Johannesburg - Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have appealed to the government and civil society to ensure that people have access to crucial healthcare services following widespread looting and disruption in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
MSF said the unrest also prevents the provision of essential healthcare delivery by blocking patients, medical staff and critical supplies from reaching facilities saying it was calling for immediate steps to safeguard the right to healthcare and safety of patients, healthcare workers, medical infrastructure and supplies to avert a drastic escalation of the current Covid-19 driven healthcare crisis.
The call followed disruptions in every district of KwaZulu-Natal, where staff cannot work due to public transport stoppages, road closures and the suspension of private ambulance services.
Certain Gauteng hospitals and their emergency departments, already stretched by a surge in Covid-19 cases, are overwhelmed due to staff shortages and a huge influx of trauma cases linked to the violence, forcing doctors to choose who receives life-saving treatment and who does not. Several Covid-19 vaccination sites have also been closed.
The humanitarian body said numerous reports and the experiences of MSF teams indicated that the violent unrest was characterised by a blatant disregard for the basic sanctity of health facilities and medical staff.
“In Empangeni, our team that supports the regional Covid-19 response of Ngwelezane Hospital, as well as the department of health, doctors were forced to stay away because of looting and unrest in the area, hampering the overall Covid-19 response.
“The hospital only had 22 Covid-19 patients on 13 July. We are concerned about people staying home with severe Covid-19 and the inevitable surge that the hospital might experience once tensions ease and transport resumes.
“In Eshowe, where we have run HIV/TB programmes since 2011, our team was forced to suspend all medical and community-based activities. Clinic-based HIV/TB services are currently inaccessible for many, and diabetics and hypertensives at high risk of severe Covid-19 are unable to access their chronic medication.
Our partner organisation, SHINE, had their offices damaged and looted, and our team managed to hide two of our medical transport vehicles from looting occurring on the same street as our office. One of our doctors, caught in the melee of looters, was tear-gassed.”
“In Tshwane, the threat of unrest prompted our medical team to temporarily shut down our inner-city MSF-supported clinic and hub serving vulnerable people, including undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugees living in the greater Tshwane area. These are people who are most often unable to access appropriate healthcare and/or social services, and even more so during violence and unrest.
“Work has continued as normal in Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape, where our other MSF medical team supports the Covid-19 ward in Livingstone Tertiary Hospital. However, threatened protest action could prevent this team from accessing the hospital, thus rendering the Covid-19 ward non-functional and directly affecting patient care.”
Philip Aruna, head of MSF Southern Africa support team, said: “The urgency of ensuring that health facilities and supplies are not targeted during social unrest and violence is crucial, even more so during the height of the current wave of Covid-19 infections.
“Health facilities must be respected as impartial safe spaces by all – those involved in violence and looting, as well as the police and military. MSF calls upon all of these actors to take immediate action to ensure unhindered access to healthcare and essential medicines is not threatened or disrupted in this time of crisis.”