A police officer is seen assisting Gogo Xaba to the front of the line outside Alex Plaza to collect her social grant. Picture: Sebabatso Mosamo/Sunday Times
A police officer is seen assisting Gogo Xaba to the front of the line outside Alex Plaza to collect her social grant. Picture: Sebabatso Mosamo/Sunday Times

The coronavirus, which first entered South Africa in wealthy people returning from ski trips to Europe, is now beginning to seep into communities from where it’s likely to spread rapidly.

On Monday, someone from the crowded township of Alexandra, near Sandton, tested positive for Covid-19. However, he had travelled to Limpopo while awaiting his test result, which may have spread the disease further. A resident of Khayelitsha in Cape Town also tested positive, suggesting the spark has been lit on the spread of the virus into congested townships.

An equally at-risk group is the elderly. Five elderly people at the Bill Buchanan Association for the Aged in Morningside, Durban, have tested positive for Covid-19. Four of them are now isolated in a separate building, while one is in a critical condition in hospital. The home has 210 residents, including 50 in frail care.

The disease is understood to have been traced to an 81-year-old patient who lives elsewhere but came to recover at the frail care unit after an operation in St Augustine’s Hospital left her too unwell to stay at home.

However, after her condition deteriorated, she was sent back to St Augustine’s, where she was diagnosed with Covid-19. Another woman, who had shared a sick room with her, also tested positive. It isn’t clear who first contracted the illness.

On Friday, department of health officials tested the other elderly residents. By Monday, three of them had been confirmed to be positive. Sixteen staff members, who had treated the patients, are self-isolating at home in case they were infected.

In recent days, Dudley Fortune, CEO of the home, has been inundated with phone calls, as children of the elderly residents fear that their parents will be infected. But Fortune reassured them that the four patients are in a separate building, and one is in hospital. Nurses treat the four sick patients only, then leave.

“They wear a hazmat suit. It is an expensive set of stuff. Staff walk out, it gets folded up, put in the red box at the door and thrown away. Imagine the cost and financial impact on us. But we are doing things by the book and properly. We are not playing around,” says Fortune.

But the panic has spread. Fortune has been getting calls from banks, asking that healthy Bill Buchanan residents not come to the branches to collect their pensions.

Fortune’s warning to other old-age homes is this: stockpile masks and protective gear so that if the disease hits, they can protect staff. “Masks and sanitiser are a major problem to get hold of,” he says. His home spent R350,000 buying supplies on Monday.

This is a wider problem, as it becomes increasingly difficult to buy protective gear. It’s a shortage that is leaving doctors and nurses, who are on the frontline, particularly vulnerable.

The SA Medical Association (Sama) has said if too many unprotected doctors and nurses get Covid-19 at work and have to self-isolate, the health system could collapse.

Sama chair Dr Angelique Coetzee says: “This is an untenable situation. Frontline medical staff must be protected at all times … The reliable supply of proper personal protective equipment is simply non-negotiable”.

Despite this squeeze, some companies are ruthlessly exploiting this situation. Coetzee tells the FM that some companies that had previously sold N95 respirator masks to the government at R5 a mask are now charging R65 apiece.

On Monday, Business Unity SA (Busa) urged companies that own protective gear and hazmat suits to make them available for health workers. Busa is asking for donations of visors, goggles, gowns, slip-on shoe covers, gloves, surgical masks and N95 masks. A number of companies use this kind of gear, including those in the forestry and agriculture, construction, mills, spray-painting, mining and sign-writing industries.

Stavros Nicolaou, who heads Busa’s health-care work stream, says: “Critical to turning the tide against the Covid-19 pandemic is ensuring that our frontline doctors and healthcare workers are protected from the virus.”

State hospitals, already understaffed, can’t afford to have fewer staff at work who are either ill or in isolation. As it is, many health-care workers are in isolation.

This includes the 16 staff at Bill Buchanan, and 14 doctors and nurses in the Free State, who treated a Free State skin cancer patient in his 70s who became the second person to die of Covid-19 in SA.

There are also three doctors, three nurses and a radiographer from Wentworth state hospital who are in isolation after coming into contact with a Covid-19 patient from Wentworth, Durban.

It’s an ominous warning sign that as the outbreak ramps up in the next few weeks, SA might be fighting the war with too few soldiers on the frontline.