There are growing concerns around the handling of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic in the Eastern Cape, resulting in Health Minister Zweli Mkhize being forced to intervene.
The controversies range from patients who tested positive for Covid-19 being accommodated in a B&B owned by the daughter of Eastern Cape Transport MEC Weziwe Tikana-Gxotiwe, called Mioca B&B, without the knowledge of the health department.
That arrangement was cancelled following a public outcry and the 18 patients were transferred to Glen Grey Hospital, where they again received a raw deal as nurses refused to treat them because they did not have personal protective equipment (PPE).
Nurses at the Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital also need PPE, and they staged a demonstration on Thursday to highlight this.
The situation in the province prompted Mkhize to intervene and send in reinforcements.
The Eastern Cape, which recorded its first case of Covid-19 on March 21, has seen an alarming surge of positive cases.
As of Sunday, the province had recorded 535 cases, from 488 on Saturday, and 10 deaths.
During his visit to the province earlier in the week, Mkhize expressed his concerns about the rapid increase of positive cases.
“The biggest risk of spread that has been identified is funerals. We engaged with the provincial executive, which is led by Premier Oscar Mabuyane together with Health MEC Sindiswa Gomba.
“We immediately made a decision to urgently deploy more medical experts, including senior epidemiologists, analysts and field consultants, to reinforce the team, which is led by Dr Kerrigan McCarthy from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. We are pleased that the World Health Organisation has helped by deploying more clinicians and experts,” he said.
Mkhize, who visited Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality and Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, said senior officials from the health department, including deputy director-general Litha Matiwane, had been deployed to the province to do a “proper audit of the available PPE” and other requirements.
A group of nurses who were protesting at the Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital said they feared for their lives in the absence of PPE.
One nurse, who spoke to the City Press on condition of anonymity, said she had joined the protest because she felt that her rights as a health worker were being taken for granted.
“We are here in the hospital at the forefront of this virus and in danger of contracting it, but we are expected to work without the required protective clothing. This is not fair. We are also human and we are afraid of this virus,” she said.
Another nurse said that health workers should be prioritised during these trying times.
“The other day, [President Cyril Ramaphosa] was giving everyone money, but he did not say anything about danger allowance for nurses or increases in our salaries. That is demoralising on its own. On top of that, we do not have proper PPE, yet we are at risk each day. How are we expected to work?” she asked.
In a telephonic interview, Gomba said there were about six health workers infected with the virus.
She acknowledged that the many protests in the province’s hospitals, including at Glen Grey, Dora Nginza, St Barnabas and Nelson Mandela Academic hospitals, were all related to concerns about the shortage of PPE.
She said the nurses who had refused to treat the 18 patients at Glen Grey were back at work.
“I went there personally and spoke to the management first and then to the nurses, and I understood the problems. I reassured them that there was no way that we would want healthcare workers to work without PPE when they are dealing with people who tested positive for Covid-19,” Gomba said.
She said there were gaps in communication, as nurses wanted to wear the full kit of protective equipment even when they were not working with people who had tested positive for the virus.
During his visit, Mkhize was apparently not impressed by how the province was handling things, however, Gomba defended their efforts, saying the Eastern Cape was not the only province that required more equipment.
“All provinces have been assisted in the same way as us. When we did not have Covid-19 cases, we did not have specialists in the province. When Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State had challenges, specialists were sent to those provinces.
“It was when there was an outbreak – in terms of the two funerals in Port Elizabeth and in Port St Johns – that the minister came in to assist,” Gomba said.
Mkhize also reportedly queried the fact that the number of Covid-19 deaths in the province did not make sense when compared with figures on the national database.
In his address to the nation on Thursday evening, Ramaphosa mentioned the handling of the pandemic in the Eastern Cape.
Buffalo City, which includes East London, Bhisho and King William’s Town, was flagged as one of the country’s hot spot metros.
The president also raised concerns over the funeral that took place in Majola village in Port St Johns.
Many people who attended the funeral have tested positive for Covid-19.
Lockdown regulations – including that only 50 people may attend a funeral – have been ignored by many in the province.
Nkosi Mwelo Nonkonyana, the chairperson of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders, was suspended on Wednesday for allegedly attending a crowded funeral.