SOUTH Africa’s mining companies have recorded hundreds of Covid-19 cases, with most not complying with government measures – and also not complying with requirements to screen and test their workers.
With the number of Covid-19 positive cases expected to surge beyond 500,000 before the end of the winter season, it is important that employers start to listen now to the advice of trade unions – and share notes before arrogantly throwing workers into the lion’s den.
This will help in combating the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic at workplaces going forward.
Tapping into what President Cyril Ramaphosa said when moving the country from lockdown Level 5 to Level 3, we must all collectively be prepared to live with Covid-19 for a year or even more. Observations that are made so far paint a gloomy picture.
In the case of mineworkers, for example, the majority were bulldozed out of their comfort zones and forced into returning to work barely prepared and exposed to the virus. We are now witnessing undue consequences – the daily increases in the number of positive cases reported at various mining houses. Such a situation remains unpalatable.
Pushing workers back to work was a blanket approach. An ideal approach would have been for the mines to strictly adhere to Covid-19 regulations that included screening, testing, PPE and transportation to health workers as well as quarantine places.
The mining sector alone has so far recorded hundreds of positive Covid-19 cases. In most instances, workers are forced to cramp together in mine cages or shafts, making it difficult for them to reduce the amount of physical contact. Also, the underground environment is not conducive to the prescribed regulations.
The occupational health and safety of workers is a non-negotiable matter with regards to workers’ rights. There is a growing concern and fear that the mining industry is becoming a new epicentre and that Covid-19 cases could remain on a steep upward trajectory.
Before the first national lockdown announcement by Ramaphosa in March 2020, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) expressed serious concerns as it foresaw that the health and safety of workers would be significantly compromised.
It remains difficult to maintain physical distancing underground. In most instances, workers are forced to cramp together in mine cages or shafts, making it difficult for them to reduce the amount of physical contact. Also, the underground environment is not conducive to the prescribed regulations.
The NUM has always insisted on the right to participate in decision-making on what controls would be implemented. That means joint health and safety committees, and trade union safety representatives must be fully involved in the design, implementation and monitoring of all measures taken.
Section 23 of the Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA) empowers workers to refuse to perform unhealthy or unsafe work if they have reason to believe that the controls are inadequate.
We recently observed a similar blanket approach when the reopening of schools was announced. The Department of Basic Education had initially planned to reopen schools on 1 June 2020, but immediately postponed to 8 June to ensure schools’ readiness for reopening.
The initial approach seemed very dangerous as proper consultations with other stakeholders, in particular trade unions, were necessary and didn’t take place.
The department had to assure South Africans that safety measures had been put in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 at schools, but as of this week, several schools across the country have been temporarily closed after several teachers and pupils tested positive for Covid-19.
Covid-19 is way more dangerous than just the flu, it is killing hundreds of thousands of people around the world and many countries have declared war on the virus.
There are so many reasons trade unions are important at workplaces, because part of their purpose is to prevent work-related diseases and accidents. No worker should be sacrificed for profits during this crisis.
- Exhausted Western Cape health care workers say they were buckling under pressure even before the peak of Covid-19 in the province, which is SA’s epicentre. Bodies are piling up in a small room that doubles as a makeshift mortuary in one of Cape Town’s district hospitals, said an emergency nurse working there.
By Wednesday (June 17) 1,205 people had died of Covid-19 and 45,767 had been infected in the Western Cape, the epicentre of the pandemic in SA. At least 31,824 have recovered so far.
Emergency nurse Sonwabo Fika said: ‘Before Covid-19 we used to take the family of the deceased to the room for them to pay their last respects before the body was taken away by an undertaker, but we have stopped doing that now. The room is always full of bodies.’
The ICUs in referral hospitals, such as Groote Schuur, Tygerberg and Victoria Hospital, are filling up and the overflow is being sent to them, he said. ‘We have to watch these patients die as we can’t help them further,’ he said.
