'Politics should not influence ethics' - Bioethics professor on Life Esidimeni

2018-01-19 20:38
Judge Dikgang Moseneke. (Trevor Kunene, Daily Sun)

Judge Dikgang Moseneke. (Trevor Kunene, Daily Sun)

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Johannesburg - A bioethics professor has told the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearing that medical practitioners should not let politics influence their duties to patients, as officials did in the Life Esidimeni tragedy.

Director of Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics, Professor Ames Dhai, testified at the hearings in Parktown, Johannesburg, on Friday where she said the appointment of former Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu was political.

READ: 'Why I fraudulently issued NGO licences' - official speaks at Life Esidimeni hearing

"She was not qualified in terms of being a healthcare professional... and I doubt she had any understanding of what true professionalism in healthcare practice really meant," she said sternly, lambasting what she called a grave injustice which discriminated against the disabled.

"This is definitely a situation where politics, in a very bullied way, determined ethics and this should never be allowed," she said.

"Politics should not influence ethics," she added, saying that Mahlangu's motive was finances over humanity. 

'Fear of superior powers'

Mahlangu has been identified as the central figure behind the Gauteng health department's marathon project plan, which resulted in the quick rush to move mentally ill patients from Life Esidimeni to various unlawfully licensed and ill-equipped non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The NGOs were found to be unable to adequately care for the mentally ill patients, leading to the death of more than 140 patients due to hunger, dehydration, and neglect.

59 patients are still missing. 

Many health department officials have testified that they raised their concerns, but eventually committed unethical practices in fear of superior powers. They testified that there was a culture of fear in the department.

A scathing Dhai said Mahlangu broke her oath of office and added that medical practitioners should not conduct themselves with the impunity displayed by officials in the Life Esidimeni case.

READ: Life Esidimeni: Senior health official breaks down during testimony

She said officials in this instance had a heightened ethical duty because the mentally ill patients were not able to exercise their autonomy or express and protect themselves. 

Dhai went through various codes that the health professionals were bound by while carrying out their unlawful actions, highlighting that the medical officials had a dual loyalty - one to patients and one to a third party, the state.  

Gauteng's deputy director for mental health services, Hannah Jacobus, who testified earlier on Friday, could not recall the nurses' code she was bound by when Justice Dikgang Moseneke asked her.

Human rights took the spotlight as Dhai submitted that Life Esidimeni was not only about the deaths, but also about the suffering mental health patients were exposed to while at the facilities.

They were starving, hungry and dehydrated, and often kept away from their family members. 

She likened the situation to concentration camps.

'Mentally ill patients have rights'

Dhai also said the way in which the mentally ill patients were transported was similar to the way that former struggle hero, Steve Biko was transported - handcuffed and lying in his own urine. 

Patients were strapped to vehicles.

She emphasised the lack of compassion and moral consciousness in the torture, "inhumane, cruel and degrading manner in which [patients] were treated".

She also criticised former health head Barney Selebano for his involvement in the deadly move.

"[Selebano] ignored the codes, laws and supreme law of the land, which is the Constitution. Patients, even mentally ill patients, have rights," she said.

Dhai said she was unconvinced that the medical professionals had no choice in the matter, saying that they should have taken the ethical and moral route and stuck to the medical code.

She said the negligent move was a massive experiment that exploited mental health users who were vulnerable and who the department treated without respect or dignity because they were seen as people without human status.

Denying the families post-mortems was the last step of injustice, she added.

She said the tragedy was a reminder of pre-1994 and that lessons had to be learned from history to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Mahlangu is expected to testify when the hearing continues on Monday.

Read more on:    qedani mahlangu  |  life esidimeni

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