Deputy minister of health Joe Phaahla told South Africans on Friday that government would work to ensure a supply of medical equipment and protective gear for healthcare workers on the frontline of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
Phaahla was speaking during an afternoon briefing to update the country on interventions aimed at fighting the outbreak, which had seen 1 505 confirmed cases in South Africa as of Friday.
President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a 21-day lockdown at the end of March in a bid to curb further transmissions and infections, which could cripple a public healthcare system already battling multiple challenges.
Earlier on Friday, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union had announced that it would pursue a court interdict to compel government to supply equipment and protective great to all health workers, as some have been expected to work without masks, gloves or sanitisers.
Shortage of gear
During the briefing, Phaahla acknowledged the challenge that the union raised, saying the government has experienced great difficulty in accessing the necessary gear and equipment.
"We are committed to making sure that equipment is provided to workers in the private and public healthcare system. The problem we have experience is that there has been inadequate availability," said Phaahla.
Phaahla said the impact of coronavirus on China and the subsequent lockdown there immediately undermined South Africa’s ability to access gear and equipment from that country.
"Many items over many years have been largely produced in the People’s Republic of China. As a result of the outbreak there, there is a limit to produce these and China also needs more of this equipment and has thus limited exports," Phaahla said.
He said that China was a large exporter and, as a result, when exports began again from China, the demand was large and South Africa was not high on the list of export destinations.
"The demand for the goods from other countries is also a factor that contributes to these difficulties. We have to purchase these using foreign currency. The more the rand depreciates the more it limits our ability to purchase these items," he said.
He said organised business was assisting government to access goods needed for healthcare facilities and supply would stabilise by the beginning of next week.
"We are very confident that having identified all the weaknesses and business partners, with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation and the government of China, we have very firm commitments in terms of equipment that will come in during the weekend and during the week and we can get sufficient supplies," he said.
Phaahla said he was confident that government and unions would be able to address the challenges related to medical supplies and reaffirmed government’s commitment to addressing any shortages.