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Medical staff at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital protest. Picture: Veli Nhlapo
Medical staff at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital protest. Picture: Veli Nhlapo

Doctors and other health workers picketed outside Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Soweto on Thursday, calling on the provincial department of health not to dismiss more than 800 staff members recruited during the pandemic.

The 819 posts will be scrapped from March 31.

“This is a health crisis of another dimension,” says Prof Mmampapatla Ramokgopa, head of orthopaedic surgery.

The group of about 50 was joined by about 100 members of the National Union of Public Service & Allied Workers (Nupsaw), who were picketing against the scrapping of their contracts. They were employed at Chris Hani Baragwanath and other hospitals as part of the extended public works programme.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the Chris Hani Baragwanath medical advisory committee says ending the posts will put a strain on an already understaffed hospital. It says the increase in patients at the hospital due to Covid has been compounded by the addition of patients from Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, after the fire that broke out there last year. The posts include health workers and administrative staff.

“These posts have helped us survive, and cutting them will impact health services,” says Prof Martin Smith, clinical head of surgery at the hospital.

The hospital is the largest in the southern hemisphere, receiving patients from across the country and beyond SA’s borders. A failure to “deal with the crisis” at the hospital will “sink” the province’s health sector, says Ramokgopa.

The provincial department of health has also failed to pay contractors. This has affected waste management and the feeding of patients at the hospital, prompting medical staff and members of the public to bring food for patients.

Earlier on Thursday the Gauteng department of health said the hospital had not run out of food and a bread shortage had been resolved. But one doctor says the bread contract has lapsed. “So, [we are] not sure when bread and milk will start being delivered.” The doctor says suppliers of medical equipment who have also not been paid are “refusing to come and service or repair equipment”.

One supplier of bread says: “The people responsible for procurement at the Gauteng department of health have not paid us for four months. After begging and pleading with them to pay us, we had no option but to stop supplying bread to the hospitals.”

Medical staff at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital protest demanding that contract staff hired for Covid-19 pressure be retained. Picture: Veli Nhlapo
Medical staff at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital protest demanding that contract staff hired for Covid-19 pressure be retained. Picture: Veli Nhlapo

He says he is owed more than R1.5m and stopped supplying hospitals with bread on February 16. “We have received calls from concerned hospital staff asking us to deliver bread, but the government has put us in a difficult position. For four months we had to borrow money to pay bakeries because we were not receiving a big part of our income. We are not at fault here,” the supplier says.

He says the provincial health department said suppliers had been paid, but the money did not reflect in their accounts. Following numerous calls from Chris Hani Baragwanath, the supplier says they delivered bread, bought from their own pockets, to the hospital.

Smith says: “Something desperately needs to be done to save health care in the province.” He says hospitals function because of “the efforts of dedicated health professionals” but more must be done by the government to address the “crises” in the sector.

“While they’re saying Charlotte Maxeke’s emergency department is going to open, they are not opening all the beds, so the hospital will not be functioning at full capacity. Bara is going to continue to carry this load, as is Helen Joseph. We have been carrying this load for almost a year with no additional budget allocations,” says Smith.

“Last week we had 165 patients coming through the level 1 resuscitation room. I don’t remember when last we had that number of patients. We are used to seeing about 100 a week, which is still a big number, but having to manage 165 patients with the infrastructure constraints that we are facing is not acceptable,” he says.

In a statement on Thursday the provincial department of health said it wouldn’t be able to renew all the contracts for the Covid posts “due to budgetary constraints”. The department said more than 8,000 posts had been created to assist health facilities across the province when Covid started. But budget allocations did not allow for the retention of all the posts, the department said.

*This article first appeared at GroundUp

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