Budget woes mean SA doctors are jobless while hospitals battle Covid-19

28 January 2021 - 13:14
By Reuters
Scores of newly-qualified junior doctors and hundreds of other medical staff in SA are unable to find placements, despite staff shortages. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/Samsonovs Scores of newly-qualified junior doctors and hundreds of other medical staff in SA are unable to find placements, despite staff shortages. Stock photo.

While Michelle Cerfontyne was completing her medical training last year, the Covid-19 pandemic overwhelmed SA's understaffed public hospitals, so the young doctor thought she would get a job easily.

But when she started applying for posts prospectively in September, there seemed to be no vacancies.

Since then, a second wave of the coronavirus in Africa's most industrialised country has far outstripped the first, hitting 20,000 daily cases earlier this month and bringing hospitals closer to breaking point.

Yet Cerfontyne's 10 job applications have all been rejected. Nine did not give her an interview.

Cerfontyne is one of scores of newly qualified junior doctors and hundreds of other medical staff unable to find placements, despite staff shortages in a pandemic that has killed more than 40,000 people, the highest toll in Africa.

“I’m not used to sitting ... doing nothing,” she said. “The fact that there's a global pandemic and I'm just sitting at home doesn't go hand in hand with the Hippocratic oath that I took to always help people in need,” Cerfontyne added, referring to the 2,500-year-old pledge new doctors swear to uphold.

Nearly 200 doctors, 325 nurses and 200 other health workers are unemployed, according to Hire Our Medical Heroes, a campaign pressuring the government to take on more SA medical staff to tackle the pandemic.

A department of health spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Budget constraints

Alex Van Den Heever, an expert in the administration of public health at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, said budget constraints explain the anomaly. The government is trying to rein in its huge national wage bill, “so there will be an emphasis on freezing posts”, including medical ones.

“There's a mismatch,” he said. “The crisis picks up but there isn't enough flexibility in the budget system to release funds for sessional doctors.”

Tshepile Tlali, interim chair of the Junior Doctors' Association (Judasa), said most unemployed doctors finished their community service but were not offered permanent jobs.

This includes Cerfontyne who, when she finished her training at a hospital in Mpumalanga, found they had no places to keep her on.

“Everyone is sold this dream that a doctor will always be able to find employment,” she said. “I'm the sole provider at home [and] my parents ... are elderly with lots of medical bills.”

Throughout the pandemic, doctors, nurses, medics and their unions have complained of being understaffed and made to work long shifts.

“All the doctors I know complain of being overwhelmed,” said Faith Ntozakhe, a doctor who finished her training at St Andrew's Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal in December but was not kept on. She too has failed to find work since.