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Looting deals body blow to health care, and flood of Covid-19 cases will follow

17 July 2021 - 12:18 By naledi shange
More than 120 pharmacies were looted this week in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
More than 120 pharmacies were looted this week in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
Image: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

In a week of winding queues for food in protest-ravaged areas of KwaZulu-Natal, doctors and nurses were forced to make important decisions: join the lines or return to work hungry to treat victims of protests and Covid-19.

Dr Prudence Buthelezi, general secretary of the National Health Care Professionals Association, said many chose the latter.

Dr Prudence Buthelezi
Dr Prudence Buthelezi
Image: Facebook/Shared Wings of Hope

“Some of them have returned to work on empty stomachs because the shelves are empty and they are needed at the hospitals because they understand the oath they have taken. But it is difficult,” she said.

So volatile was the situation in KwaZulu-Natal this week, with roads blocked and vehicles and trucks being torched, that many medics  resorted to camping at their workplaces.

National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) spokesperson Zola Saphetha said: “Some who used their own transport have suffered, too, as some had their cars damaged.”

Many health facilities in the private sector were targeted by looters. “The optometrists are some of those who were badly affected. I got a list of about 70 that are affected,” said Buthelezi.

A dialysis centre in Umlazi and another in Johannesburg were also targeted, and Saphetha said medical facilities were looted of TV sets, laptops and computers. Ambulances, even some with patients on board, were also targeted.

KwaZulu-Natal health MEC Nomagugu Simelane said direct threats were received by staff at various hospitals and clinics including Edendale, Osindisweni, Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital and KwaDabeka community health centre.

In Queenwood, Durban, looters targeted the SA National Blood Service, where items stolen included test tubes and equipment meant for blood collection.

The SA Pharmacy Council said 121 pharmacies were looted in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, 51 of them independently owned.

Independent Community Pharmacy Association CEO Jackie Maimin said the looting of Cipla — a manufacturer of generic medication in Durban — would have serious repercussions for medicine stock in the province.

“We are really concerned about the supply chain,” she said.

“The pharmacies in KwaZulu-Natal have not received a delivery since Monday, a big manufacturer has been knocked out and so too have our wholesalers which distribute 75-80% of all pharmaceuticals in the province. We are very concerned about stock there.”

She about 70 pharmacies were attempting to reopen for short periods to dispense emergency medicines. “We are supplying smaller quantities so that there is enough for everybody to get their medication.”

The consequences of the destroyed centres and lost medication are bound to be dire, said Buthelezi.

“When it comes to the public sector, dialysis is not done on people over 50 so that is where the two private dialysis centres [which were destroyed] came in. Many of those over 50 depend on this. Renal failure patients need dialysis at least three times a week.”

Patients in hospitals were not left unaffected. Simelane said a truck  delivering food  to a health facility in Amajuba District was looted. 

Medical staff are concerned the worst is yet to come. “We are not even halfway through our Covid-19 vaccination rollout programme but what we saw unfolding this week was disastrous,” said a Gauteng doctor.

“We watched as people, some not even in their masks, collected and spread Covid-19 without a care in the world. Watching that felt like we reversed even the littlest strides that we had made.

“If we think Covid-19 has been bad, if we think hospitals have been strained, wait and see the true repercussions of it within a few weeks.”

Saphetha agreed. “We are damn worried about the impact of these protests, as we viewed them as superspreaders which will not only escalate the number of infections but also deaths,” he said.

Simelane said beside Covid-19 patients, hospitals were now full of trauma patients who had been stabbed, shot, burnt and run over by vehicles during the looting.

“In many instances, we’ve been unable to perform X-rays due to our staff’s inability to come to work,” she said.

“We have been unable to refer to refer patients from clinics, community health centres and district hospitals to the next level of care due to the civil unrest, which has resulted in some people losing their lives because we could not transfer them.”

The Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA said it was “sad that the threats of this violence were all over social media, but the employer failed to come up with contingency measures to protect the front-line workers”.

In Gauteng, the office of health MEC Nomathemba Mokgethi said facilities were not as badly affected as in KwaZulu-Natal but the situation was being monitored.

Additional reporting by Suthentira Govender