We are not disposable, say healthcare workers

The government’s austerity measures in the health sector will destroy lives, says the Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union (Ynitu).

The union, which represents nurses and healthcare support staff in the public and private sectors, intervened to ensure that the government renewed some of the contracts of healthcare workers who performed a vital service in Gauteng during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Under no circumstances will Ynitu allow the Department of Health to use and then discard healthcare workers. We are not syringes, we don’t belong in sluice rooms.” 

General secretary Lerato Mthunzi said Ynitu is demanding “an end to the austerity measures which are crippling our healthcare system and worsening conditions for the working class and the poor who depend on these services … The government’s senseless decision to implement cutbacks during a pandemic is choking our healthcare system.” 

The Gauteng Department of Health renewed about 6 000 workers’ contracts after Ynitu intervened, but 2 500 are still without jobs. These are workers who were placed at district hospitals and clinics. Only tertiary and central hospital workers have got their jobs back.

Lebo Negukhula, a 43-year-old nurse from Dobsonville in Soweto whose contract was not renewed at the end of March, hopes she will be called back to work. She was employed in 2020 and worked at Nasrec’s Covid-19 field hospital. “We risked our lives. It was not easy,” she said. 

“In the beginning, we were scared. We had no idea what Covid-19 was then, but because it’s our job to be nurses, we did go to Nasrec, we did nurse those patients, and we worked till Nasrec closed last year.”

They were heroes

When the field hospital closed, the healthcare workers were allocated to clinics according to where they lived. Negukhula said they did not ask what would happen to them when Nasrec closed. “They told us that we mustn’t worry because there are a lot of shortages in clinics, so we will continue working.  

“We were surprised at the end of March when the department did not renew our contracts. However, those who worked at the bigger hospitals like Baragwanath have gone back to work. So it’s only us in district hospitals and clinics left outside,” she said. 

“We will continue fighting till they take us back. This is not fair. Remember when Covid started, they were busy calling us heroes, but now they are throwing us away just like that.”

Ynitu president Rich Sicina said the union was complaining about the shortage of staff, materials and resources even before the pandemic. “Then Covid-19 happened and they employed many healthcare professionals under Covid contracts. So now that they believe Covid-19 is no longer rampant and killing people, they want to release them and they are citing a lack of budget.”

Sicina said the provincial health department was given an initial budget of R2.2 billion. However, this year, it has been cut in half. “The treasury must release the budget. They can’t implement austerity measures against the department of health, a sector that deals with people’s lives.

“Go to any township – Katlehong, Krugersdorp, Soweto, Mamelodi – and many community members will tell you about treatment in our facilities. It’s a known secret that the department of health Gauteng is a complete mess.”

Multitasking nurses

Sicina said all the union is asking is that the government employ nurses. “We are not saying employ a million nurses, we are saying employ enough nurses, employ enough doctors, employ enough healthcare workers on the ground – your porters, cleaners, pharmacists, etc – because we find our nurses doing all these jobs.”

If there’s no cleaner, said Sicina, nurses have to clean because they can’t work in a dirty ward. Likewise, if there is no pharmacist, they find themselves dispensing medication. “The public healthcare system says there are more than 10 000 vacant, unfunded posts in the system. So all we are asking for is the treasury and the Department of Health to release the money and close those gaps … Make materials and human resources available. 

“Suppose they are not listening to us and not responding accordingly, then we will go to the Union Building, to the country’s president and Parliament. Please close this gross staff shortage because it is killing our people.”

Mthunzi also called on the government to change how it deals with nurses’ education and placement. “The department trains the community service nurses but doesn’t employ them. So the purpose of training these healthcare workers is because the government needs them in the system, but come time when they must be employed, the department claims that they do not have vacant funded posts,” she said.

Spokesperson Kwara Kekana acknowledged that austerity measures influence the Gauteng health department’s ability to keep on some of the healthcare workers. 

“The provincial department would have loved to retain all temporary Covid-19 appointed staff. However, the current grant provided by the Gauteng provincial treasury to pay for compensation of temporary employees is inadequate to keep all workers in all regional and district hospitals,” Kekana said. 

“The department has received a Covid-19 budget amount of R2.2 billion for compensation of employees to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic during the 2021-2022 financial year. This budget has since been reduced by 50% for the 2022-2023 financial year, hence it becomes a challenge to retain everyone.”

This article was first published by New Frame.

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Thabo Molelekwa
Thabo Molelekwa is an award-winning health journalist.

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