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Covid-19 survivor and business owner offers support to medical workers

After her own experience with coronavirus, Kim Whitaker has turned her experience to creating Ubuntu Beds, which accommodates healthcare staff away from home.

NOMPU SIZIBA: It’s our SME special feature today [Thursday, April 9] and it’s apt to be speaking to the owner of an SME at a time when many of them are so vulnerable during the 21-day Covid-19-related shutdown. This particular guest is quite special. She’s the owner of two hostels that house about 150 travellers between them – one in Johannesburg and one in Cape Town.

After returning from a business trip in Germany in early March, like many other people travelling back to South Africa at that time, she was checked for Covid-19 symptoms, and got through the airport with no problem. But thereafter she developed symptoms, got tested and indeed was confirmed to have the coronavirus.

She has since recovered. Her a story is a multifaceted one. And so, without further ado, let’s chat to Kim Whitaker. She’s the owner and founder of Once Travel. Thanks very much for joining us, Kim. Your story is very interesting indeed, and thank you so much for being willing to share both your personal and business story with us.

You got hit by the virus, which has almost brought the world to a standstill. Just tell us, as much as you’re able to share, about that experience, how it impacted on you and your family, and what the period of isolation was like when you were not well.

KIM WHITAKER: Thank you so much. To answer your question, we went almost immediately into self-quarantine. The school of my children requested it, and I thought it was quite outrageous. I hadn’t been to Italy, I’d been to Germany, and I thought it wasn’t a high-risk country. They requested any person who had been overseas, to any country, to self-quarantine. So we obliged. I went to get the test, because I was sure I was negative, and then the next day it came back positive to my surprise.

My symptoms have been very mild. I wouldn’t have taken a day off work. I had a dry cough, some body aches, a bit of a headache. And then I lost my taste, my sense of smell –  okay. And, apart from that, I really had no other symptoms. I was not on any medication, I wasn’t hospitalised and, you know, I think that’s the danger of this virus. I would have continued life as normal – hang out with people who are vulnerable and I would have just passed it on to them.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Exactly. So what happened in terms of your family? Did you all have to go into isolation, or was it just you?

KIM WHITAKER: I have two young children. They’re three years old and seven years old, and our GP recommended that we self-quarantine together. So we really increased our hygiene levels in our house, and sort of deep-cleaned everything every day, and I had separate drinking glasses and different cutlery, and so forth.

We decided since this didn’t affect children adversely, we were not going to change our living habits too much. She [the doctor] said the trauma of them not seeing mom for another three weeks would just be worse than them actually getting the virus.

NOMPU SIZIBA: So you own these travel hubs, or hostels for travellers, which you’ve aptly named Once in Johannesburg and Once in Cape Town. You shut them down even before the official lockdown, and had to send some of your staff home. Of course your business thrives by having clients and, if they don’t come through, cash generation is a problem. So were you in a position to give your staff any financial support to tide them over or not? And how did you feel in this whole process?

KIM WHITAKER: You know, I think hospitality businesses in South Africa are in one sense a little lucky compared to our colleagues in the northern hemisphere. We’ve just come off the back of summer, which characteristically is a strong cash-flow season for us. We’re accustomed to going into the winter months, which are a lot quieter. Normally the cash flows in summer sort of carry us through winter. So in that case we’re very lucky. We have a little bit of savings and we were able to keep our staff. We put a six-month plan in place and we’re communication openly every month on where we’re at [with that].

We developed something like a load-shedding schedule – I’m sure everyone in South Africa is familiar with that – with different stages, and then we communicate. Now we’re in stage one, now we’re in stage three, and so on.

NOMPU SIZIBA: You are a member of the Entrepreneurs Organisation, and we’ve had a couple of other entrepreneurs on the show who are members as well. They’ve talked about how great it is in terms of a support network. How important has this support structure been for you during this difficult time?

KIM WHITAKER: It’s been absolutely invaluable. We have a strong network of entrepreneurs throughout South Africa. In fact, it was a call about three weeks ago to Lombardy in Italy, which is the current epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, that led me to launch a new business platform called Ubuntu Beds.

So essentially I spoke to a doctor, an entrepreneur in Lombardy in Italy, and they described this awful health crisis. And someone said, what would you have done two weeks ago if you knew what was coming? He said, we would have gone to the empty hotels, and we would have said, can you accommodate the doctors, nurses, healthcare workers that are fighting this pandemic on the front line.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Exactly.

KIM WHITAKER: And that struck a cord for me, because my appearance of both doctors – I have a lot of friends in public and private health, and it dawned on me. I knew that our beds were going to be empty within a matter of days, and so I thought, well, at least you can put them to great use. We have a number of hospitals very close to our accommodation. So why don’t we offer our rooms as a solution?

