Dr Ernest Peresu
Group Medical Services Specialist
Durban, South Africa
Across Illovo Sugar Africa’s six countries of operation, Dr Ernest Peresu is spearheading the medical response to the challenges of COVID-19. We managed to catch up with Ernest for a quick chat about his role, how the business has adapted to the current environment and challenges, as well as why medicine and his role is so important to him.
Welcome Ernest and thank you for taking the time to speak to us. To give some context to your role within Illovo, can you tell us about where you’ve worked and the responsibilities of your current role?
“Of course. Many doctors find their calling in different ways so when I chose to study medicine, I never quite understood what it meant. I would not have anticipated the amazing highs of directly impacting someone’s life nor the deep lows when a patient is extremely poorly. It is really a blessing to have the opportunity to care for patients in their most weak and vulnerable times.
“In terms of my career, I have practised medicine in public, mission, private and military medical settings in several countries across southern Africa; namely Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Namibia and Eswatini before moving to South Africa to take up my current role. During my time with Ubombo Sugar (part of the Illovo Sugar Africa group) in Eswatini, I was able to fully grasp the value of our medical facilities to both employees, their families and neighbouring communities. I worked in the hospital on our sugar estate and as a result of this, I was able to make a seamless transition to my current role at head office as the group medical services specialist.
“Today, my role involves leading group-wide employee health and wellness management by providing strategy, minimum standards, direction and advice especially in integrating the fields of occupational health, workplace and working conditions, wellness, disease management and community health. I also facilitate the sharing of evidence-based medical services best practices across the business, taking into account country-specific context and circumstances.”
Thank you Ernest, what an interesting career to date. It feels right to touch upon COVID-19 at the current time. How has the challenges of this pandemic changed the way the medical facilities are set up and what has been the most challenging aspect of preparing the hospitals and clinics?
“COVID-19 is spreading at an extraordinary speed, bringing with it uncertainty and rapidly evolving conditions that are more complex and bigger than what we are used to dealing with. We have a COVID-19 emergency plan-ahead team that has been instrumental in delivering an evidence-informed, strategic-crisis action plan with speed in an effort to safeguard the health and wellbeing of our employees which is our highest priority.
“In most rural communities we operate, our medical facilities are the communities’ only lifeline. We also realise that our medical facilities are uniquely positioned to help flatten the curve with our experience in dealing with malaria and cholera outbreaks and the HIV epidemic. We have reconfigured and made sure that each of our 4 hospitals and 27 clinics across the group created two streams of care – one for patients with respiratory symptoms and another for those with general illnesses; launched new service models to reach patients and employees remotely; implemented infection prevention and control protocols in all facilities; has adequate supply of oxygen, oxygen concentrators and ventilators; enough PPE such as facemasks; and designated quarantine and isolation facilities for accommodating people whose accommodation does not support self-isolation. In addition, we designed and implemented health communication strategies leveraging on long-standing relationships with local communities to reach a wide audience with evidence-based messages. Each of our operations also collaborates and aligns their COVID-19 response with the World Health Organization and local public health authorities’ protocols.
“With operations across six countries, one challenge in particular has been the different ways each country is responding to the outbreak. The different policy responses to COVID-19 have made it a bit difficult for us to implement some of the internationally-recommended evidence-based practices in some of our facilities. However, I’m happy that we’re managing to navigate through this and align our responses to local Ministry of Health protocols.”
It sounds like the teams on the ground are doing absolutely everything possible to manage the outbreak. But is there anything on your mind that keeps you awake at night?
“Absolutely, the teams in each of our countries have been fantastic. In terms of what keeps me awake at night, I’m concerned by a few things. Firstly, the fear of the virus is spreading faster than the disease itself, bringing with it stigma to those who have been confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19. From our experience in dealing with HIV, we know that people who are worried about being socially stigmatised are less likely to get tested or seek treatment if they experience symptoms. So, we are busy trying to remind people that our values of inclusion, acceptance and diversity also extend to people who are affected by the virus. Secondly, our doctors and nurses, medical staff in general, who are at the front line of the response, are particularly exposed to the risk of contracting the virus. So, we will continue doing our best to reinforce hygiene measures in our medical facilities to prevent our hospitals and clinics from becoming places where the disease is transmitted.
“Despite this, I am extremely motivated by the incredibly strong and resilient medical and human resources team that surround me and work with me every day to fulfil our purpose. The joy, appetite and desire, especially of our doctors, nurses and all medical staff – who are as passionate and invested in the company's success as me – to serve others inspires me every day.”
Ernest, looking to the future where do you see your focus being for the medical services Illovo offers?
“In many countries across Africa, health systems are not primarily designed to keep people healthy, but instead focused on responding to diseases. So as a doctor, the more patients you see today, the more and more patients you will see tomorrow because the health system is built to wait for people who are sick rather than reaching out to people to live healthy lives. I see us shifting even more towards empowering people to own their personal health and live healthy lifestyles. This is a fundamental change and will take time.
“For our services specifically, we’re also evaluating the best ways to solve the health challenges our employees and communities face. Our ambition is to continue to develop our medical services’ capability to enable the provision and accessibility of safe, quality and affordable healthcare that address country-specific needs. To achieve this, we will continue to re-engineer and optimise our service to ensure they are fit-for-purpose, and where we can, leverage on creating strong public-private partnerships to address the healthcare needs of those around us.”
Thank you, Dr Peresu, for taking the time to speak to us and sharing insight into what life is like as a Doctor overseeing the medical response to the global pandemic within communities in sub-Saharan Africa.