Fika, who deals with unconfirmed cases of Covid-19, fears contracting the virus as his protective gear comprises only a surgical mask, gloves and a plastic apron. N95 masks are reserved for doctors and staff in Covid-19 wards.
For the past few weeks, this father of three had been working ‘non-stop’, without breaks for tea or lunch, to fill in for his colleagues who were either hospitalised or quarantined because of Covid-19.
‘We have to tend to very serious patients who deteriorate very quickly. It is much busier than usual. With alcohol sales back, it’s even busier as we have to attend to Covid-19 emergencies and injuries.
‘We are already feeling exhausted and staff morale is low due to lack of support from management. Half of our units are run by agency staff due to absenteeism of full-time staff.’
Many health care workers dread what the Covid-19 peak will look like because they are already buckling under the added workload and stress. By last Friday there were at least 2,118 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among health care workers in the Western Cape, and 11 had died.
This week two more nurses from Michael Mapongwana community health care centre succumbed to Covid-19, bringing the number of nurses who had died of the respiratory illness in the Western Cape to eight.
About half of the health care workers had recovered, said Western Cape health department spokesperson Mark van der Heever. ‘Our workplace is like a jungle,’ say staff at Tygerberg Hospital.
Meanwhile, healthcare workers at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town say they are scared to go to work.
Cape Town’s field hospital – called the Hospital of Hope – admitted its first patient last Monday: A 75-year-old man from Mitchells Plain.
Van der Heever said different interventions were considered to minimise infections, including getting staff ‘to work remotely where possible’.
With so many health care workers in this province testing positive for Covid-19, some relayed cases of hospital units (that were already) working with skeleton staff.
Many fear contracting the virus and dying, saying that lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the rotation of staff between dedicated Covid-19 and non Covid-19 wards because of staff shortages, exposed them to risk of infection.
Leah Andrews, a registered nurse at a Cape Town tertiary hospital said testing was offered to staff only if they showed symptoms.
As she had contact with colleagues who tested positive, she was refused a test. ‘I only got tested after I went under false pretence and said I have symptoms. I tested positive.’
When Lizzy Simon, a psychiatric nurse, started her shift recently she found herself with added duties like cleaning the ward. Despite many of her colleagues testing positive and going on quarantine, Simon said there were no additional staff.
To avoid infecting her child and to get as much rest when she was at home, Simon had since taken her daughter to live with her parents.
Eric September, an ICU nurse at one of Cape Town’s tertiary hospitals, said the critical care unit had reduced hospital beds to cope with rising patient numbers because of staff shortages. ‘If we are struggling to man the current beds due to staff shortages how on earth are we going to cope with the peak?’
But what worried September even more was the lack of PPE. As an ICU staffer they had been issued with patient gowns to wear inside the ward, which they were required to wash at home. ‘Around the world ICU staff working with Covid-19 patients wear full PPE.
‘Even Red Dot taxi drivers that take nurses drive around in full PPE, wearing those white overalls that we all wish we had. But when it comes to nurses no PPE is offered, but patient gowns are good enough for us.’
Western Cape health care workers say PPE remains a challenge despite the increasing number of Covid-19 infections among them.
Eleanor Roberts, chairperson of nursing union Denosa in the Western Cape, said that despite nurses putting their lives at risk they were ‘sadly not compensated for their sacrifice’.
Around the world nurses are being praised as heroes, but Fika said they do not feel like it. ‘Instead, we feel like orphans with managers prioritising budgets over our lives.’
Van der Heever said: ‘As part of our staffing planning we have included a 20% absenteeism which will be offset by reallocation of staff within a hospital, appointment of agency staff, recruitment of new staff and redeployment of staff between public hospitals.’
He said an internal occupational health and safety work group, which included top infectious disease specialists and senior managers, had ‘developed guidelines to guide safety practice at facilities’. This group also advised on the use of PPE in accordance with risk profiles of staff.
To augment the public sector’s 135 critical care beds, Van der Heever said additional beds were being created within the public sector, and 300 ICU beds were purchased from the private sector.