Health minister Zweli Mkhize under fire as SA's readiness for coronavirus questioned

05 March 2020 - 16:24 By Andisiwe Makinana
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“If coronavirus can make a country like China build a hospital in weeks and still claim thousands of lives, what do you think it will do to SA that takes 10 years to build one dysfunctional maternity ward?”

This was the question posed by EFF MP Naledi Chirwa as MPs called on health minister Zweli Mkhize to be frank with the nation about the country's readiness to deal with Covid-19, which has spread rapidly across the globe and has now reached SA.

Opposition parties criticised the government for insufficient public awareness and called for an immediate mass media campaign about the virus, focusing on proper hygiene.

The parliamentary debate started just minutes after Mkhize confirmed the country's first case of the epidemic on Thursday.

Opening the debate on the country's readiness to deal with the crisis, DA MP Siviwe Gwarube, who called for the debate exactly a month ago to the day, warned that the virus was a public health emergency with the potential to infect and kill thousands should the correct measures to screen, prevent, isolate and treat be inadequate.

“This is not the time for decisions which are bound to affect 57-million people to be made under the veil of secrecy. It is, however, time for decisive and united leadership. If we get this wrong, there will be preventable loss of lives,” she warned.

Gwarube noted that countries had gone into crisis mode, imposed travel bans and enforced quarantine measures as they tried to contain the virus. She said it was important for MPs to understand the inherent weaknesses of the South African health system.

“We should never unjustifiably spread fear, however we should prepare for the worst. We know the state of our health care outside an epidemic outbreak,” she said.

“It is therefore not unreasonable to be sceptical about our abilities in the absence of concrete plans to deal with a potential public health crisis,” she added.

Minister of health Zweli Mkhize addresses the media on the coronavirus outbreak in SA on March 5 2020.
Minister of health Zweli Mkhize addresses the media on the coronavirus outbreak in SA on March 5 2020.
Image: Anthony Molyneaux

Gwarube also took issue with Mkhize addressing the media on the developments and government plans before tabling those plans before parliament.

She said parliament needed to assert itself as the main legislative arm of the state. “We need to understand the role bestowed to us by the constitution and take it seriously,” she said.

“In the midst of an epidemic that has been declared a global public health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO), plans to deal with this matter should be tabled in this house for scrutiny, discussion and adoption,” added Gwarube.

This should include President Cyril Ramaphosa's decision to convene an interministerial task team that decided to repatriate more than 150 South Africans from Wuhan, China. That decision should be tabled, scrutinised and adopted by parliament, said Gwarube, saying it did not bode well for the functioning of parliament that issues of national significance were discussed in the press before the oversight arm of the state had an opportunity to engage these plans.

She charged that the fact that Ramaphosa notified parliament of the government’s intention after a story had been published undermined accountability and oversight.

Gwarube said that, as a priority, Mkhize needed to appraise parliament on the measures that his department was taking to screen, test and possibly isolate and treat cases, particularly at every airport, harbour and border post.

She also demanded assurance that sufficient resources were being allocated for the task and that health-care workers were supported during this time.

Gwarube raised concerns about health-care facilities identified as centres of treatment for the epidemic, saying they should be revised, as the risk had increased exponentially.

“An example is Tembisa Hospital which saw the death of 10 babies due to a hospital-acquired infection,” she said.

Chirwa charged that it was not true that the department of health was ready to tackle the virus.

“We know that this is not true as a mere seasonal flu in SA claims the lives of 6,000 to 11,000 people a year,” she said. “If your department cannot contain a mere flu from claiming lives, when there are preventive measures through vaccines and primary health care, what will you do to contain coronavirus?”

Chirwa also called for an emergency plan to ensure that clean water was accessible to everybody, saying it would be impossible to teach people about hygiene as a preventive measure when some of the country's clinics, hospitals, schools, villages and townships had a water crisis.

She also called for testing to be extended “beyond white-dominated and elite spaces”.

“The question is, what tracking mechanism has the department devised for township and rural area public spaces? How will you track down taxi passengers and train passengers who were sitting next to an infected person?”

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