THE NATIONAL Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) has called on health staff to stay away from work on 28th August to protest against the lack of PPE (personal protective equipment) provided to frontline workers and against daily victimisation experienced at work.
Frustrated and disgruntled, Nehawu has put plans in motion to prepare its national programme of action to protect frontline health workers. The plan is ‘aimed at defending its members and workers against unsafe working conditions and reckless infections.
‘As a union we have come to the conclusion that we can no longer fold our arms watching our members being subjected to harm and death,’ Nehawu’s general secretary, Zola Saphetha, said at a media briefing on Tuesday 28 July.
‘Our members are being caught between a rock and a hard place because when they comply they die. When they complain they are dismissed.’
The union has appealed to all its members to stay away from work on 28 August to persuade the government to listen to its list of demands. If the demands are not met by the government, Nehawu will then embark on a strike in September.
Nehawu wants the government to:
- Check that health facilities are complying with the Occupational Health and Safety Act;
- Look into the availability of PPE for staff working at health facilities;
- Check the establishment of functional workplace health and safety committees;
- Investigate the impact of the shortage of staff in hospitals; and
- Look at the training of workers and frontline workers in dealing with Covid-19.
The demands came after the union undertook fact-finding visits to selected public healthcare facilities.
The purpose of the visits was to assess the conditions under which healthcare workers were working, including the availability of PPE, compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the state of the institutions in terms of the government’s National Core Standards.
Nehawu said that at all healthcare institutions that were visited there was non-compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act and a shortage of PPE. This added to the union’s frustration, as at the beginning of April it approached the courts to force the government to adhere with the Occupational Health and Safety Act by providing a comprehensive and budgeted plan detailing how those who continue to work during the lockdown would be protected.
Nehawu dropped the court case as it was assured by the Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize, the Minister of Employment and Labour, Thembelani Thulas Nxesi, and the Minister of Trade and Industry, Ebrahim Patel, that an adequate amount of PPE would be provided to frontline workers.
‘We have passed the stage of begging and asking the government to listen to us,’ Saphetha said. ‘We are not chasing ministers any more. We plan to save lives.’
In its report, Nehawu said some institutions have cleaning staff – who work in contaminated areas – left unprotected because of the misconception that PPE is only for clinical staff.
‘In fact, in an institution like Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, our team found that workers had to resort to using refuse bags to protect themselves,’ Saphetha said.
He said workers are being victimised on a daily basis at health institutions they visited. Members complained to the union that nothing had been done by management to create a ‘cordial working environment’.
In one instance, Nehawu said, a member at a health facility tested positive for Covid-19, but managers of the facility refused to disinfect the affected institution or section. The union said that the General Justice Gizenga Mpanza Hospital management had suspended two workers who asked for a report on the rising infections at the facility.
The union said it was disheartened to find that managers at the Tygerberg Hospital, in Cape Town, had issued final written warnings to workers who refused to work without PPE. ‘Such behaviour endangers the rest of the workforce as well as other patients,’ Saphetha said.
Adding to the union’s frustration is what it called the inaccuracy of the Department of Health’s statistics on how many health workers have been infected with Covid-19. The department recently stated that 13,174 healthcare workers were infected with Covid-19.
However, Nehawu said the Department of Public Service and Administration reported that there are 22,329 public servants who are currently infected, which is contradictory from the number from the health department.
‘Already, of the 13,174 infected workers, more than 10,275 of those workers are our members, which account for 78% of the reported numbers,’ Saphetha said. ‘This makes me further doubt the veracity of the statistics communicated by government.’
Nehawu added it will not ‘sit idly while members are infected on a daily basis. If the frontline workers are not protected, we are not going to protect the country’, Saphetha said.
- The South African Medical Association (Sama) last Wednesday pushed to remind the government that medics bore the biggest brunt of the corruption surrounding the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE).
The association said dubious medical tenders jeopardised medical workers’ wellbeing as well as the country’s economy and reputation. ‘Over the past few weeks there have been numerous reports of alleged wrongdoing and corruption. The most recent high-profile case involves the spokesperson to the president.
‘As a professional body representing doctors, we take a strong stand against these purported abuses,’ said Dr Angelique Coetzee, chairperson of Sama.
But setting aside all the political murmur, the association said the reality of the situation was that medics were being hampered from doing their job. It suggested there was a lot of lip service in regards to dealing with alleged corruption but there was seldom any action.
Sama said: ‘As doctors we are on the front line of fighting coronavirus every day, putting our own and our family’s lives at risk every time we report for work to assist the sick. When medical equipment such as personal protective equipment (PPE) is the focus of an alleged wrongdoing, we expect immediate and urgent action.
‘Unless it is done, and seen to be done, irregularities will continue, and continue to burden an already over-stretched health sector,’ said Coetzee. The association bemoaned other scandals which have mushroomed amid the coronavirus pandemic.
‘These include the medical scooter debacle in the Eastern Cape, where the province’s health department embarked on a failed R10m ambulance scooter project.’
The project was initially to transport patients in rural areas to clinics and hospitals in a manner that would limit the spread of Covid-19. But in an embarrassing revelation, health minister Zweli Mkhize said the scooters did not meet the basic criteria for ‘patient transport as an ambulance’.
Mkhize said the national health department was not consulted on the specifications before the procurement of the scooters.
Sama also highlighted the lack of proper equipment in other hospitals, and the alleged mushrooming of companies established solely to do business with the government during this period.
‘The list goes on and on. There is clearly no accountability in government nor apparently a political will to deal with corruption.
‘If there was, we believe, the strong message would have been supported by equally strong action which we don’t see. There are many occasions where corruption is evident yet no action is taken and we are stunned by the seemingly non-interventionist approaches to these incidents,’ Coetzee alleged.
‘The government may centralise procurement of Covid-19 personal protection equipment as a measure to curb fraud and corruption’ she added.
The association said it was concerned that the already poor health care in the country was not improving.
‘The billions of rands, which have allegedly been siphoned off of legitimate channels, has the effect that doctors and other healthcare workers are treating patients without the proper PPE, are having to work without proper equipment to diagnose patients, and the patients themselves have to suffer more in the often pitiful wards of dysfunctional hospitals,’ said Coetzee.
‘We can simply not continue like this – something has to give.’
She called on those in the medical fraternity who possessed information of corruption, fraud and other wrong doing to blow the whistle on this. She said medics should also be vocal about the difficulties they faced due to the lack of equipment.
‘We have to begin taking stock in every hospital and every clinic in our country. If there are violations of procedures, and health care workers are struggling without the necessary equipment or medicines, we urge them to report these. Without this critical on-the-ground information, our situation may never improve.’