OPINION | Will the Eastern Cape health crisis force leaders to do their jobs?

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The Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth (Lulama Zenzile)
The Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth (Lulama Zenzile)

The Eastern Cape health system has been in a shambles for years and is now being ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, writes Lizeka Tandwa.


Despondency, desperation, fear and hopelessness are etched on the faces of patients in many Eastern Cape hospitals.

It's become so normal that even the local media doesn't document it anymore. This is the life of citizens in the province.

When I received the assignment, to capture the raw extent of the effects of Covid-19 throughout hospitals in the province, I was torn.

Like most who have lived in the Eastern Cape, I knew the extent of the rot. Growing up in the rural town of Mthatha, clinics (and by that I mean clinics with medication) were few and far between. 

What would I say that hadn’t already been said? What would I write that hadn’t already been written?

I felt the heaviness of my assignment. I knew the reality of people in the province. During the eight days of criss-crossing the vastness of this beautiful and scenic province, that feeling never left.

Little hope 

The image of heavily pregnant women waiting for hours with very little hope of ever receiving treatment remains with me. A grandmother walking 10km in the freezing cold for her diabetic treatment, is not unusual. The man who comes for his ARV's only to be told the hospital is out of stock. The nurse who works a 12- hour shift with no proper equipment. 

In fact it's normal to see patients wheeling each other from one ward to the next. One man, I saw doing this, was in visible pain as he wheeled his friend outside for fresh air. 

Like I said, this was not new to me. 

Seven years ago, I lived in Port Elizabeth where I worked as a young journalist for a community newspaper.

I wrote a story on a woman who had been admitted at Dora Ngiza maternity ward. She came in looking forward to the prospect of holding her newborn baby. She left the hospital with the child but also with a scar on her stomach after undergoing an appendectomy which she didn't need, shortly after giving birth. She had been mistaken for another patient.

For pregnant women, your biggest fear was landing up at the gates of the Dora Nginza maternity ward.

As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

At the Dora Ngiza Hospital, heavily pregnant women can wait for days, having to sit on a cold, plastic chair in reception to be assigned a bed. 

What troubled me most was the overwhelming, yet silent acceptance of their lived experience.

"What can we do?" is the phrase I heard most.

The idea that poor or non-existent service can be challenged is foreign to many in this province. Instead, women fall in line in silent prayer, hoping that they will finally get help and walk out of a hospital healthy, holding healthy babies. 

The situation was no different in many of the provincial hospitals.

In fact in some cases it was worse. 

Why?

What I was desperately trying to unearth was why?

Why is it people no longer take pride in their work? What happened to the dedication of our public servants? What happened to the pride of the community in its hospitals, libraries and schools?

It occurred to me that this pride had been eroded by years of mismanagement, corruption and bad governance.

How do you take pride in a hospital when you are overworked and underpaid? How does one take pride in their work when the very place that is meant to heal, is a health hazard? Who can you blame? 

Since I left the province to look for greener pastures in Gauteng, medico-legal claims against the Eastern Cape's health department increased to R30 billion, a staggering R4 billion more than the annual budget for the department.

The department failed to heed calls for the appointment of vacant funded posts.

Last year the department had close to 6 500 vacant funded posts.Even the province's Health MEC Sindiswa Gomba was pressed to admit that the department was "bankrupt". 

The provincial department's reactionary attitude toward basic healthcare meant that it was scrambling to save face when the Covid-19 numbers started rising.

It was no shock, when Premier Oscar Mabuyane went crawling to Health Minister Zweli Mkhize for help.

After 850 nurses had tested positive, temporal closure of clinics and hospitals and the inefficient supply of PPE and a shortage of beds, Mabuyane had no option but to admit failure.

If anything, Covid-19 has revealed the disastrous state of the province to the world.I wonder if the embarrassment is enough to shake our leaders into start doing their jobs.

- Lizeka Tandwa is a senior political reporter at News24.


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