Distressed and disillusioned doctors in the North West are calling the province’s current crisis in healthcare a silent killer.
Last week, the strike action that has affected the province’s hospitals and clinics reached fever pitch as protesters stormed into the Klerksdorp Tshepong Hospital Complex’s theatre, forcing staff out.
The theatre had to be shut down, despite there being three cases listed for operations.
The kitchen was closed down and clinical managers had to scramble to find a way to feed patients in the wards.
In Taung District Hospital, doctors reported that there were no staff to help feed the patients, while Zeerust Hospital was completely shut down this week due to the volatility.
Doctors at Dr Ruth Segomotsi Mompati District Hospital said that while it had been relatively quiet there, they were unable to refer patients in need of higher-level emergency care to Tshepong Hospital because of the protests.
On Friday, all work at Potchefstroom Hospital ground to a halt after protesters burned tyres at the entrance, threatening to burn the doctors as well.
“It is horrendous … Innocent people are being denied their basic right to [heathcare]. People are being killed,” said Dr Ebrahim Variava, a Wits professor and internal medicine specialist at Tshepong hospital.
Variava, who has worked in the province for 17 years, said patients’ lives were in danger and many more could die.
For two months, some patients haven’t been able to access their chronic medication for illnesses including diabetes, which could lead to complications in their conditions.
“It’s really got out of hand. No one is saying their reasons for protest action aren’t valid, but this is affecting the poorest of the poor. Chronic patients who need their medication were taken out of hospital. In a few weeks when the strikers have reached a settlement, who will be left to deal with the complications?” Variava asked.
“Some people may die during this time and it would be recorded as a natural death because of the illness, yet something could have been done sooner, but we couldn’t because they can’t access care.”
The interministerial task team assigned to resolve the crisis, which has lasted more than two months, arrived in the province on Friday.
Led by Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, it also included ministers Nhlanhla Nene (finance), Zweli Mkhize (cooperative governance and traditional affairs) and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (planning, monitoring and evaluation).
The task team also includes the justice, crime prevention and security cluster.
The team arrived following a Cabinet decision to place the provincial department under administration.
Dr Desmond Kegakilwe, the chairperson of the Rural Doctors Association of Southern Africa and the district manager in Vryburg, said: “The ministers got a briefing by the district managers at the Mahikeng Provincial Hospital, which is fully functional now. Some facilities remain closed around the province.
“We don’t know what will happen next or if they are going to visit other hospitals.”
Meanwhile, Nehawu maintains that it isn’t its fault that things escalated to this point, and that blame should lie squarely with the provincial government.
The union’s deputy secretary, December Mavuso, said they would meet with the task team on Monday.