Mkhize ignored our calls for protective gear – union

At least 25 public healthcare facilities across the country are without basic protective equipment such as gloves, masks and gowns for healthcare workers.

And this is what prompted one of South Africa’s largest public sector trade unions to haul Health Minister Zweli Mkhize to court this week.

At Kennedy Phalanda Hospital in Limpopo, for instance, doctors, nurses, porters and cleaners don’t have N95 masks.

At the Madadeni Regional Hospital in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, doctors and nurses are working without protective gowns.

At the Sizwe Tropical Diseases Hospital in Edenvale, Johannesburg, health workers have to work with no gloves or masks.

While at the Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital, in Westbury, Johannesburg, healthcare workers have to treat pregnant women and those who have just delivered without gloves, masks or sanitisers.

The situation is reportedly much the same in the Eastern Cape, where healthcare workers at the Mpilisweni Hospital in Sterkspruit lack sanitisers, gloves and plastic aprons.

At the Sizwe Tropical Diseases Hospital in Edenvale, Johannesburg, health workers have to work with no gloves or masks.

These are just some of the facilities that the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) listed in its court papers lodged at the labour court on Friday.

The union wants the health department to be compelled to provide the personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers who are at the coal face of the country’s response to the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis.

According to the latest figures confirmed by Mkhize on Friday, the country now has 1 505 confirmed Covid-19 cases and nine deaths. More than 50 300 laboratory tests have been conducted, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

Nehawu has more than 275 000 members, among them doctors, nurses and cleaners, as well as ambulance and mortuary attendants – all of whom are on the front lines of the healthcare sector as the country battles to contain the pandemic.

“What else could be more important than to meet with a critical stakeholder in his [Mkhize’s] sector?” Nehawu general-secretary Zola Saphetha told City Press this week.

“We have not met with Dr Mkhize this year despite our efforts to do so since November last year. What could be so much more important than to protect his workers, who work to save lives?”

The union has not only filed court papers against the health minister, but also Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi and the nine provincial health MECs. Nehawu wants all of them to be forced to comply with the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1993.

The matter is set to be heard on Tuesday from 10am at the labour court in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

Read: Covid-19: Discontent among community healthcare workers on the frontlines

“We have a trail of emails, texts and WhatsApp messages asking for meetings in order to engage with the minister on the dangers faced by our members on a daily basis in the healthcare facilities across the country.

“This includes our offer to assist government in mitigating the risk of infection to our members and workers.

"Our pleas fell on deaf ears, until we decided to send a letter of demand on March 30 with an ultimatum that lapsed on April 1,” Saphetha later said in a statement after lodging the court application.

Mkhize, however, said his team had engaged with Nehawu as well as union federation Cosatu on the matter of protective equipment.

“We share their concerns because they raise issues relating to our own staff who are of the utmost importance to us during these challenging times.

"We are collaborating with all local and international stakeholders to ensure that PPE continues to be manufactured and that the supply chain is not interrupted by various lockdown regulations between territories.”

What could be so much more important than to protect his workers, who work to save lives?”
Zola Saphetha, Nehawu general-secretary

His deputy, Joe Phaahla, added that the department, together with the National Treasury and the department of trade and industry, had put together a centralised system to prioritise the procurement of key equipment for healthcare workers.

Meanwhile, Business for SA’s public health work group – a collaboration between Business Unity SA and the Black Business Council, as well as other business and company bodies – also called on its sector members to divert or donate their stock of the PPE to the health sector.

Giving an update on how much stock had been donated since their call almost a week ago, Stavros Nicolaou, head of the work group, told City Press: “Our efforts to provide the PPE are intended for three categories – most important are the doctors, nurses and healthcare workers in the front line of the pandemic. This includes those in both the public and private sectors.

"Other essential workers also require the PPE. We have heard the call by the minister of transport for commuters working in essential services to wear masks.”

Nicolaou said those who wanted to donate should contact covid19supplies@businessresponsecovid19.co.za.


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