Phelophepa Covid-19 vaccines
Phelophepa Healthcare Train, Transnet SOC Ltd
  • The Phelophepa train brings healthcare services to under-resourced communities throughout South Africa.
  • The train is now being enlisted to assist with the Covid-19 vaccination rollout.
  • But the theft of copper cables and damage to the country's railway infrastructure have already delayed Phelophepa's arrival in Soweto.
  • The mobile clinics are now being towed by a diesel locomotive.
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South Africa's Phelophepa Healthcare Train, which is planning to bring Covid-19 vaccines to communities in Gauteng and the Free State, was scheduled to arrive at Dube station in Soweto on Saturday. It arrived two days later, hitched to a diesel locomotive, due to cable theft and "severe" damage to railway infrastructure.

South Africa is experiencing a third wave of Covid-19 infections. Gauteng, which accounts for more than 60% of all new cases recorded in the past two weeks, has surpassed its second wave peak with hospitals overwhelmed by Covid-19 admissions. The pace of the province's vaccine rollout is also slower than the national average.

As the country's public healthcare response shudders under the pressure of a new wave, the Phelophepa train has been enlisted to assist with Covid-19 testing, screening, and vaccinations. The train, which traces its roots back almost three decades, is operated by Transnet and the department of health. A newer version of the locomotive – Phelophepha II – made its inaugural visit to Gauteng in September 2020, assisting with Covid-19 testing in Springs, Olifantsfontein, and Soweto.

Phelophepa – meaning "good, clean health" – is an 18-coach mobile clinic which transports around 20 resident healthcare workers to 70 train stations across South Africa. The train features eye, dental, health, and psychology clinics equipped to diagnose illnesses, treat minor ailments, and administer medication.

The train reaches disadvantaged communities that lack adequate healthcare resources. Expanding on its Covid-19 testing capabilities, Phelophepa recently completed a vaccination programme which is expected to be rolled out to other stations.

"As part of the national vaccine rollout initiative, we are in discussions with the Gauteng Department of Health to link the vaccine rollout to Phelophepa at each of the identified stations," Avasha Gopaulsingh, director of the Transnet Foundation's social mobilisation partner, Nemacure, told Business Insider South Africa.

"A successful rollout was held at Springs and Olifantsfontein stations over the past five weeks."

And while South Africa.s underwhelming vaccination rollout has been marred by supply constraints and regulatory setbacks, Phelophepa's power to assist is being hurt by the theft of copper cables and damage to the country's railway infrastructure.

"Cable theft on the rail tracks, technical and logistical challenges prevented the timeous arrival at Dube. These circumstances were beyond our control and every effort was made to address the issues on hand," noted Gopaulsingh, adding that Phelophepa was eventually "hauled" into the station.

The theft and vandalism of railway infrastructure – which surged during lockdown in 2020 – has severely reduced train services in Gauteng. Repairs to the country's damaged railways are expected to cost R1.9 billion, with Gauteng's infrastructure needing the most work.

The theft of overhead copper cables which power South Africa's trains has resulted in Transnet deploying diesel locomotives to tow powerless carriages to and from stations.  These locomotives, and Transnet's diesel reserves, are stretched, leading to further delays which, in Phelophepa's case, postpone vital vaccinations.

Phelophepa will be stationed in Soweto until 9 July. The train will then move on to Vereeniging station along a route which has been identified by the transport ministry as one of the worst-hit in the province.

"Cable theft has been a frequent occurrence on the rail tracks in South Africa," said Gopaulsingh.

"Whilst lines are checked for safety and haulage purposes prior to movement, one cannot determine when cables are stolen hence causing delays."

Phelophepa will be stationed at Vereeniging – if no further delays are encountered on route – from 12 to 23 July. The healthcare train will then move into the Free State, which has also been identified as a hotspot for cable theft in recent months.

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