/ 19 June 2020

‘We spread the virus knowingly at this hospital’ ― healthcare workers at Thelle Mogoerane

It’s 2019 and some clinics and hospitals in this country are still battling for basic hygiene.
(Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters)

To date, more than 2 000 medical professionals have tested positive for Covid-19

These are the people on the front lines of the battle against Covid-19, yet in Thelle Mogoerane hospital in Vosloorus, Ekurhuleni, they are allegedly asked to work even when they are unwell.

Doctors at the hospital say that when they raise safety issues they are threatened and reminded of the oath they took to serve.

The staff in this hospital are alleging that they are not allowed to go into quarantine, even when they have likely been exposed to Covid-19m  until they get a sign off from the head of the department — because managers want to balance the numbers of medical professionals at work.

Some doctors at the hospital say they do not have adequate protective gear and have to attend to patients who could possibly have Covid-19 and that, because a delay in tests, they do not know if they are infected with the virus.

A doctor at the hospital said a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing backlogs has forced them to become potential spreaders of the virus. 

“You can’t allow soldiers to go out to fight the war with their bare hands — why are health workers made to fight the battle without protective gear?” the doctor asked.

Responding to Mail & Guardian questions, the hospital’s management said the claims are “far from the truth”. 

“Comprehensive guidelines and protocols have been drafted following the WHO [World Health Organisation] and national department of health directives. These have been distributed to all the departments of the hospital by the Covid-19 steering committee.”

Its management added that staff members who test positive “are called and counselled by the occupational health and safety team and then sent home to self-isolate”. If that isn’t possible, then quarantine facilities are made available. “They are then followed up regularly to make sure that they are getting proper treatment from their treating physician and are improving.”

‘Who will care for the healthcare workers?’

Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa spokesperson Sibongiseni Delihlazo said: “Who will take care of those who are infected when healthcare workers are all infected and in quarantine?” 

Delihlazo said the union blames a poor understanding of national guidelines by managers for the spread of the virus in medical facilities.

“The supply of PPE to workers is extremely poor and disappointing. As a result, many healthcare workers, especially nurses, are getting infected because they are forced by many supervisors to work in an environment where there is no PPE, and yet they are working with potential Covid-19 cases.”

The problems at the Vosloorus hospital have forced four doctors to stay away from work and self-isolate. 

One said: “We have realised that we are constantly being exposed to patients that are positive and we are not fully protected; not just us, but other patients as well. We cannot do any operations on patients, as this would mean we need to scrub down and sanitise the whole theatre room.”

Meanwhile, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has said healthcare workers must brace themselves for the challenges that the peak in cases will bring. In Gauteng, after a slow initial growth in positive Covid-19 numbers, there is now an upsurge in cases.  

The province’s health spokesperson, Philani Mhlungu, said: “We are not aware of any staff member who has been forced to work without appropriate PPE.” A dedicated WhatsApp line had been created, he said, so that healthcare workers could raise any challenges that they have with protective equipment. 

He added that the management of Thelle Mogoerane hospital had not invited the health MEC to visit the institution.  

Another doctor from the hospital, who also preferred to remain anonymous, said their situation is difficult. 

“I can tell you now: the working conditions here have been outright horrible. Stressful as well. We are not protected whatsoever. The hospital management has been acting like nothing is different.

“What we do here is make means with what is given to us, knowing that we risk our lives. We are not allowed to cope and if we refuse to do certain duties, we know there are consequences. So you get forced [to work] without PPE.”