Picture: SOWETAN/THULANI MBELE
Picture: SOWETAN/THULANI MBELE

Health workers have threatened a national strike over lack of personal protective equipment in September, when the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to peak in parts of the country.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), which represents 108,000 health workers in the public sector, said on Tuesday that the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) at public health-care facilities was so dire that front-line workers had resorted to wearing refuse bags to protect themselves.

The strike threat comes as mass gatherings remain prohibited in the country. This is one of the government measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Leading health expert professor Shabir Madhi, who is a member of the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19, said the strike would be disastrous as the country faced a shortage of health-care workers. “It will be a complete sabotage of the entire health-care system in the country,” said Madhi.

People relying on the public health-care system would “suffer the most”.

Colleague in the advisory committee, professor Francois Venter said health-care services were “stretched thin across Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape. Going on strike “would be devastating”, he said.

The union’s leadership was so concerned by the high rate of coronavirus infections among health-care workers that it visited all the Covid-19 hotspot facilities around the country in June.

Nehawu general secretary Zola Saphetha said the visits unearthed a critical shortage of PPE in public health-care institutions in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, and the Western Cape. These provinces accounted for 389,882 of the 445,433 Covid-19 infections in the country.

Saphetha said almost all managers in public health-care facilities had no idea how long their protective equipment supplies would last and had “no plan in place to avoid stock depletion”.

PPE gear is a crucial component in the fight against coronavirus as it shields health-care workers and the public from contracting the virus. The wearing of masks/face coverings in public is now law.

At Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, the union said its team found that workers had to resort to using refuse bags to protect themselves.

“The bottom-line with regard to PPE is that it was never adequate in the first place; the available PPE is still not adequate in terms of what is experienced by our members at an institutional level and for the projected peak of the [pandemic],” said Saphetha.

He said that on August 21 union members would apply for a day’s leave across the country, and hold lunch-hour protests across all sectors from August 24-27 on issues such as the shortage of staff and PPE and noncompliance with occupation health and safety regulations.

Nehawu also put other demands, including calling on the government to implement a risk allowance for frontline workers “for their hard work and sacrifice” during the pandemic.

Saphetha said there would be “full blown action” and a “complete withdrawal of labour” in all sectors if the government did not respond favourably to demands. Other demands were that the government abandon the “decentralised and fragmented approach” for procurement of PPE.

The Sunday Independent has reported on how the Gauteng provincial government awarded tenders worth millions of rand to politically connected businesspeople for the procurement of PPE.

 “We will make Gauteng ungovernable if this PPE scandal is not addressed thoroughly,” said Saphetha. “We can’t fold our arms and keep quiet when corruption is taking place.”

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za

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