Desperate pensioners build their own clinic, but Eastern Cape health dept can’t supply nurses

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Patients who came to the Lurwayizo clinic, built by the community at a cost of R320,000, go home without being seen by nurses.
Patients who came to the Lurwayizo clinic, built by the community at a cost of R320,000, go home without being seen by nurses.
Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik/GroundUp
  • Villagers, mostly pensioners, in Willowvale, the Eastern Cape, built their own small clinic in 2019 which they say cost them R320 000.
  • The Eastern Cape health department officially opened the clinic in February 2019, and promised to bring nurses from other clinics.
  • But the attendance of nurses has been erratic, and for the last two months none has been available.

It is Thursday morning at the Lurwayiso clinic and about 30 patients carrying their clinic cards are waiting outside. Some are inside the clinic already, also waiting. None of them will be seen by nurses.

Fed-up with expensive trips to the clinic in Mpozolo 15km away, pensioners from Lurwayizo Village in Willowvale, the Eastern Cape, built their own clinic.

But there were no nurses because the provincial Department of Health had failed to send them - as promised by then-health MEC Helen Sauls-August, GroundUp reported.Thembeka Ndevu, who is a cleaner, was registering patients on a list.

She was an unpaid volunteer from when the clinic was opened in 2019 until recently, when residents in each village started collecting sums of R10 to R20 to pay her.

Last month, Ndevu was paid R1 000.

Because the clinic only took 50 patients per day, she said, every morning she registered the first 50 people to arrive at the clinic.

"Once the 50 are registered, the rest return home and come back when the clinic opens again."

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But for the last two months, Ndevu has been registering patients for nothing, since there have been no nurses at the clinic.

"We wait together until lunch time before I let them go home," she said.

The clinic was built by residents, mostly pensioners, from Lurwayizo Village and surrounding areas like Mendana, Mathokazini, Ludakana, Phakathi, and Phesheya koMbhashe.

In early 2018, they started by fencing the yard.

Each resident brought a pole and they used fencing from their farms.

Then they collected donations, from R60 to R150 per household.

GroundUp was shown a list of about 2 000 names of people who had contributed.

A local businessman, Benjamin von Meyer, had helped and encouraged his friends to donate.

Construction started in January 2019.

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Pensioners in these villages said this was the fourth clinic they have built.

The first was built around 2014 with sticks and mud. Heavy rains destroyed that. Residents rebuilt, but the second clinic also did not survive.

A third clinic was blown away by heavy winds around 2018, and it was then that pensioners took a decision to raise funds for a proper building.

Kidwell Tomtala, 60, who is a volunteer caretaker at the clinic, said since 2013, villagers had been begging the department and provincial government to build them a clinic.

Tomtala said:

I have written a number of letters to the department and they kept on promising to build us a clinic but that never happened. We used our social grant money to build this clinic.

When Sauls-August visited a nearby village in February 2019, Lurwayizo residents went to meet her, he added.

"We went there to inform the government what we have done. At the time, the clinic needed a ceiling, tubing and flooring. We told them we are not finished yet, but what we want is for the health department to organise nurses for this clinic.

"They were so excited; on that same day they came here to check the clinic. A few days later, they came back with their big cars, with food and cakes to officially open this clinic."

Tomtala said Sauls-August had promised the department would take over and finish what was left of the building and would send nurses."She said nurses would come on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And once the number of attendants increased to more than 50 a day, the clinic would be open every day," he added.Resident Welton Nguqu, 71, said the department had failed them from the start.

"When the MEC was here cutting cakes, she promised to tile this clinic. We are still waiting. This flooring you see, we bought it ourselves," added Nguqu.

"Yes, they installed electricity, but as you can see they did not finish, these are some of the globes they were supposed to install: they have been here for a year now.""The only thing they gave us is this old water tank you see outside," he added.

"We were told that nurses will be here twice a week but that never happened. Sometimes, they would come once a week or skip a week; and we did not complain.

"The MEC said once the attendance increased to more than 50 a day, they would add nurses and days, but here we are turned away, and we are not complaining. We wait until they open again. But this is too much. There's no communication. Our calls are being ignored now."

Ndevu said when she called the nurses in Mpozolo to find out if they were coming; they usually told her there was no car to pick them up.

Residents paid for the electricity installation to be completed and for the tiling. The ceilings are still not complete. There are two consulting rooms, a pharmacy, kitchen, counselling room and waiting room - built at a cost of R320 000, according to the residents.

When GroundUp approached Sauls-August, who the Eastern Cape legislature speaker, for comment, her spokesperson, Lwandile Sicetshwa, said since she was no longer health MEC there would be no comment.

Amathole health district manager Sindiswa Gede blamed bad roads - which were inaccessible due to rain and recent protests - for the failure to send nurses.

Department head Dr Rolene Wagner said due to Covid-19 and the rollout of the vaccination programme, the department faced challenges bringing nurses from Mpozolo clinic to Lurwayizo.

Nowezile Ndlumbini from Mendwana village is 83 years old.

She said her reason for contributing to the building of the clinic was to prevent people dying before they could get to help.

Ndlumbini added:

Here there are no ambulances. If we are sick, we are forced to hire a car and to go to Madwaleni Hospital in Elliotdale and it costs R1 200 to R1 600 - that is a single [way]. The car will leave you there.

She said though the Lurwayizo clinic was only 2km from her house, she could not walk and had to hire a car for R50, adding to go to the Mpozolo clinic would cost her R500.

"I'm old, I have chronic illness and if I don't have money, I cannot collect my medication."Nowezile Ndlumbini from Mendwana village said she could not afford to go too far to collect her chronic medication.

"With this clinic, we were trying to cut costs, but government is not helping us. Here not so long ago, a pregnant girl got sick and we could not find a car in time: she passed away. A young man was stabbed and he died before he reached the hospital," added Ndlumbini.

"We buried three if not four women in this village who died giving birth at home.

"Our government is failing us after we have spent our money hoping that they will help us but no, we continue suffering," she said.

When GroundUp visited the Mpozolo clinic in the early afternoon, people, some of them from Lurwayiso, were still queuing outside.

Some said they had been there since 07:00.

Most patients were elderly people visiting the clinic for their second jab of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccination.

The clinic is in an old building close to the bush, 3km away from a bus stop.

Residents said the building used to be a shop in the early 1960s and was donated by the owner.

The only thing built by the government in this clinic was a guard room, they added.

The clinic operates from 09:00 to 16:30, but most days nurses work overtime.

Sekelwa Matoti from Lurwayizo Village, who was queuing, said she would have to leave before being attended to catch a bus.

If she missed it, she would have to walk 15km, carrying her six-month-old daughter.

The young mother said she had missed a day at school to take her baby to a clinic for immunization, adding she would return at month's end when she had money.

"I can't afford to miss another day at school," Matoti said.

Mziwamadoda Xhungu, 72, told GroundUp he had t0 walk 4km home to Phesheya koMbhashe after being vaccinated.

"That is why most people are not vaccinating. They say this vaccine makes you dizzy sometimes. Now, imagine having to walk a distance. I only came because my neighbour insisted that we come together," he said.

Patients in the queue said the department had been promising to build a new clinic and land had been found next to Mpozolo High School.

But Gede said neither a new clinic nor renovations to the Mpozolo clinic was in the budget for this or the next financial year.

She acknowledged land had been identified but said the department did not have funds to build a clinic.

Wagner said the department would do its best to accommodate the Mpozolo clinic "within the available funding envelopes".

"We recognise that this matter is important and urgent so we are working with the Department of Public Works to access funding specifically to address the infrastructure backlogs related to our clinics and hospitals."

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