‘Healthcare workers … are our soldiers being sent into war without weapons’ – NUMSA general secretary Irvin Jim

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Nehawu members at a protest outside the Labour Court in Johannesburg over shortages of personal protective equipment

‘HEALTHCARE workers are our soldiers on the front line, and they are literally being sent into war without any weapons,’ insisted Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim.

He went on to warn: ‘It is shocking and unacceptable that to date the concerns raised by workers have not been adequately addressed.
‘This is worsened by the fact that the public health system has collapsed. Our public clinics and hospitals are underfunded and drastically under-resourced. Our hospitals lack basic equipment, medicines and suffer severe staff shortages and they struggle to serve the community on a day-to-day basis.
‘The Covid-19 epidemic will definitely worsen this situation,’ he insisted.
Nurses throughout South Africa are in fear for their safety as Covid-19 gear shortages are hitting hospitals – and work has become a serious risk for health workers in various parts of the country as they have to handle patients without all the required protective equipment.
And as another South African trade union, Nehawu (the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union), was scheduled to bring the same matter of the safety of its members before the Labour Court, health workers revealed to Sowetan the difficulty they face working without all the required personal protective equipment (PPE).
One nurse who works in the casualty ward of a hospital in Mpumalanga warned insistently that health workers are faced with serious shortages of equipment.
His ward has been receiving about 30 patients a day – which is lower than numbers before the lockdown.
Patients coming to the facility have different conditions such as heart problems, high blood pressure, injuries – and many wanting to be tested for the coronavirus.
The nurse said that, under normal circumstances, workers in the ward have to wear aprons, put on gloves and – depending on the condition of the patient – also have to put on face masks.
‘With the lockdown and the coronavirus outbreak, we are supposed to have gowns to cover the whole body. We have to put these on as the virus can survive on clothes. The gowns are important because when I finish work I go straight home, I could infect my family. We are supposed to have long gloves and masks.’
He said they have just gloves, a surgical mask, an apron and sanitisers. So if necessary Nehawu is ready to take the government to court for failing to provide health workers with PPE.
Nehawu insists that government is failing in its duties by not providing health workers with necessary protection. ‘Even with the masks that we have, we are trying our best to control their use because we are running out,’ it is insisting.
‘When we first raised the issue with management they told us it is expensive to get full protective gear for us.
‘You have to understand, there is a ward dedicated to patients with corona symptoms. Even the nurses that work at the ward wear the same protective equipment that we wear.’
His worst fear is going home. ‘Before I get inside my home, I take off my shoes, get inside and take off all my clothes. I have a separate bin where I throw all my uniforms and seal it.
‘I then take a bath before I have any interaction with my girlfriend and my three-year-old son. I am so scared. Today I will be taking my son elsewhere because I cannot risk his life here with me.
‘My girlfriend works as a cashier at a local supermarket. If I were to infect her, how many people will she pass the virus on to at her work?’
Another nurse at a clinic in Northern Cape told Sowetan that an official from the national health department came to their facility and was informed of the dire shortages of PPE – but nothing came of it.
‘What we are using now is surgical gloves. We are supposed to use those only for surgical procedures. But now we have to use them for protection. We just have one box,’ she said.
She added that nurses had no masks, gloves and gowns to protect them in cases of a patient showing symptoms. Yet fortunately no patient has required isolation so far.
‘How am I supposed to risk my life without having protective equipment? I am a breadwinner with three children and a grandchild. I cannot risk my life like that,’ she said.
She also ensures that she puts away her uniform – and bathes – before having any contact with her family.
Meanwhile, police and the army had their hands full trying to enforce the national lockdown regulations in Daveyton, east of Johannesburg, recently.
The police had expressed concern that some of the residents were not complying with strict lockdown measures calling on people to stay in their homes.
Then in the event the police, army and the Ekurhuleni metro police embarked on a clampdown operation in the townships, targeting areas considered to be problematic.
At Mkhalazenke informal settlement, law enforcement officers wrestled a 30-year-old man who allegedly had ‘insulted’ a soldier when told to stop filming the patrol and to stay inside his house. The man resisted arrest and tried to fight off the officers who wanted to lock him inside a police van.
Police spokesperson Col Mac Mngomezulu also claimed they had had to shut down numerous informal trading businesses that were operating without permits.
Mngomezulu said although most businesses that were not supposed to operate were found closed, people refusing to stay in their homes had been a bigger challenge.
‘We have to enforce the law, as if people do not understand the serious state the country is in,’ Mngomezulu claimed. ‘We have arrested four people due to non-compliance, and one of them we arrested for possession of an illegal firearm.’
Mngomezulu said people were ‘roaming the streets’ in contravention of lockdown rules.
He also claimed police had struggled to control the masses of traders who were allowed on the streets to sell food this week, and that they were concerned about the legitimacy of permits found on different individuals. ‘We urge the municipality to make the permits more appropriate and unforgettable,’ he said.
Mngomezulu claimed too that demarcation was also a problem in terms of informal trading – because people sell everywhere, even in places not allocated to trading. He also complained that a high number of children play on the streets unattended.
‘Parents need to keep their children inside their yards. It’s disappointing that children, being vulnerable as they are, parents allow them to be out on the streets despite the spread of the virus daily.’

  • Meanwhile, top South African ruling ANC party officials are at loggerheads over whether the country should ask the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to shore up its finances as it confronts the coronavirus pandemic.

After Finance Minister Tito Mboweni said last month the government may consider approaching the Washington-based lenders for support, he was reprimanded by Ace Magashule, the ANC secretary-general.
The party’s labour union and communist allies also weighed in, saying conditions likely to be attached to any funding would compromise the nation’s sovereignty.
Enoch Godongwana, the ANC’s head of economic transformation and a member of the party’s decision-making National Executive Committee, also entered the discussion, saying the party hadn’t decided on how the National Treasury should bridge a widening budget gap.
‘Both the World Bank and the IMF have provided facilities without the normal stringent conditions that they used to,’ he said in a phone interview. ‘In my opinion, this would be the best time to approach both institutions for a loan as they start giving developing economies a break to get through the coronavirus epidemic.’
South Africa on March 27 began a 21-day lockdown and shut its borders in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus – measures that have choked off economic growth and tax revenue. The central bank expects the economy to contract as much as 4% this year.
For his part, Mboweni had been scheduled to brief the media on Thursday about interventions by the Treasury to limit the economic impact of coronavirus, but he postponed it indefinitely.
The ANC, which has held power since white-minority rule ended in 1994, has often struggled to convey a coherent and consistent message about how the country should be run, with senior officials from opposing factions issuing conflicting policy statements.
While Mboweni, Godongwana and President Cyril Ramaphosa have stressed the need to encourage investment and growth, a group that includes Magashule wants the emphasis to be placed on giving the black majority a bigger stake in the economy.
Proposals to allow the state to seize land without compensation, nationalise the central bank and direct pension funds to where to invest part of their assets are among the key points of contention.