As we report in Maverick Citizen today in a tribute penned by Estelle Ellis, last week the village of Bizana in the Eastern Cape lost one of its most famous sons, Professor Lungile Pepeta, at the tender age of 46.
Pepeta contracted Covid-19 while providing care and leadership on the frontlines of the epidemic in Port Elizabeth’s hospitals. Pepeta was a fierce and outspoken critic of corruption and cronyism, but that didn’t dim his spirit to serve and sacrifice, to set an example and to excel.
Pepeta is not alone.
Every day brings news of another health worker, be it a surgeon, a cleaner, a nurse, or a security guard, who have lost their lives in the fight to provide care and treatment to people suffering from Covid-19. According to Dr Zweli Mkhize, 181 healthcare workers have died in the line of duty and a further 24,000 have been infected. The loss of human resources for healthcare to our country and to our health system, already terribly underresourced, is incalculable. It is a terrible setback for achieving the constitutional right to health. An emergency plan will be needed to ensure these great humans, their skills and experience, are replaced.
However, 181 is not just a number, a dry statistic of death; it is a number composed of people of flesh, blood and soul; the dead are loved mothers and fathers, loved sons and daughters, breadwinners, mentors. People like Lungile Pepeta had very big dreams and ambitions, not just for themselves, but for the people they serve and for the profession of medicine.
They must be honoured properly.
That is why tomorrow, Dr Maggie Mojapelo, herself a community doctor of many years standing, will launch an online Heroes Memorial to remember our doctors, not just those who fell to Covid-19, but also those who risked and lost their lives to TB, MDR-TB, HIV, mental illness and the many other pathologies that workers face daily.
According to Dr Mojapelo:
“The significance of this memorial is that it was initiated by ourselves, selfless health workers in the frontline of the wrath of the pandemic – some of us got infected, some passed on leaving behind a trail of pain and misery. Amidst pain, despair and burnout of all of us – I saw it befitting to bestow our colleagues the highest honour in a form of a Memorial that will outlive us and our generations to come.”
But we owe it to these health workers to also consider and absorb the political meaning of their sacrifices; what do their deaths mean for those of us who think we are not directly affected by their loss because we are not family?
Until Covid-19 came along, when South Africans needed a touchstone for integrity, selflessness and a willingness to sacrifice everything for the greater good, we had to look to the past, to the generation of Madiba, Kathrada and Mlangeni; then to the generation of Hector Pieterson.
In the war against racism and legalised inequality it is not an accident that among those who made the ultimate sacrifice were many health workers: recall the lives of Dr Fabian Ribeiro and his partner Florence, Neil Aggett, Steve Biko, and many more, who also made the ultimate sacrifice.
There is a reason for this.
Health workers are always first witness to all that is wrong with a society; they literally nurse our inequalities, they are on the receiving end of the despair caused by corruption, they tend to broken bodies caused by gender-based violence, counsel the broken minds and mental illnesses caused by mass unemployment, child malnutrition caused by hunger and food inequality.
Their already difficult task is made worse by venal corrupt politicians from the ANC and other political parties, epitomised by Ace Magashule, who believe it is their right to use their position in government not for public service, but private enrichment. It is made worse by private businesses that hike prices for PPE and cynically seek riches from a disaster.
However, despite the pain health workers witness and suffer, things they frequently speak out against, most do not turn their backs on the vulnerable and injured. People such as Dr Ebrahim Variava, despite victimisation and defamation by the parasites that in many places infect our health department, return to the trenches of medical practice. Pepeta himself found it necessary to speak out against his ‘superiors’. Less than two months ago, in an interview with Maverick Citizen, he said:
“This is not a time to be negative, we all know we don’t have the right systems. We need collaboration and cooperation – and we need unity. … We should establish a committee and meet every day – a united front. We are beyond the stage where they can bury the truth. We don’t have time to waste to blame each other. This is not the time for a blame game.
We don’t have time for political nonsense. I never know what they talk about half the time, in any event. We must get our own people together and use our own expertise to save ourselves.”
What drives Pepeta and his colleagues is a Hippocratic Oath (read it here), which binds them to a set of ethics of care, as well as commits them “to do no harm” – not only in their immediate practice of medicine, but in their conduct as professionals. It is this oath that makes many health workers opposed to taking industrial action that would harm their patients.
We could do with a Hippocratic oath for many other essential services, although if we truly bind ourselves to our Constitution – as we should – it ought to serve the same purpose.
But there is a quid pro quo for expecting others to place themselves in danger, and that is that we take similar risks ourselves, that we stand by them, that we support their demands for decent wages and dignified and safe working conditions.
That we are willing to go onto the streets to protest when they can’t.
Today, the sacrifices made by Pepeta and many others, the life and death struggles going on by bedsides, in intensive care units, in door-to-door visits undertaken by community health workers, give us a contemporary yardstick for measuring our own integrity and dignity. Ask yourself: how tall do I stand alongside Pepeta? Do my actions match my rhetoric, is my willingness to criticise matched by my willingness to commit?
But ultimately, if we want to really honour their legacy, we should commit ourselves to standing by their vision of a healthcare service that can match the constitutional promise of “everyone’s right of access to healthcare services” that are equal and capable of providing quality treatment and care.
We have to do this not least because Covid-19 is just a forerunner, a trial run, of the health crises that are going to face humanity in the 21st century. In the words of Italian physicist Paolo Giordano (whose little book How Contagion Works: Science, Awareness and Community in Times of Global Crises has gone viral) because of our “destructive behaviour … what is happening with Covid-19 will keep happening more often. The contagion is just a symptom. The infection is in our ecosystem.”
We need all our health workers. We all need to stand side by side and support their demands for a better health system. We all need to become health activists. We all need to change our own behaviour. We all need to fight for a better society. We are all accountable. DM/MC
Mark Heywood is the Editor of Maverick Citizen.
King Tutankhamun's ceremonial dagger is forged from meteorites.