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

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehaw), SA’s largest healthcare sector union, is visiting Covid-19 hot-spot facilities across the country as the coronavirus infection rate among front-line workers seems to be spiraling out of control.

Over 3,500 healthcare workers have been infected with the virus and more than 34 have died handling the pandemic that has infected 144,264, without about half of those cases recovered, and killed 2,529 in SA.

National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) general secretary Narius Moloto said: “The health department must develop a clear programme with simple and understandable protocols. Now they are still behaving as though it is business as usual.”

The pandemic has seen healthcare facilities across the country having to temporarily close for deep cleaning after staff tested positive, underscoring the risk many front-line workers face in their line of duty.

It has also shone the spotlight on the government’s capacity to deliver much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) to its facilities. Unions have told their members to stay away from work if there is no PPE.

“The aim of the visits is to highlight the escalation of the number of workers carelessly exposed to the virus, which is a serious cause for concern and, as Nehawu, we believe that failure to protect workers is tantamount to murder,” said Nehawu general secretary Zola Saphetha.

The visits are to check compliance to occupational health and safety legislation; the availability of PPE; the training of workers to deal with Covid-19; and the availability of workplace health and safety committees.

Some of the facilities to be visited by Nehawu leadership are Cape Town’s Groote Schuur and Tygerberg Hospitals, with the latter described as a “breeding [ground]” for Covid-19 by unions. The Western Cape is the epicentre of Covid-19 in SA, with 61,375 cases and 1,807 deaths. The offices of the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) in Khayelitsha will also be visited.

In the Eastern Cape, with 26,195 cases and 397 deaths, Nehawu will visit Port Elizabeth’s Dora Nginza Hospital. Health minister Zweli Mkhize has said that Nelson Mandela Bay hospitals are already “bursting at the seams” due to too many patients and too few staff.

In KwaZulu-Natal, which has 9,041 cases and 115 deaths, the union will visit, among other facilities, St Augustine’s Hospital in Durban, which was shut down in April after more than 60 people tested positive for the coronavirus, with close to 50 of them being staff members.

In Gauteng, which has the second-highest Covid-19 cases at 39,841 and 180 deaths, the union will visit several places, including Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto; Sars offices in Alberton and Soweto; Leratong Hospital; Helen Joseph Hospital; Dr George Mukhari Academic Hospital; and the Tshwane University of Technology.

Intermittent lockdown

On Tuesday, TimesLIVE quoted Gauteng health MEC Bandile Masuku as saying the province is looking at an “intermittent” lockdown as it prepares for the worst. Masuku also said the health department hopes that it will be ready for a peak in coronavirus cases in the coming weeks.

“We are looking at an intermittent lockdown, which we have seen in other countries is working quite well, where there will be a period of time when there will be opening, and a period of time when there is a lockdown to contain infections,” said Masuku.

Nehawu national spokesperson Khaya Xaba told Business Day on Tuesday that an agreement entered into with Mkhize in April stated that workers must not work if they feel unsafe and that management will not victimise nor intimidate workers who “elect not to work when faced with unsafe working conditions”.

National health department spokesperson Popo Maja said the infection among healthcare workers is a “concern to the country ... PPE has been supplied to all facilities, and guidelines on how to handle Covid-19 cases have been communicated to all healthcare professionals”.

“It looks like some healthcare workers relax or lower their guards when they are outside their workplaces. We all have the responsibility to adhere to life-saving and preventive measures all the time.”

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