Nehawu members. Picture: THULANI MBELE/SOWETAN
Nehawu members. Picture: THULANI MBELE/SOWETAN

Members of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), the third-biggest public service trade union, will apply for a day’s leave across the country on Friday and hold lunch-hour pickets in the last week of August, protesting against the shortage of staff and personal protective equipment (PPE).

They will also be protesting against their employer’s non-compliance with occupation, health and safety regulations.

If the protests materialise and 108,000 health-care workers down tools, service delivery in SA’s public health-care sector, which is battling one of the highest Covid-19 cases loads in the world, could be severely affected.

Nehawu represents a wide range of health-care workers in the public sector, including nurses, doctors, pharmacists, cleaners, dispensary and reception clerks; community health workers, ambulance and morgue workers; community care workers and laboratory technicians.

They have been at the front line of SA’s fight against the pandemic and they have done so at great risk to their lives. More than 27,360 front-line workers have been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and 240 have died from it. The most affected workers were nurses with 14,143 infections and doctors with 1,644.

SA moved to alert level 2 of the government’s risk-adjusted strategy on Monday at midnight.

In his weekly newsletter on Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa said there are “signs of hope” in the fight against the virus as the number of new confirmed cases in SA continues to decline.

As of Sunday, SA had 587,345 confirmed Covid-19 cases, 472,377 recoveries and 11,839 deaths.

The president said the move to alert level 2 will come with increased risk of transmission as more social and economic activities such as family visits, interprovincial travel and domestic leisure tourism will resume.

Nehawu said if the work stoppages and protests did not work, the union will embark on a strike in September, at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to peak in some parts of the country.

The planned protests have been flagged as having the potential to reverse gains achieved in flattening the Covid-19 curve, as the capacity of front-line workers may be reduced.

Nehawu general secretary Zola Saphetha said it is “horrible” that workers are being infected with Covid-19. The union is “steaming ahead” in mobilising its members to send “a clear message” to the government that their health and safety is of “paramount importance”.

“While government continues to pay less attention to the health and safety of workers, we will continue to implement our programme of action aimed at protecting and defending workers against Covid-19,” said Saphetha.

Rich Sicina, general secretary of the Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union, an affiliate of the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), said while they have not taken a decision for their members to join the protest, they support Nehawu’s decision to apply for a day’s leave because front-line workers are “treated with disdain by government”.

But Shabir Madhi, an infectious disease specialist and member of the ministerial advisory committee on health, said the union should prioritise the lives of patients. “I don’t know what purpose they think this is going to serve,” he said.

“They should be prioritising the lives of patients,” he said, though he “fully agrees” with the union that it is essential for the government to ensure there is sufficient PPE to shield  front-line workers and the public from contracting the coronavirus. “That’s non-negotiable,” said Madhi.

He said the union should not make the SA public collateral damage. “Their target should be government and not patients who will suffer as a result of their actions.”

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