NOMPU SIZIBA: Excellent. So you came up with this idea, motived like you say by your conversations with your Italian counterparts. You’re not only looking for you to make your accommodation available, but you’re looking to forge with other accommodation facilities and business people to also do the same. And you are also looking at doing it on a free basis. Tell us about that.

KIM WHITAKER: Well, first of all, I just went back to EO and the network there has allowed me create this platform for Ubuntu Beds. Really, within a few days or a week we’ve managed to build this platform which asks hospitality people in Natal. And that asks clusters, lodges and all kinds of BnB, guest houses, to log on and pledge their beds if they are willing to help.

Similarly, we’ll send you a form that asks healthcare workers to sign up, also by region, around South Africa. And we’re now mapping those two together and seeing where we can meet the need of the healthcare workers, which is supply. And this came of my own experience. I literally was emailing hospital managers and public health and saying, you know, do you want to use these beds? And I always found that the conversation was a bit tricky and a bit awkward, and the price was always, without a difference, R20 or R500 a night. The price is always a sticking point, because there are such strict procedures in place with procurement, in terms of processes and suppliers, which is very valid. But in this time you have to think quick, or that process is too long.

And so we thought, let’s just get a sense of what the demand is. There will be enough funding out there. And in my case I approached our boarders directly and said, look, would you be prepared to offer the rooms for free? I will keep a strict account of what our expenses are, and I will make sure that we get those covered – and I will find funding for it.

And then doors started opening. That’s the idea of behind the free beds. We’ve always had this philosophy that beds should be free for healthcare workers, but we will find the funding from somewhere.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Excellent. So how many accommodation facilities or businesses have come on board and subscribed to your idea? And also in terms of when you have gone out there and spoken to hospitals and so on, is there quite a lot of demand for this?

KIM WHITAKER: We’ve had around 140 accommodations sign up this week, since Monday, and we’ve also had about 150 individual healthcare workers. And then through groups an additional about 100. The response has been positive from the hospitals, especially on the ground, because they can see the strain of commuting to and from work. We’ve heard incidences of lab assistants and nurses getting attacked on their way to work, because they are in their uniforms, which they have to be, and they are commuting 40 minutes to work. And they are also living with loved ones who perhaps are ill or elderly, and that would influence them as well.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Absolutely.

KIM WHITAKER: On an individual level, we’ve had a really great response. And then at a hospital level, well, you can see the compassion, you can see the concern, and everyone has described the calm before the storm. So I think that it’s not critical yet, but if it does escalate it may escalate quite quickly. So what we’re hoping to do is just get all our ducks in a row, so that if it does escalate we’ve got a plan.

NOMPU SIZIBA: It’s better to be proactive than reactive. No one is really sure how long the country is going to be on lockdown, but there is a level of despair around the economy – how it’s going to look at the end of it, and some businesses’ survive-ability, jobs retention and all of that. From your experience and everything that you’ve gone through, and how you’ve turned it into a more positive type of thing, are you positive or optimistic about the future, especially as it pertains to your sector, which is effectively the tourism sector, given that most countries have closed their borders?

KIM WHITAKER: Absolutely. I mean, I’m confident that borders will open in the future, and it’s not entirely sure when. All I can say is that the experiences that I’ve gained from people living in other countries where it escalated, they’re no longer concerned about the economics. It’s become a healthcare crisis, and they’re only concerned about health. And, granted there is …… countries, but I think that we’re still living in a calm place before it’s becoming a health crisis, and really a serious health crisis. And so my experience so far is people have been really innovative in turning round their businesses. I’ve seen tour companies turn around a business and become hand-sanitiser delivery companies in a matter of days. And this is where being in South Africa is just inspiring – “let’s make a plan”.

But also I feel that most generations have been through some sort of major crisis – with the Depression, the World Wars, and other influenzas – and human beings are resilient, and as a species I believe we bounce back. I don’t have any fears of the future, because I don’t know what the future will hold. I cannot be [certain] of it. But I am sure that the economy will get through, invigorated. And in the entrepreneurship circle that I’ve been part of in the past few weeks and months and especially in EO, my experience is that the people are reinventing themselves, probably in the way that they should’ve in any case, and they are being more creative and more essential and they are making better decisions than ever before. In fact, I feel that we will come out of this more resilient, and perhaps more compassionate.

I want to add a link to the website Ubuntobeds.org, so that more healthcare workers can sign up, and more accommodations, if they log on to our website.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Excellent. Thank you so much. Take care.

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