And that’s where Volkswagen comes in...
We have a factory building covering almost 70,000 square meters, where we manufactured components and stored spare parts for our dealers up until a few months ago. Meanwhile the component assembly has moved to a building near our plant, and the spare parts warehouse to Cape Town. The old, empty building was in the process of being sold, but now we are making it available as a makeshift hospital. The doctors were immediately delighted when we showed them the building for the first time. It is very large, it gets a lot of natural daylight through windows in the ceiling and it has large tanks in which we used to store argon for welding equipment. These are now being converted to liquid oxygen tanks. After all, a lot of oxygen is needed to supply corona patients.
Who operates the hospital?
We can build cars at Volkswagen – but we cannot save lives. That’s why it was clear to us from the outset: we would provide the factory and prepare the hospital until the keys were handed over, but someone else would have to operate it. The local health ministry will take care of that.
How is the project financed?
In the past, we have implemented various projects together with the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in Berlin. When we told the BMZ about our plans, they were very enthusiastic and promised to support the construction of the makeshift hospital with several million euros. The applications were approved in record time.
How long will it take before the first Covid-19 patients can be treated in the former factory?
If we had rebuilt the entire hall at once, it would have taken just under four months to complete. But in order to be able to admit the first patients as soon as possible, we decided to rebuild the hall in three stages. This means that we will soon be able to hand over the first area with almost 1,500 beds, while the construction workers continue to work in the other two areas – separated from the patients. On June 22, the makeshift hospital is scheduled to be completely finished, by then 4,000 patients can be treated here. President Ramaphosa has already announced his intention to hand over the keys.
Where does the extraordinary commitment of Volkswagen South Africa in the fight against the corona virus come from?
We at Volkswagen are committed to the common good, regardless of the current crisis. Starting with our “Show of Hands” volunteer program, in which our employees volunteer four times a year to renovate social facilities, through HIV prevention work to educational projects. Learning to read and write has been one of our core themes over the past two years. The great thing is that with a bit of money and a lot of commitment you can make a large difference in South Africa. So, it soon became clear to us that we, as Volkswagen, must play an even greater role here in the fight against corona than in the rest of the world. Because: if we don’t do it, nobody will.
What do the employees think about this commitment?
The team responded very well to this. Everyone pulled together; many people got in touch and wanted to get involved. I was constantly reminded of how proud people are to work for Volkswagen. And of course, our commitment is also well received by the public. It has to be said that our company already enjoys great affection here anyway; for many South Africans, Volkswagen is part of the family. Some people don’t even know that it is a German company.
Let’s move from hospitals to cars. What impact has corona had on production at the Uitenhage plant?
During the six-week shutdown, production came to a complete standstill. Apart from a few emergency personnel who held the fort, the plant was deserted. In the second week of May, we resumed production; first with one shift, now with two. In doing so, we implemented all the hygiene and safety regulations that apply at Volkswagen worldwide. In this respect, we are benefiting greatly from the experience gained at other Group plants during the restart. In the first two weeks, we produced the Polo mainly for export, primarily to the UK. Production for the African market is now gradually starting up again. Unfortunately, the domestic economy was under a lot of pressure even before corona – that certainly didn’t get any better following the weeks of the shutdown.