Life in their hands

2017-02-07 06:01

THERE are times when South Africa really scares me.

We live in hope that no matter how bad our politics and our economy get, we will be okay and survive to tell the tale.

It is perhaps the security of being part of the middle class that drives this false hope. Perhaps it is a disconnection from reality. But every so often, something happens that tears away this veneer of security and fear about one’s own survival sets in.

In the hurly burly of political journalism, I did not pay much attention to initial reports about the transfer of mentally ill patients from the Life Esidimeni centres to NGOs last year. It looked like the regular government bungling you come to expect now and then. But subsequent reports that people have died as a result of the transfer rang alarm bells that something had gone horribly wrong.

This week, Health Ombudsman Professor Malegapuru Makgoba revealed that 94 people died as a result of the Gauteng Health Department’s decision to transfer 1 371 psychiatric patients to unlicensed NGOs that were ill-prepared to take care of them. Makgoba’s report said the NGOs did not know the patients’ diagnosis or their prescribed medication and the staff had no medical experience.

Only one of the patients died as a result of their mental illness but the majority died from dehydration, starvation, pneumonia and uncontrolled seizures.

While we will never know what exactly went on, it is evident that these people who could not help themselves were shunted off to live under inhumane conditions and they suffered immensely. It is also clear that then Gauteng MEC for Health Qedani Mahlangu and her officials had callous disregard for the welfare of the patients. They did not act on the concerns raised by lower-level staff and complaints from the families of the victims, and in fact denied that there was a problem.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi and Gauteng Premier David Makhura have now apologised for what happened and the loss of life, and measures are being taken to transfer the surviving psychiatric patients from the NGOs to public-health facilities.

Mahlangu resigned the day before Makgoba’s report was released but her stepping down does not exonerate her from culpability for the deaths and the violations of human rights.

But this is not an isolated case.

Anyone who has been exposed to the public-health system knows the horrors that can go on undetected and the cruelty that sick people can be subjected to.

While there have been efforts by the Department of Health to ensure more access to health care and the better treatment of patients, sometimes staff at hospitals and clinics lack basic decency and compassion for others.

It is always the poor and vulnerable who suffer the worst as they have no option but to rely on state services no matter how bad they are.

The treatment of mentally ill patients in Gauteng shows how the lack of compassion is not just at ground level.

Irresponsible decisions at political level, in this case in order to save costs, had a fatal outcome and there can be no justification for the carelessness that resulted in helpless people being made to suffer and die.

When people go into the public service, particularly in high levels in government, they have a responsibility to be of service to the people and to support the welfare on the nation.

But many people do not see it that way and view the state as an employment agency or a mechanism to use for their benefit.

The lack of accountability and respect at Cabinet level filters down throughout the system and leads to a dysfunctional state.

It is one thing to be frustrated by poor service at counter level or seeing public funds misspent.

However, having to be wholly dependent on reckless and uncaring people in the state is terrifying.

The Life Esidimeni tragedy shows our lives can literally be in their hands.

Ranjeni Munusamy is a political journalist and commentator for the Daily Maverick. ranjeni.munusamy@gmail.com

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