More than 21 000 civil servants have been infected by Covid-19, amid warnings that the peak of the outbreak could leave key public service institutions — particularly state hospitals, the prisons and police — scrambling for staff.
Public sector doctors, nurses and hospital staff such as administrators and cleaners have been on the frontline of the pandemic; other essential services, including police, prison staff, emergency workers, and court employees have been fully mobilised since the national lockdown came into effect in March.
Government departments and agencies that deal with the public — such as home affairs, labour, and municipal entities — have been gradually opening up since June, when South Africa entered level three of the risk-adjusted lockdown.
Trade unions warn that as more government services open up and interact with the public, the virus will spread, affecting increasing numbers of the 1.3-million civil servants at national and provincial levels.
State hospitals worst hit
In his address to the nation last Sunday, President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged the devastating effect the virus has had on hospital workers.
Ramaphosa announced the health service would need to recruit 12 000 more nurses, doctors and physiotherapists to deal with the increase in hospital cases. He said trainees and final year tertiary students will be drafted in to help.
“To deal with the shortage of health personnel in some areas, we are employing more doctors, nurses, and negotiating with health science faculties to deploy volunteers to provide medical, nursing, physiotherapy, pharmacy and general patient support,” Ramaphosa said.
Last week the Democratic Nurses Organisation of South Africa (Denosa) warned of an impending crisis, in which caregivers would soon be the ones requiring medical attention.
Along with fatigue and exhaustion setting in among staff, unionists decried the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) in state hospitals.
“Patients won’t have healthcare workers to look after them, as more and more nurses themselves get infected at an alarming rate,” the union said.
“Healthcare workers themselves now have become patients who need care, and this will leave thousands of patients in facilities without caregivers.”
Government data shows that 10 411 people have been infected in provincial and national health departments, and 60 government health employees have died.
The union warned that the public health sector could be further decimated once Covid-19 has subsided, with nurses leaving en masse for greener pastures. Denosa said foreign recruiters were aware of the expertise of local nurses in dealing with infectious diseases.
Denosa complained that public sector health workers had not received pay increases that were four months overdue from “an unresponsive government”, while they were “working their socks off in fighting Covid-19 and risking their families”.
“They are demotivated and will leave … Soon skills will be lost to the nation in large numbers because the only shred that the government is clinging on to … is their patriotism.”
Presenting its revised budget to Parliament last week, the health department said it was allocating an additional R5.5-billion to public health facilities to deal with the pandemic.
It said the money would be prioritised to secure additional PPE for health workers.
From protectors to patients
The Public Servants Association (PSA) said it was distressed by the high number of infections in correctional services facilities. “This is where most of our members are,” said PSA spokesperson Reuben Maleka. “Some have already succumbed to the virus.
“All this could have been avoided when we called for testing of all frontline workers, especially those in the public sector, so that people could know their status and limit the spread. Even our call for just correctional-service workers to be tested didn’t get the nod,” Maleka complained.
By Tuesday night this week, the correctional services department had recorded 2 350 infected officials and 32 deaths. The Mail & Guardian was unable to establish how many Covid-positive staff are off work. A total of 1 557 prisoners had tested positive, and there have been 16 deaths, with the worst-affected facilities being in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Gauteng.
Police stations across the country have also had to close for decontamination as officers became infected with the virus.
The police have been particularly hard hit, as one would expect from a service in direct contact with the general public. The department of police confirmed that of 141 000 policemen and women across the country, 7 021 have tested positive, with 2 021 reported as having recovered by Wednesday. There have been 53 deaths.
The South African Police Service (SAPS) said officers from police stations closed for decontamination have been temporarily transferred to neighbouring precincts and are still carrying out patrols.
The South African Policing Union said, with many police officers booked off sick to recover from Covid-19, it has urged management to call up officers who have resigned and retired to fill the gaps.
“The Covid-19 pandemic and the closure of police training colleges have placed the SAPS in an untenable and compromised position, and it’s clear that the country is heading towards crisis regarding the lack of skilled and trained officers,” said union general secretary Tumelo Mogodiseng.
The union — which represents more than 90 000 South African police, correctional service, traffic and metro police personnel around the country — said police stations were closing at “an alarming rate”. It said it was concerned that the SAPS has no contingency plans to bolster numbers.
“We are calling on officers who have resigned and gone on early retirement to offer their services,” Mogodiseng said.
Teachers refuse to teach
Teachers unions this week demanded the suspension of schooling until after Covid-19 infections have peaked.
In the 2020 school year to date, South Africa’s estimated 12-million state school learners have spent less than three months in class.
The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) this week called for the suspension of schooling until after infections reach their peak, which is predicted to be between August and September.
“Frontline workers who are at the coalface have been infected and affected. We remember all the workers, children and families whose members have succumbed to the virus. We grieve with all our members and every family in our country. We are in crisis and every life matters,” said the union secretariat in a statement.
Sadtu said schools have already suffered high levels of absenteeism because teachers have taken sick leave, while not enough substitute teachers have been appointed.
In an update on infection levels, the basic education department said 2 740 out of 440 000 teachers nationally had tested positive for the virus.
But this is deceptive. Answering a parliamentary question last month, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said 16 168 teachers had declared co-morbidities, and that 10 000 teachers had applied to work from home.
The engine of government
Public Service and Administration director general Yoliswa Makhasi said the public service would not be left untouched by the pandemic, but denied union claims that services were at risk.
“Covid-19 has forced the public service to rethink the manner in which work is being performed. Alternatives to the normal way of working had to be found and …the concept of remote work was adopted,” Makhasi said.
“This enables employees whose jobs are allowed for and who have the necessary tools, to continue their work remotely and … keep the wheels of government turning.”
She said that, by Wednesday, 21 423 public servants had been infected, and 225 employees had died of the virus. It could not be established how many staff are currently off work.
The PSA’s Maleka said — although the focus has been on the infection of senior officials, such as premiers, MECs and national ministers — it was rank and file government workers who kept the state running.
He said the next few weeks in South Africa would be critical. If tightened lockdown regulations have no effect on case numbers, infections among all workers, including civil servants, will inevitably rise, affecting services to the most vulnerable citizens.