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Emergency room doctor speaks about family struggle legacy, vaccines and social cohesion

Suhayl Essa, anti-apartheid activist Professor Saths Cooper, Sameer Essa and former President Nelson Mandela at the unveiling ceremony at the Passive Resistance Park in Durban in 2002. Image supplied by Nadia Meer

Suhayl Essa, anti-apartheid activist Professor Saths Cooper, Sameer Essa and former President Nelson Mandela at the unveiling ceremony at the Passive Resistance Park in Durban in 2002. Image supplied by Nadia Meer

Published Oct 13, 2021


The grand-nephew of struggle stalwart Fatima Meer, doctor and comedian Suhayl Essa, has been one of the many at the forefront of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. He shares with Kuben Chetty his thoughts on being a front-line worker, the vaccination programme, social cohesion and how comedy can help the country deal with its most serious issues.

KC: Professor Fatima Meer left a significant legacy as a prominent anti-apartheid activist. How did this legacy impact on you?

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SE: The earliest memory I have is of visiting Aunty Fatima at her home in Burnwood Road, Sydenham. I was young at the time, and I didn't have a lot of interaction with her, especially with regards to political affairs. This is something that I learned about later in life, and I started to realise the type of impact she had on my grandfather and the rest of her family. After her stroke, I remember her going to Chatsworth and Phoenix and helping people who were being evicted. By hearing from family and reading the books on her life and her autobiography, I had a deeper understanding of what she meant for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

KC: As an emergency room doctor, you are one of the many healthcare professionals at the frontline in the fight against Covid-19. What is the status of this fight now?

SE: There has been an easing of the numbers, and it feels like the third wave ended a long time ago, and government should have been proactive and opened up the economy a while back. Lockdowns are for the prevention of Covid, and we know there is no way to completely eradicate it. Lockdowns are meant to contain the spread, and it has had an effect on the entertainment industry and on my other profession, where we have not had many events.

Where there is a significant decrease in new infections, we must put an emphasis on the economy. The lack of income leads people to turn to drugs and alcohol and a lot of social ills that come with poverty. Reopening the economy now is more of a political move, but the lockdown has been politicised and not been fully evaluated and assessed. For medical professionals, we knew there were certain risks in choosing this profession and colleagues with comorbidities suffered greatly, and some passed on.

We rely heavily on government for PPE, and there were shortages in my facility, and there were times when we had to reuse PPE for a week. I was lucky when I became Covid-19 positive as my symptoms were mild. A lot of my colleagues had similar experiences, but older colleagues had more severe symptoms.

KC: There is concern over the low uptake of the vaccination programme. What are your thoughts on this?

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SE: The majority view is that the vaccine is safe and advantageous in preventing the severe symptoms and inevitable ICU visit. We should be able to have the freedom to express and debate this issue. People who haven't studied virology and medical science, people who make the choice to not take vaccination without proper consultation, to me, this is selfish to healthcare workers who are trying to prevent the spread. It is safe for the most part, and it has shown in the majority of cases to prevent severe Covid symptoms, prevent ICU admissions and slow the spread of Covid-19.

KC: The July unrest has raised the issue of social cohesion and the threats to unity amongst all South Africans. What should be done to bring communities together?

SE: I was in Johannesburg and had first-hand experience of the violence and mobs of people that were looting there. In Durban, there is a lot of racial segregation in the areas we live in and the way that people socialise. I feel it every time I am here. Apartheid did a good job of separating and fuelling hatred for each other. I don't think government and community leaders have done a good job in mending those issues, and a failing police system leads to violence and looting.

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This is not the first time we have seen violence between Indians and black citizens in KZN. This is history repeating itself, and we have seen political parties fuelling this fire. I don't think that anyone should be applauded for taking someone else's life. I don’t approve of retributive justice either.

KC: Do you think that comedians should focus on the more serious content in their sets and why?

SE: The easiest way to bring across a serious point to someone is to make it light-hearted. It works better to make people laugh at the ridiculousness of a situation and still be able to make the point and make people laugh at the same time. On the car ride home, people discuss the joke and the issue. Hopefully, that will help us change. South Africans deal with serious, depressing things and the way we can get through it is through comedy and laughter. That's what I strive for with my comedy shows.

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Political Bureau