The rising number of frontline workers who are getting infected with the coronavirus on a daily basis dictates that an effective and urgent strategy needs to be implemented in order to avert the impending calamity.
News reports are carrying headlines that hospitals are now full to capacity, while some are now geared to only deal with Covid-19 patients. This proves that the battle now is in hospitals and our defence should be mounted from there. However, like in any other war, soldiers that are sent to fight must be armed to the teeth in order to obliterate the enemy.
In this case, government and the National department of health both have an obligation to defend and arm its soldiers that it sends to confront the coronavirus.
The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union [Nehawu] has been on the forefront of highlighting the scant preparedness in dealing with the outbreak of the virus. This includes us taking the department and the minister of health to court in a bid force them to provide sufficient Personal Protective Equipment [PPEs] and to protect our members and workers by complying with the Occupational Health and Safety [OHS] Act.
In order to adequately defend our frontline members and win the fight against the virus government needs to focus on the following as a matter of urgency.
Lack of sufficient PPE
The daily rise in the number of frontline workers who are both contracting and succumbing to the virus puts the matter of the lack of sufficient PPEs sharply back into the spotlight. Frontline workers are getting infected because of the intermittent supply of PPEs which has led to some workers buying their own PPE while others have been forced to use refuse bags as aprons in certain healthcare institutions while other are forced to repeat gloves and mask for days on end.
Financial resources should be used to procure more PPEs instead of misusing much-needed funds on useless and unnecessary ambulance scooters like the ones in the Eastern Cape. The minister has been claiming to care about the health and safety of frontline workers. The current moment gives him a perfect opportunity to put that into practice by ensuring that all workers have sufficient PPEs, working tools of the trade, adequate medication, proper infrastructure, catering, reliable and affordable public transport and counselling services. The time for cheap rhetoric and empty slogans is over.
The infection of healthcare workers puts more strain on our healthcare facilities considering that we have always struggled with understaffing in the healthcare sector. Loss of frontline workers and closure of hospitals limits the number of beds needed to treat patients and the adequate number of workers needed for healthcare facilities to function.
Many healthcare institutions are getting overwhelmed because workers are testing positive, thus needing isolation. The loss of healthcare workers to the virus further undermines the broader efforts to combat the spread of Covid-19. The outbreak of the virus requires all hands on deck to stem the tide on new infections.
Nehawu has always highlighted the scourge of understaffing but our pleas to government to fill all vacant posts fell on deaf ears. In some cases government has elected to put moratoriums on the filling of vacant posts thus further exacerbating the problem of understaffing.
Low morale and anxiety
Most frontline workers are dejected by the lack of appreciation for their efforts by the employer. Government does not show any care for these workers and this is highlighted by the fact that workers’ struggles are not prioritised by the government. While faced by the huge task of fighting the virus, government saw it fit not to pay workers their salary increase and in some institutions government has been dragging its feet in paying overtime when workers work for longer because of understaffing and huge workloads.
Recent taxi fee hikes and strikes were met with silence by the government. Which goes to show that workers are on their own.
Despondent soldiers will never win any war. Frontline workers are always anxious because of the perpetual rising numbers of their colleagues who are testing positive and losing their lives to the virus.
The non-compliance to regulations, lack of sufficient PPE, coupled with a lethargic and intransigent employer does nothing to allay their fears of losing their lives while fighting the virus. Promises of counselling and mental health services have not materialised, leaving workers to fight alone against exhaustion, stress and anxiety.
The Minister of Health claims that by 16 June, 3,583 healthcare workers had tested positive for Covid-19, and 34 had succumbed to the virus. However, we believe this number might be slightly higher, because we know for a fact that many healthcare institutions hide the numbers of infected workers so as to not allow them to go on self-isolation and depleting staff numbers.
Nehawu will continue to fight for the health and safety of frontline workers who are the bedrock of our national response and our first line of defence against Covid-19.
Society at large has a huge role to play a role in defeating the virus and this includes obeying the lockdown regulations and holding government accountable for its shortcomings which are man-made at most. The national union will intensify its awareness campaign including ensuring the compliance to all health and safety measures in workplaces and educational institutions.
We will continue to encourage all South Africans to obey lockdown regulations including the wearing of masks, washing of hands and observing social distancing at all times to stop the spread and lessen the workload of frontline workers and protect them from the virus as well.
- December Mavuso is the Deputy General Secretary of Nehawu