/ 29 May 2020

Gauteng nurses say they did not take an oath to die

The health sector has seen an increase in its staffing budget
With more resources than other provinces, health workers in Gauteng still say they do not have enough protective equipment to ensure safety when working with Covid-19 patients. (Paul Botes, M&G)

“There was nowhere in the oath where we said we were pledging to die at the end of the day. And there is nowhere in the oath where we said if it’s hot, I am going to put my hand up without having any protective equipment. You cannot send us to war with no protective equipment,” says Fikile Dikolomela-Lengene, a nurse and the deputy of the Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union. 

Dikolomela-Lengene was referring to an oath nurses take when they enter the profession when speaking about being equipped with information and personal protective equipment (PPE) to deal with Covid-19 patients as the country prepares to go to level three of the lockdown.  

Level three will see many industries, schools and churches reopening and this is likely to ramp up the number of Covid-19 cases. In a tweet on Tuesday, Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize said the lockdown — which commenced on March 27 — has helped to flatten the curve and bought time to prepare health services for the pandemic. 

But there are reports from around the country of nurses contracting Covid-19 because they did not have adequate personal protective equipment.  

Dikolomela-Lengene said the union doubts the readiness of the health sector, questioning whether nurses had been sufficiently trained. “It does not help not to give them PPE if you do not show them guidance on how to wear it and take it off. We cannot take it that every nurse worker knows. Remember, this pandemic is not in any book. How we deal with it is coming from a point of figuring out as we go. Nurses are not equipped. They are not ready.” 

Cassim Lekhoathi, the general secretary of the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa, said their members in various facilities in Gauteng are complaining that they do not have enough personal protective equipment and in some cases managers are forcing them to do work without it. 

“Other managers use draconian tactics such as issuing warning letters to staff for refusing to work without PPE, which is deplorable to say the least,” he said. 

Besides equipment, Dikolomela-Lengene said there is a reluctance to test nurses in the public sector. The union is pushing for every nurse to know their status because they could spread the virus to people in their care.

Nurses the M&G spoke to in Gauteng said they had personal protective equipment but their main problems were not being tested for Covid-19 and not being told what is happening in the facilities where they work.

A nurse who works at a teaching hospital in Pretoria said they have equipment and are prepared for the pandemic, but there is a lack of transparency regarding nurses contracting Covid-19.

The nurse said they were not told about a colleague who contracted the virus from a patient. “We just hear it in passing that in a certain ward there was a nurse who got this.” 

The nurse said a ward is reserved for Covid-19 patients, but other units in the hospital are functioning as they did before the outbreak and the virus could spread from patients to nurses — and from nurses to other nurses.

“They refuse to test us,” the nurse said, explaining that they get screened and have their temperature checked when they enter the hospital. When someone deals with a patient who has tested positive and asks to be tested, they are told: “But you do not look sick, just go and isolate yourself and you will come back to work.”  

The nurse said if they are sick for one day they have to provide a sick note, which was not the case before Covid-19. 

Another nurse in Pretoria said: “I feel like we are ready and equipped, but you will never know, but according to our understanding, we are.” 

The Gauteng department of health said: “We have adequate PPE in the province and continue to procure,” adding that it had confidence in the health workers. “Training and learning in the field of medicine is always ongoing.” 

On testing the department said it had conducted a baseline testing of all health workers in April and that it was not aware of complaints about nurses not being testing. 

Tshegofatso Mathe is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian