A health worker tests a man for Covid-19 in Alexandra in Gauteng this week. Medical workers’ organisations said they were concerned that their members were being forced to work without having personal protective equipment.     Reuters
A health worker tests a man for Covid-19 in Alexandra in Gauteng this week. Medical workers’ organisations said they were concerned that their members were being forced to work without having personal protective equipment. Reuters

KZN health-care workers hardest hit by protective gear shortages

By Kailene Pillay and Lyse Comins Time of article published Apr 2, 2020

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Durban - South African health-care workers at the forefront of the Covid-19 pandemic in public hospitals are concerned about their health and safety, as they are expected to work without masks and protective gear.

The already emotionally and physically drained workers said they were dealt another blow this week, when they received correspondence from their respective managers, threatening them with disciplinary action if they refused to work without masks or protective gear.

KwaZulu-Natal secretary for the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA, Mandla Shabangu, said they were considering legal action to interdict the department against instituting disciplinary action against staff who refused to work at a facility without personal protective equipment (PPE).

He said it was a violation of their human right to safety.

Shabangu said the KZN municipalities, especially eThekwini and uMgungundlovu, were hardest hit by the national shortage of PPE.

“Shop stewards and members say they still don’t have masks. They claim management keep them under lock and key, because health-care workers are misusing them,” Shabangu said.

He said in cases where nurses received masks, they were given just one for a 12-hour shift, which was inadequate as the masks were only effective for six to eight hours.

SA Medical Association (Sama) public sector committee chairperson, Dr Akhtar Hussain, said the Department of Health’s failure to provide PPE to health-care workers was a human-rights violation. He said they were addressing the matter with Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize, as it was unacceptable to threaten staff with disciplinary action when their own health was at risk.

“We’re in a war against novel coronavirus. We, the health-care workers, are the front-line soldiers. Every one of us has to fight together at different levels. Just saying we don’t have PPE or masks is not enough, don’t fold the hands and do nothing,” Hussain said.

He said Sama had asked members to provide it with the names of hospitals not providing staff with PPE.

However, the department has denied there was a shortage of masks, adding that it would be addressing the matter with health-care facilities that are without protective gear.

“We must put it on record that in KZN there is no shortage of PPE as yet. We have enough stock to keep us going. But we must say that there has been an understandable increase in demand for PPE at our institutions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, we’re encouraging our institutions to report this and order stock on time,” said Dr Sandile Tshabalala, KZN Health’s head of department.

He added that the PPE shortage was an international challenge and that KZN had placed orders in advance, before the crisis hit home. “Even though we are not receiving our stock as expected because of the shortage from the suppliers themselves, KZN is still good to go for the next two months,” he said.

The department is also expected to have a meeting with unions.

“We appeal to all our employees to be cautious and would also like to thank them for facing this pandemic head-on. Working together we will conquer coronavirus,” Tshabalala said.

However, for doctors on the front line, life has become traumatic and depressing. One doctor, who asked not to be named, said she was gripped with fear and anxiety and struggling to cope. She said apart from not having the protective gear to safely test possible Covid-19 patients, she was even more afraid of treating tuberculosis patients without a mask.

“I’ve been crying myself to sleep for the past week. The fear of what is to come is just too much and I’m struggling to cope. My family is terrified for me, but they’re helpless. I put on a brave face and tell them it’s going to be okay and I just go to work and do what I can. But I leave the house daily with my stomach in knots not knowing what is coming,” the Durban doctor said.

The doctor, who has a toddler, said she was also putting her family at risk daily and had since updated her will and life policies.

She said that after receiving the letter from the hospital management, they were forced to treat patients regardless of the risk to themselves.

“So if a patient with MDR (multidrug-resistant) TB requires treatment and we have no mask, we either risk getting it ourselves or we face disciplinary action. There’s definitely a risk of Covid-19, but I’m honestly more at risk of getting TB.”

Another doctor said it felt like they were foot soldiers going to war with no weapons and praying for the best.

The Mercury

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