/ 29 April 2020

Wanted: Medical experts in the Eastern Cape

Bizana 9831 Easy Resize.com
Slow off the mark: Bizana in the Eastern Cape. The province waited more than a month to establish a team of experts to direct its efforts to contain Covid-19. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The Eastern Cape provincial government is in a last-minute scramble to recruit medical experts to advise it on dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic as it battles to control the number of escalating positive cases.

The Mail & Guardian has established that Premier Oscar Mabuyane’s office has now started a drive to bring medical experts on board to advise his government on dealing with Covid-19.

This is more than 30 days after the province registered its first case of Covid-19, back on March 25. And it is despite the Eastern Cape having registered the fourth-highest number of positive Covid-19 cases, at 616. During this time there have been serious concerns about the province’s capacity to handle the pandemic — so serious that Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize even dispatched a team of experts there.

Nursing unions have told their members not to work without proper personal protective equipment (PPE). This is because of the serious shortage of PPE in the province. A notice was even issued at Empilisweni district hospital in Sterkspruit, with workers being told: “N95 mask to be used for 14 days and discarded.”

In Queenstown, health workers at Frontier hospital went on a strike to demand protective equipment. People in the big cities and towns in the province walk the streets as if it is business as usual. There have been numerous videos circulated showing crowds of people queuing without distancing themselves from each other as they wait for food parcels.

In the province’s attempt to fight the spread of Covid-19, Mabuyane’s spokesperson, Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha, told the M&G that they have roped in former health MEC Dr Bevan Goqwana “to provide clinical advice to the OR Tambo district joint operations center” and his former superintendent general, Dr Siva Pillay, to provide clinical advice to the Sarah Baartman and Nelson Mandela Bay Metro joint operations centre.

“Yes, we have combined medical experts in the employ of the provincial government, the team assigned by [Health] Minister Zweli Mkhize, medical experts from universities in our province [and] private doctors to advise the provincial government on how best to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, so that we can improve our plans to curb the spread of the virus. A number of these experts are already working and those we add to the team join the work that is underway,” said Sicwetsha.

It is uncler why, unlike other provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape had waited for more than a month to establish a team of experts to direct its efforts to contain Covid-19, especially in a province with inadequate health facilities and far-flung rural villages.

People close to the situation say this scramble is a bit late for the province.

The KwaZulu-Natal premier established a command council a month ago. This team meets every second week, and each cluster meets every week. The M&G understands that these clusters include doctors, academics and scientists. The Eastern Cape’s command council, chaired by Mabuyane, meets on a weekly basis and is made up of all the MECs.

Meanwhile, one of the doctors, Goqwana, confirmed to the M&G that he was indeed approached over the past weekend by Mabuyane to assist the province in the battle against coronavirus.

“We are currently trying to establish with Dr [Thobile] Mbengashe [Eastern Cape health superintendent General] how we are going to work and what the reporting lines are going to be. I have sacrificed before and I am prepared to sacrifice again so that we can help and save the people of the Eastern Cape,” said Goqwana.

Goqwana was unceremoniously removed as the health MEC in 2006 by the then Premier Nosimo Balindlela, in a move that caused a rift in the ANC in that province, as then provincial ANC chairperson, the late Makhenkesi Stofile, slammed his removal from government.

Another doctor, who wished to remain anonymous, said that he was approached during this week. “Only now in the middle of the crisis, they decided to ask for my assistance, but I can’t serve there. This should have been done a long time ago,” said the doctor.

The M&G understands that the provincial government also sent a communication to some of the universities this past weekend requesting a number of experts to assist.

“We have been trying to help the department for weeks but our proposals end up in drawers. Just this weekend I was told about this when the situation is already this bad. There should have been a concerted effort to communicate widely, especially in the rural areas. There should have been a proper plan from the get-go. But people are busy in politics,” said one source.

Even though the Eastern Cape is currently not the epicentre of the pandemic, it has been in the firing line in terms of how it has responded to Covid-19, with its numbers increasing at an alarming rate.

The situation has also been aggravated by its health MEC, Sindiswa Gomba, who is not a medical doctor, and was heard this week during a virtual Covid-19 media briefing, saying, “Andidikwe [I am fed up]”. This created an impression that Gomba was fed up with dealing with Covid-19 related issues.

“I understand the impression that was created when I said “andidikwe … ndiyatsha” during the briefing. At the time of saying that I was moving away from the laptop and taking off the doek. I profusely apologise for the wrong impression that this created, as I am committed in the fight against this pandemic,” she said in a statement.

The provincial government also came under fire when a lodge owned by Kwakhanya Tikana, the daughter of transport MEC Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe, was used as a quarantine facility for 14 people who had tested positive for Covid-19. They were moved to a hospital after the Daily Dispatch asked questions about the processes that had been followed.