Covid-19 exposes ailing health system in E Cape

Health officials at Empilweni hospital in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, protesting after the facility was turned into a covid-19 holding centre. The hospital typically treats TB patients. Archive photo by Joseph Chirume

The coronavirus has exposed the ailing public health system and the inequalities between private and public healthcare.

The provision of services at some public health facilities in the Eastern Cape has been chaotic since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the province at the end of March.

Health professionals, especially nurses and other frontline personnel, frequently downed tools demanding better working conditions and the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Although PPE is vital in preventing the spread of covid-19 from healthcare workers to patients, facilities in Nelson Mandela Bay area quickly ran out of PPE while the disease was spreading in the region like a wild fire.

Cases of the disease shot up daily at health facilities, and in the entire metro. This prompted nursing staff to close down several clinics by refusing to work without PPE. They also demanded to be tested for the disease but the department was adamant that it only tests people with visible symptoms of covid-19.

Several clinics and hospitals turned chaotic with visibly sick patients being sent back by picketing officials who blamed the provincial government for exposing them to the risk of covid-19 infection.

Most affected were township clinics, with the Motherwell Community Health Centre and the Laetitia Bam Day Hospital in Uitenhage bearing the brunt of the strikes. The two hospitals are used as referral hospitals.

Livingstone Hospital ‘appalling’

A two-week strike by nurses and general workers at Livingstone Hospital was the final blow that got the attention of the top leadership of NEHAWU (the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union).

The union’s General Secretary, Zola Saphetha, visited the hospital two weeks ago accompanied by top officials from the Department of Health.

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Livingstone Hospital is the referral hospital for the western region of the Eastern Cape and has the largest casualty unit in the province. The unit had been incapacitated by the strike.

Disgruntled nurses at the institution were joined by general workers, cleaners, cooks, porters and laundry workers in a strike over unpaid overtime, understaffing and a lack of adequate personal protective clothing.

Vuyo Nodlawu, the regional chairperson for the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (Denosa), said the temporary closure of the casualty unit was caused not so much by the strike as the need to sanitise the hospital.

Nodlawu said the staff wanted the hospital cleaned as they feared for their health. “Those workers whose overtime allowances had not been paid for months decided on a go slow to get management’s attention.”

“The poor hygienic state of the working environment posed a danger of infection for the clinical staff and that’s when they demanded that the area must be properly cleaned before they can resume their normal duties.

“This was delayed by the department as the cleaning services were sent to particular areas, not the entire emergency unity,” said Nodlawu.

The toxic environment at Livingstone’s wards was a catalyst event that set the motion for Nehawu’s top brass to touch down in Port Elizabeth recently.

“The condition of the hospital was appalling, especially its state of cleanliness. Medical waste was strewn all over the place and cleaning of the facility had not taken place for days on end.

“The Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) committee was dysfunctional and there was a shortage of personal protective clothing,” said Nehawu national spokesman, Khaya Xaba.

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Touched by the plight of their members in the face of the pandemic, Xaba said Nehawu is donating 600 N95 masks, 600 visors and 2,000 immune boosters for frontline workers. Payment for overdue overtime would be effected on 17 and 23 June. He also said the health officials agreed to stop disciplinary action against workers who refused to work for coronavirus issues.

Xaba said the hospital has for a long time been operating without seven senior managers, including its CEO who was on suspension.

“The CEO has since tendered his resignation letter. The suspensions had left a huge void in the management structure of the hospital. We discovered the hospital has many unfilled posts,” said Xaba.

He said they agreed that the human resources department of the hospital will meet weekly with Nehawu branch leadership on issues of recruitment, including filling the 100 vacant posts currently being advertised.

They will also deliberate on the issue of infection of workers and the care of people above the age of 60 years who, he said, are vulnerable. As of 11 June 2020, according to Xaba, 84 frontline workers were infected and two of them passed on.

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About Joseph Chirume 25 Articles
I was born in the shoe manufacturing town of Gweru in Zimbabwe,1970. I came to South Africa and did some odd jobs before writing for a number of publications. At present I am doing a Masters in Journalism through distance learning.