During his visit to the Port Elizabeth area, Health Minister, Dr. Zweli Mkhize admitted that the health facilities in the Eastern Cape are in an appalling state.
The dire situation of the public health system in the Eastern Cape province was put in the spotlight this week when the Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, visited two referral hospitals in Port Elizabeth where he explicitly acknowledged his department’s shortcomings.
Minister Mkhize was accompanied by the MEC for Health, Sindiswa Gomba, and the province’s health managers, headed by Dr Thobile Mbengashe, when they toured the perennially troubled Livingstone and Dora Nginza hospitals. The minister and his entourage ended their tour at the Motherwell Community Health Centre.
The Motherwell centre played a pivotal role in highlighting the plight of frontline health workers soon after the coronavirus pandemic presented itself in the province. The health facility turned into an epicentre of protests and strikes that nearly crippled the provision of health services in the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality as frontline health workers expressed their discontent over the lack of personal protective equipment and poor working conditions.
Speaking in Motherwell, Minister Mkhize said his visit had highlighted the glaring lack of staff, the poor and appalling state of infrastructure, the need to fill in permanent positions for senior managers and the urgent provision of oxygen in all health facilities in the province.
“The fact is the number of covid-19 patients is increasing in the Eastern Cape province. We are now focusing on the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces where the numbers are increasing.
A report by a team of professionals that he said he had received “a few weeks ago” prompted his personal inspection of the health situation in the province.
The minister expressed confidence that the province’s 3,500 beds will be re-distributed to small hospitals away from major towns before the surge in covid-19 cases. Other patients will be transferred to the VW field hospital in Port Elizabeth. He has picked Dr Sibongile Zungu to head a team of experts tasked with remedying the province’s health system though she is being investigated by the Hawks for corruption.
Oxygen is a challenge with a shortage affecting the whole country, Minister Mkhize said, but constrained all the more in the Eastern Cape by the need for new and refurbished tanks.
Meanwhile health workers from across all unions, calling themselves Combined Labour, handed a list of grievances to MEC Gomba to give to Minister Mkhize.
Presenting the memorandum, Nomonde Fanele accused the Port Elizabeth district office of using the challenges imposed by covid-19 to further exploit the workers.
“The management meet in their offices and don’t come to meet workers in our working environments… People are dying, our members are dying and patients are dying from the pandemic, yet there are leaders taking the pandemic as a bargaining tool,” said Fanele.
She, however, acknowledged the efforts being made by MEC Gomba in alleviating the plight of workers, saying,”The MEC is doing her best to engage our members, unlike previous MECs who did not see eye to eye with employees.”
The regional secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) in Port Elizabeth, Mzikazi Nkatha, said the minister’s visit was just a window dresser as it would solve nothing. She said they had raised the problems haunting health facilities to him long ago but it took a pandemic to force him to visit Port Elizabeth.
Nkatha alleged that the officials who hosted him the minister did not show him the truth. Workers who really know the problems plaguing the hospitals, she said, were not invited to meet with the minister.
Nkatha was scathing: “Covid-19 is killing people, but at the same time it assisted in bringing to the public eye problems in our health system. The state of Dora Nginza and Livingstone hospitals were unmasked. The corridors are splattered with blood. Stretchers are broken, buildings are dilapidated and there is no adequate medication. There is widespread vandalism of property at these institutions. Patients cannot walk alone to another ward because they can be robbed or raped. Some corridors do not have electricity.”
The Combined Labour memorandum includes the demand that clinics are upgraded as they are not designed to cater for covid-19 treatment. The workers say that there is no clear plan and strategy to protect workers and the public at the facilities, and that there are no clear guidelines and training of workers to fight the disease.
The memorandum states that there is an unfair distribution of PPE that is creating tension between workers and management and that facilities did not have sanitiser. The workers demand the formation of properly constituted committees to mitigate the spread of the disease.