Viwe Rula is one of more than 30 healthcare workers who left their homes in the Eastern Cape this week to camp outside the national department of health’s offices in Pretoria in an effort to be employed.
Thousands of healthcare workers from the province who were contracted by the Eastern Cape department of health to assist during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic were left high and dry when their contracts were not extended because the department did not have money to keep them on.
Rula (30), a mother of three, said they had taken their plight to the national department in Pretoria on Monday with the hope that government would intervene.
The enrolled nurse said she and her colleagues were desperate for employment, as their families relied on them for survival.
The healthcare workers spent four days protesting, picketing and sleeping outside the department, demanding to speak to the minister and the director-general, but to no avail.
Back in the Eastern Cape, similar protests have been taking place in Bhisho, as 2 700 healthcare workers who were instrumental in the fight against the deadly virus find themselves without an income.
Rula said she did not know how she was going to provide for her children.
To make matters worse, because she was on the personnel and salaries management system used by both national and provincial government during her brief contract, her children (aged 11, seven and two) were no longer eligible to receive the child support grant and were removed.
“I live in Qonce [formerly King William’s Town] with my children, my mother and two sisters, and all of us are unemployed. My mother hasn’t yet reached the required age to access an old age grant.
“The entire family was dependent on the money I was earning while I was working as a nurse during the Covid-19 period.
A tearful Rula said:
The plight of the healthcare workers was echoed by about 90 doctors in Bhisho last week, who protested after their community service contracts were terminated – also because the department has no money to retain them.
According to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey released by Stats SA in August, the Eastern Cape has the highest unemployment rate (47%) in the country.
Many people leave the province to seek work opportunities in other parts of the country, such as the Western Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.
Provincial health spokesperson Mkhululi Ndamase said the department understood the plight of the healthcare workers, particularly given the high levels of unemployment and poverty in the Eastern Cape.
However, he pointed out that the department had notified the healthcare workers well in advance that their contracts would not be extended because it did not have the money available to offer them permanent employment.
The department’s financial woes were no secret and had been made public numerous times before, he added.
“For instance, we started this financial year with a shortfall of R4.4 billion in our budget. Things were made even more difficult because of medico-legal claims,” he said.
Even national government was aware of the gravity of the Eastern Cape department of health’s financial situation and was attempting to find a solution for it, said Ndamase, and although the department hoped to offer the healthcare workers employment once its financial position had improved, there was no guarantee that it would be able to do so.
“These healthcare workers provided valuable services during Covid-19 and it would have been ideal to absorb them into the department, but due to our lack of financial resources, we simply can’t employ people we’re unable to pay,” he said.
More healthcare workers who are still contracted by the department will see their contracts coming to an end in March.
Zandile Finca, spokesperson of the group of healthcare workers camping in Pretoria, said it was sad that they had risked their lives during the height of the Covid-19 crisis to save patients – only to be ditched once the number of infections had begun to decrease.
She said the group had chosen to picket outside the national health department out of desperation.
“We were living outside the gates of the offices. We slept here on the side of the road.”
However, on Thursday, Finca and the group gave up and returned to the Eastern Cape to mobilise more support. They have vowed to return to Pretoria, but this time to the Union Buildings to take their plight directly to President Cyril Ramaphosa.
“We’ve been knocking on many doors. We [left Pretoria] without the answers we wanted, but we’ll be going back to take our demands to the president of the republic. Our demand is that we be employed in the department of health in the Eastern Cape, where there is a dire need for healthcare workers.
“Even the medico-legal claims they were talking about were caused by staff shortages, which resulted in people being overworked and, in turn, becoming negligent,” said Finca.
Jane Cowley, the DA’s spokesperson on health in the Eastern Cape, said the department of health in the province was basically bankrupt.
“They literally don’t even have enough money to give the hospitals that are functioning a full operational budget.
“The operational budgets ran out at the end of July. They were then topped up,” she said.
“Most of the hospitals have since run out of operational budget again, which was why, early in December, the NGO Gift of the Givers was assisting by sending foodstuffs to more than 40 hospitals across the province to feed patients.”
Cowley said medical negligence claims were a national issue, but the province had been particularly hard hit, which had further depleted its meagre financial resources.
She said that doctors and healthcare workers in the Eastern Cape had been poorly treated for many years. They had been exposed to risks medically, but had never enjoyed the benefit of financial security aligned with those risks.
Cowley added that, since there were critical shortages of doctors and healthcare workers in the province, particularly in rural areas, their employment should be a priority to improve the provision of healthcare.
“If half the bureaucratic posts in the department of health in the Eastern Cape could be cut and the budget used instead to pay [permanent salaries] to these doctors and healthcare workers, we’d see an immediate turnaround, but lack of planning and common sense in dealing with these issues got us to where we are now,” she said.