An odyssey reveals questionable attitudes in country's healthcare
JOHANNESBURG - This weekend I had my first experience of the country’s public health system under the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.
A friend who has become somewhat of an extended family member fell ill with flu-like symptoms on Wednesday. Let us just call the friend Tshepo. By Thursday his situation had not improved. And on Friday his temperature rocketed, his throat was sore and his breathing short.
For Tshepo’s 80-year-old grandmother, the deteriorating situation now called for something beyond the over-the-counter medication that she had tried over and over to nurse him back to health.
Like most South Africans, Gogo has paid attention to the government’s awareness campaign on the virus that has entered our lexicon and literally taken over our lives.
Only a handful have ignored the virulent and recalcitrant nature of the virus that has ground the world to an almost complete standstill and changed human behaviour for what could very well be the long haul, if not forever.
She sent an SOS that brought the reality closer to home and sent a chilling message to the entire neighbourhood - the malady was no longer something that was out there afflicting unknown people.
It was present and affected everyone, regardless of race, gender, class or religion.
Anyway, at about 21.30pm, we took Tshepo to the local 24-hour Ramokonopi clinic - the first phase of interaction between the general citizenry and the country’s public health system.
But before the procession could even enter the precinct, a security guard informed us that we had to join four elderly ladies who were waiting for the nurses to finish their supper.
We were told that we had to withstand Johannesburg’s notoriously bitter autumn evenings before being attended to.
After much toing and froing with the security guard, we were eventually allowed in, only to be told nonchalantly that the clinic could not offer any assistance as Tshepo looked stable (yes, diagnosed without examination).
After all, the clinic did not perform Covid-19 tests after hours.
The best option, the nurses told us, was to go to Thelle Mogoerane hospital, about 15km from where Tshepo lived with Gogo. As beggars can never be choosers, we proceeded to the hospital, only to be met by the same fate of being turned away without any medical examination.
By then the time was almost midnight and Tshepo was tired.
So we reluctantly took him back home and prayed for the best.
But throughout the night I could not help but wonder if our country is ready for what might be a peak in infections in August and September.
More so if the interphase of the government’s public healthcare could not be responsive to what is threatening livelihoods and economies across the globe.
In most poor communities in South Africa, health care professionals, the very first line of defence against Covid-19, continue to behave like a legendary male species that once ruled South Africa until the democratic winds of change swept it to the annals of history. Today the species is a shadow of its former self, wallowing in self-pity at the loss of power it once exercised over the majority and condemned to nothing but a permanent whiner against anything that the new state is doing.
Healthcare professionals, like this now endangered species, believe that since they have power over a hapless citizenry, can too do as they please.
They ignore the national government, as they like and know that their unions will be as vocal as that fringe lunatic group, Solidarity, in protecting them against accountability.
While the government is drumming hygiene, screening, testing, isolation and treatment into our ears, a good few who are supposed to - in ANC speak - put into action the plans have decided to do the opposite.
For them, the security of their salaries is more important than our lives.
We have become the collective fodder on the altar of their negligence.
Never mind that the economy is in such tatters; that many companies are closing shop, or that millions of jobs are on the line.
This is of no significance to them.
Last month the National Union of Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) issued a chilling statement reminding us that their members are the 21st century defenders of George Orwell’s law of equality.
When Finance Minister Tito Mboweni and the rest of the world was telling us that the country’s coffers had been depleted, they dismissed that as the ramblings of defenders of white monopoly capital (whatever that is).
When Mboweni said the public service wage bill had become unsustainable, Nehawu accused him of taking directives from ratings agencies and financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
When SA Revenue Service Commissioner Edward Kieswetter was telling us that revenue collection was worse than we ever believed, and that the delivery of basic services for the poor could take a slump, they laughed it off as the usual antics of the drunk uncle during a family Christmas lunch.
And when the government refused to honour the above inflation wage agreements that it had signed when times were good, Nehawu threatened fire and brimstone on the country.
The implied threat was that the non-implementation of the agreement could result in their members refusing to participate in the international warfare against the pandemic. In their own words, the financial well-being of a select few was way more important than the destruction that Covid-19 has unleashed across the globe.
In other words, they are more equal than the rest of us.
We are yet to see what the union will do to defend the reversal of the gains of workers and subject them to a life of poverty after the virus has been defeated.
But we have been promised that the union will mobilise its members for the mother of all fights against the onslaught by the government.
And the first to feel the wrath of the unions will be the poorest of the poor who cannot afford private healthcare.
They will be treated as second-class citizens for the unions to flex their muscle against neo-liberals.
And that the government will be too damned to do anything about it.
On Saturday, we made frantic calls to different provincial government officials to assist us in giving Tshepo a chance.
But our pleas fell on deaf ears.
One day the masses, as the poor are often described by both the politicians and unions alike, will see through all of these shenanigans and revolt to demand the decency that the Constitution envisages for them as well.
They will challenge the status quo and push the developmental agenda of the state by a good few years.
And they will collapse the very industries that civil servants eke their living from.
You only have to look at the country across the Limpopo to see what the toxic combination of absolute power and failure of the State to be responsive can do to a country.
Tshepo’s pleas for human dignity will not be alone.
And maybe, just maybe, we will begin to appreciate that a paternalistic hold over a people is not always the best way to address the fundamentals.
And that it is time for a different tune altogether.