This as the Covid-19 case rate in the Cape continues to soar. As of Thursday night, the province had 26 386 positive cases, with 14 917 recoveries. Nearly a thousand people are currently in hospital receiving care, with 193 in an ICU (intensive care unit) or high care. Six hundred and forty-three people have died.
Ramaphosa was first due in the province almost a month ago, but that meeting was postponed after Western Cape Premier Alan Winde was forced to go into quarantine for two weeks after coming into contact with eNCA camera journalist Lungile Tom, who later died as a result of Covid-19.
Top of mind for Ramaphosa and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize is the effect of the virus on the province’s healthcare workers. Last week the provincial health department reported that just more than 1 000 health workers had tested positive for the coronavirus. This had placed a burden on other staff, who have had to fill in for colleagues who were either in quarantine or receiving treatment. Several nurses and hospital support staff have already died as a result of the virus.
Ramaphosa said the effect of Covid-19 on doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, porters and cleaners was worrying.
“Staffing challenges must be solved. We are at war. We are fighting a life and death war. We must identify and headhunt all those staff we need to bring in. Cost is not the issue here. Saving lives is the main issue. And that must also apply here in the Western Cape,” Ramaphosa said.
“Not having enough staff members is not going to be an excuse that I will accept … We cannot be defeated by Covid-19 on the basis that we did not have enough staff members,” Ramaphosa told Winde, the provincial cabinet and several national Cabinet members attending a multilevel government meeting in Cape Town on Friday.
The national health department has had to deploy similar interventions to find more medical staff in the Eastern Cape as well.
The president said the South African National Defence Force is also on standby to deploy medical personnel, while the province has already welcomed 26 Cuban doctors currently assisting in government hospitals.
Another issue of concern is the availability of hospital beds. Together with a fairly sturdy private health infrastructure, the Cape metropole has several public hospitals to take in patients, mostly notably Tygerberg and Groote Schuur hospitals. But this still won’t be enough. The Western Cape government predicts a shortfall of about 1 000 beds in the acute care space and 750 beds in critical care facilities.
The province has also set up several temporary Covid-19 hospitals, including a 850-bed temporary hospital to treat people with mild symptoms at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.
“We need more beds. I’m not happy with the limit that you think you are going to need. You must increase the beds. It’s better to over-provide than to under-provide. Because the worst is still to come. This is one issue I’m not necessarily happy with,” the president said.
Ramaphosa issued the same warning to KwaZulu-Natal during a visit there last month and the province has since increased its bed capacity.
The president also doesn’t appear to agree with the Western Cape’s recently changed testing protocols for the public sector.
The premier, Winde, this week confirmed that in the Cape Town metropole, public health facilities will test only high-risk vulnerable people for the virus ― these include those over the age of 55, people who are admitted to hospital with Covid-19 symptoms, and people with comorbidities such as hypertension, diabetes and HIV.
“This will allow us to get test results back from these vulnerable groups quickly so that we can ensure speedy interventions to save lives. This is our top priority. This decision follows confirmation that the backlog of tests from the Western Cape,” the premier said.
But Ramaphosa said more testing kits will be procured in an African continent-wide programme to source kits from countries such as China and Russia.
“Testing needs to be upscaled. I know you have a backlog of 27 000 … We are going to procure testing kits for the whole continent … It’s also important that the screening campaign that you had been showcasing here continues,” he said.
While the Western Cape is a worry, the president did say he was pleased with how the province was identifying and targeting hotspots.
In the Witzenberg municipality in the Cape Winelands the strategy is already showing positive results. Out of 284 cases, the area already has 228 recoveries. Most of those infected there are farmworkers and people who work in fruit-packing factories.
Ramaphosa also noted possible causes for the province’s high rate of infection. He cited reports of a lack of physical distancing, especially in malls and food stores, as a potential factor in the high number of cases.
Data shows retail workers are the most affected segment of the working population in the province.
Ramaphosa now wants a massive public-awareness campaign to further encourage social distancing as the economy slowly reopens and more people move about after two months of lockdown restrictions.
But provincial officials say the province doesn’t show any major difference in its attitude to physical distancing than the rest of the country.
Health officials have said a possible reason for the high number of cases in the province is that, because the Cape is a foreign tourist attraction, the virus had most probably already seeded itself among Cape Town communities long before the first official case was recorded in KwaZulu-Natal in early March.