CORONAVIRUS: ON THE FRONTLINE

The lifesavers who fear going to work

By Vincent Cruywagen 8 April 2020

Nurses in the isolation unit at Tygerberg Hospital in the Western Cape. (Photo: Misha Jordaan / Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Health workers across the world are in the frontlines dealing with the fallout of the devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In Cape Town, nurses at state hospitals have spoken of their fear and anxiety and the lack of personal protective equipment.

“Every morning when we kiss our children and husbands goodbye when we go to work, we don’t know if we will return healthy,” said one petrified Cape Town nurse who works at a state clinic.

Several nurses spoke candidly to Daily Maverick about their fears of contracting the coronavirus as well as the other fears they need to face and overcome each day on the job.

The nurses revealed that they were provided with only one mask to use for an entire day and needed to hold on to these “for dear life”. Healthcare workers said the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) increased their risk of contracting the virus.

Natasha, 40, (not her real name) from Ottery has been a nurse for 20 years and said she enjoyed her work until Covid-19 hit South Africa.

“Since the outbreak, going to work has become a nightmare. Every morning I get up at 5.30 to get ready for work. The scary part is kissing my two kids and husband goodbye not knowing if I would return home as a healthy person. Every nurse dreads contracting the virus without knowing it and infecting their entire family.” 

Natasha warned that the coronavirus was an “invisible killer” and that those who are infected but asymptomatic could unwittingly transfer the virus to others, including medical staff and in turn, their families.

“I pray to God that I don’t contract Covid-19 because if I do I would infect my kids and husband. If one of them should end up in the intensive care unit, I would never forgive myself,” she said.

It was imperative, she said, that nurses and medical staff be given sufficient equipment to protect themselves, colleagues and families.

Health workers making use of public transport or taxis said they had also experienced discomfort with some fellow passengers refusing to sit close to them.

Another nurse, 39-year-old Kim from Surrey Estate, wept as she set out how nurses struggled to keep the one mask per day allocated to staff from becoming contaminated.

“There is a certain way to put on the mask and remove it without your hands touching the mask. But there are simply not enough masks for us at clinics and state hospitals,” she said.

She added that a colleague who had contracted the virus had recovered and would be returning to her family in the coming week.

“We need urgent government interventions to remedy the situation before half of the nurses in the country could be affected and not enough be left to look after the sick,” Kim said.

On Friday, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers (Nehawu) launched an urgent Labour Court case to force Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize and the nine provincial health MECs to comply with the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The trade union has demanded that health workers be provided with proper PPE  at their places of work. 

Nehawu stated it was “shocked and highly disappointed” that members and workers, which included doctors, nurses, cleaners and ambulance and morgue staff, were forced to work without the necessary PPE.

The union wants the minister to exercise his powers in terms of OHSA to prevent the performance of those duties which endanger and/or risk the health and safety of Nehawu members.

The trade union also wants the court to rule that employees should not be compelled to render services if adequate protection is not provided. In court papers, Nehawu contended that the government was not concerned with the safety of health workers.

The matter was placed on the roll in the Labour Court on 7 April 2020 but was delayed to enable the Department of Health to submit papers. Adding to the delay is the fact that the presiding judge is from Durban and needed time to peruse court papers and consult with legal representatives.

Lockdown regulations stipulating limited occupation of the courts will most likely lead to a postponement and another day of anxiety for health workers. DM

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