pace of the rollout," he said. "We are very slow and we’re approaching the winter season. There’ll be flu other than COVID-19. So we’re really worried about the pace that we’re at,at the moment. But also we understand that there’s these dynamics of demand and supplY. These vaccines are needed by the whole world.”

The South African health department’s currently vaccinating workers in the healthcare sector with a very limited supply of Johnson and Johnson vaccines.

But for van Zyl and more than 400 of her colleagues, the shots have come too late.

AUDIO: Cyndi van Zyl
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