A healthcare worker attends to a Covid-19 patient at Arwyp Medical Centre in Kempton Park. Picture: REUTERS/SHAFIEK TASSIEM
A healthcare worker attends to a Covid-19 patient at Arwyp Medical Centre in Kempton Park. Picture: REUTERS/SHAFIEK TASSIEM

This weekend saw a quieter time for our country. We are slowly returning to a sense of relative calm. The mayhem and devastation of last week’s calamity will remain with us for a long time to come — mentally, economically and socially — but there is a sense of gratitude from all quarters that the unrest has subsided.

However, our quiet, self-reflective moments will be short-lived because there is much to be done. Lest we forget, before last week’s havoc, and even during that time, the country was already fighting a relentless war against the pandemic, with hospital admissions having surpassed the previous peaks of the first and second Covid waves. Our essential health-care workers now return to that battlefield and continue the fight.

But here is the complexity. Hospitals are integrated, dependent, living systems, functioning 24/7. They require consistent and uninterrupted replenishment of medicines, oxygen, food and — most importantly — highly skilled human resources, to function optimally. Even more importantly, hospitals and health-care workers are the epicentre of our communities, creating and maintaining partnerships that sustain the wellbeing, safety and health of the public. The ability to access efficient health-care demands an appreciation and high level of respect for those delivering the service.

To my mind, one of the greatest tragedies of the riots last week was that it created huge operational challenges for our health-care workers, who keep these hospitals functioning and the patients in them alive and well. The riots brought this complex ecosystem to breaking point, adding a phenomenal workload and level of anxiety to an environment already bearing the trauma and relentless pressure of the past 18 months.

The pandemic was tossed to the side for a moment while the health-care sector was forced to create yet another level of resilience and agility to deal with the reality of the riots, the reality of operating within a system under assault, and the reality of not knowing when the unrest would end.

The truth of what happens within the confines of our hospitals during a crisis like the one we have just experienced is not often talked about or even seen. In the past week critical deliveries of oxygen needed to keep patients alive were brought to us, but under armed police guard. Food was in short supply and had to be used sparingly and in creative ways to ensure that our patients received the nutritional care they needed on a daily basis.

As some hospital staff were unable to get to work, their colleagues stepped in to fill the void of their absence and took over their responsibilities — in effect doing two jobs at the same time. Doctors struggled to find safe routes and available fuel to get to our facilities, but found ways to overcome these challenges. Each of our front-line workers took the decision to jettison the lines of hierarchy and come together for the collective purpose of ensuring that hospitals remained a safe haven for patients and that clinical quality remained intact.

The emotional and physical toll of overcoming the obstacles of the past week cannot be underestimated, especially in the context of the country’s health-care workers trying to make their way to work and caring for patients with limited access to resources and infrastructure. The intricate hospital ecosystem was held together by the sheer spirit, compassion and dedication of our staff, who put aside their personal concerns and anxiety to ensure our patients received the necessary care.

Outside, on the streets of SA, looters and rioters recklessly ran amok, indifferent to the harm inflicted emotionally, socially and economically. And, might I add, in stark comparison with the spirit of our country, our hard-earned democracy and our constitution.

Within the corridors and rooms of our hospitals, nurses and doctors drowned out the noise and quietly did what needed to be done, despite every obstacle and attempt to prevent them from doing so. On the periphery, community members formed circles of protection around hospitals to prevent any harm from coming to patients, staff and buildings. This is the country I am proud of, and these are the people we call our fellow citizens. Thankfully, composure conquered the chaos and some level of sanity began to prevail.

This week, as the country begins to restore order and compliance, we also begin to resurrect our vaccination efforts. It was hugely disheartening that attempts across the health-care sector to contain the spread of the virus were abruptly halted last week, just as we were gaining momentum and achieving good numbers of daily vaccinations with a steady supply of doses. However, it is my fervent hope that through calm, rational, collaborative decision-making, we will once again turn our attention to the crucial task at hand of getting every citizen vaccinated.

In the past few days the stories of community efforts to restore stability continue to inspire us. This spirit of oneness speaks to our country’s culture of ubuntu and it is incredibly encouraging to see that this spirit is swiftly spreading among affected communities. 

So much has been damaged and lost. Lives. Memories. Jobs. Properties. Confidence. Trust. It feels overwhelming, but I believe that through unity and citizenship we can rebuild what we have ruined. In a moment of weakness SA was brought to her knees. In this moment of courage, we must stand up and heal our beloved country.

• Wharton-Hood is Life Healthcare Group CEO.

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