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By UNICEF Australia
18 May 2021

Zanele is no stranger to disease. As a child, she witnessed HIV/AIDS devastate her community, and sadly she lost her sister to the virus. Today, she is fighting another pandemic and this time she is prepared.

“I would see that her [my sister] needed to be washed but nurses are busy and they are few,” says Zanele.  

Zanele Julia Mqhele is a nurse in South Africa. When she was a child visiting her sister in hospital, she saw that the nursing staff were unable to provide care for her because of the sheer number of patients and limited nursing staff.  

For health workers on the frontlines of a pandemic, it requires extraordinary levels of commitment and bravery.  

Inspired by the passion of the nurses and the great need she saw, Zanele became a registered nurse. Since 2003, she has been caring for patients and ensuring the nursing staff are not stretched thin.  

“For me, this is the best profession ever. I can never want to be anything else,” says Zanele.  

Today, living in Eastern Cape, South Africa, she is battling another pandemic. On 5 March 2020, South Africa contracted its first case of COVID-19. Since then, it has had the most cases of any country on the African continent. 

Nurse Zanele’s mission to end COVID-19

Nurse Zanele had no idea she’d spend 2020 on the frontline of another pandemic.

Health workers like Zanele are the most exposed to the virus. Unfortunately, she was infected and suffered the worst of the symptoms. 

“I could not feel any sense of purpose,” says Zanele. “It is the moment I decided to stand up. I remembered that people were dying in numbers.”  

“So, I thought to myself is this my turn to die? No, I cannot die, not now. So the vaccine was our hope.” 

Health workers like Zanele are the reason we can fight COVID-19 all around the world. Frontline workers are risking their lives to help see us through this pandemic. But they are exhausted and overwhelmed.  

It is our responsibility to ensure they can continue their work by making sure frontline workers are vaccinated, staffed, and have all the support they need. 

Zanele was one of the first in her city to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. With it, she is continuing to provide essential health care. The importance of vaccines cannot be stated enough, without them, Zanele would not have been able to safely return to her patients. 

"So the vaccine was our hope."

Zanele, nurse

UNICEF is driving the COVID-19 relief effort

We are delivering vaccines to all corners of the globe, providing personal protective equipment (PPE), and ensuring the cold chain is keeping vaccines safe and effective.  We’ll always find a way to save lives and together with you, we are helping end this pandemic, one vaccine at a time.  

“I tell myself that this happened and there were reasons for it to happen that might not be known to me,” says Zanele.  

“But after all, life must continue. As long as I have breath, life must continue.” 

Nurse Zanele prepares a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Nurse Zanele prepares a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
© UNICEF 2021

The economic impacts of the pandemic have had a direct impact on the children of South Africa. An estimated 2.2 million jobs were lost in the country between April and June 2020.  

The loss of income made it more difficult than ever for families to provide for their children. I n April 2020,the first month of the lockdown in South Africa, 47 per cent of households ran out of money for food. 

It is important that those on the frontlines are vaccinated against the disease so that they can continue to provide care. Children are only safe if everyone they rely on is safe. 

Zanele’s passion is inspirational to all. It is frontline workers like that remind us of the amazing work around the world to fight this disease and that we need to help however we can. Remember – it's not over for anyone until it’s over for everyone. 

Vaccinating the world

We’re on a mission to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to vulnerable communities – no matter where they are or hard it is to reach them. 

Vaccinating the world against the biggest pandemic for a generation is no easy task. UNICEF has the expertise and the experience, but we cannot do it alone.