EASTERN CAPE AT BREAKING POINT
Aloes Community: The Gqeberha widows making a plan to survive clinic stock-outs
The Aloes Community on the outskirts of Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) knows suffering, from battling the devastating effects of having a toxic waste site set up on their land three decades ago, to consistent threats against their properties and losing loved ones to the deadly scourges of tuberculosis and cancer. The grandmothers in the community plan around pension dates to get to the clinics and are helping each other and other community members with pills and ointments so that ‘everyone can feel better’.
In a Gqeberha community without a clinic, neighbours are borrowing each other’s pills and ointments to protect their health as they all know how difficult and deadly a medical emergency can be.
At 76, Ouma Katie Plaatjies still does her needlework without glasses.
“My sister always says she is going to survive all of us,” her daughter Eileen Plaatjies laughs. “She still goes to the chemist herself to do her business. She only sends us with money to go pay on her insurance but you must pay your own taxi fee if you do.”
Ouma Katie is the oldest surviving member of the original Aloes Community on the outskirts of Gqeberha.
“When it is your day for the clinic you must get up very early,” she said. “We must take a taxi to the clinic. It is too far to walk and you must be there by 6am. And then you wait. You must stand in the line. There is no place to sit. And you know how an old woman is when she has to stand too long. It is difficult I tell you. Some people hire youngsters to go stand in the line for them from 4am. You stand until 8am. It is hard. Sometimes you get called at 9. Then you can go sit on the benches. Then you must have your blood pressure taken. And then you must sit again.
“I have been going to the clinic for so long my clinic book is full. There are many great nurses there. I like the pharmacist too. I like talking to all of them. The one just had a baby. I offer to babysit for them.
“I must get pills for blood pressure and for acid reflux. They don’t always have my pills so then I must buy it with my pension money.
“Sometimes the pharmacist would say first thing, Auntie Katie we don’t have your sterksalf today. I am sorry. But what can you do? I think I am going to make 77,” she said.
The community, who isolated for close to a year during 2020, did not register a case of Covid-19.
“Last year none of us went to the clinic. We all stayed right here.”
The Wells Estate Clinic, where most access primary health care, is in a high crime area and about 10km away. If diagnosed with TB they must go to the NU8 Clinic in Motherwell, which is even further.
“About 20 years ago there was a mobile clinic that stood here. One day it just disappeared. I hope that the mobile clinic can come back. I used to help them give bread and soup to the people who had TB.
“If any of the other old ladies needs a blood pressure pill I will give them one of mine. It is better if everyone feels well. We help each other. You can’t get Panado or pills like that at the clinic so we help each other where we can,” she said.
Ouma Marie Moosa (85) said she didn’t like to go to the clinic. “If I am sick, I will rather lie here in my own bed.”
She proudly shows a picture of herself and her late husband Walter. “He died right here,” she said. “We phoned the ambulance but it only came five hours later. My Walter was already dead.”
She said when she has to go to the clinic it is best to go at 6. “You must catch an early taxi. I must go for my blood pressure. But you don’t always get pills when you go. Then we borrow from each other,” she said.
Ouma Sophie Fillis (74) said she takes a private car every month to go to the clinic. “The clinic where my card is, is very far away. I used to go there when I worked in Walmer. It is R150 for a trip. But the man who drives the car is nice. He helps me a lot. We leave here past five.
“The people at the clinic are very nice. They have a lot of patience with an old woman,” she said. “I must go for my blood pressure and I have arthritis. The doctor said he thinks I have sugar (Type 2 diabetes) but it is still hiding,” she said. “I go every month. When I get my pension I put aside the money for the car to go to the clinic.”
In the early 1990s the small Aloes Community, with just over 30 families and 135 people, fought relocation after several families were moved to the mass housing project of Wells Estate after toxic leachate from the nearby toxic waste dump started seeping into their homes. A medical waste incinerator was built on the same site but later closed down by public health authorities. The surviving Aloes families, including Ouma Katie, whose homes were built from stone and clay sourced from the hills behind the settlement, chose to stay.
Others who led the futile fight to have the waste site closed down died – including Nelson Fezi, Daniel Pienaar and Francis Uithaler – but a link between their deaths and the toxic waste site was never established.
Community leader Eileen Plaatjies said cancer had taken them all and many others. “Even those who moved to Wells Estate didn’t escape. The cancer went to fetch many of them there.”
“We called it TB Cancer. Many people died of it. People who are diagnosed with TB often go to the TB hospital and then they are away for many months. Some we never see again. They leave and they will never come back.”
She said to get an ambulance to come to their community, they must phone the police who then call an ambulance.
“We have four young people who work here. They got jobs at the EPWP [expanded public works project] to pick up litter. Last year there were a lot of retrenchments,” she said. “The clinics often don’t have cough syrup or Panado for the children and the young girls struggle to get contraception.
“When the train visits once a year we get very excited,” she said referring to the Transnet-Phelophepa train bringing medical services to communities. “You can get six months of pills there. When the train is here, we all go.
“Some people here use up to R450 of their pensions for pills that are not available at the clinics. Even the diabetics. We help each other out with Metformin (diabetic medication).
“We had a difficult year last year. My brother died on a building site. He had a heart attack. One of the women who lives here had a little boy. He got TB on the brain [Tuberculosis Meningitis] and he died. He was only three.”
After being told that she would have to wait 11 months for a mammogram at Livingstone Hospital following a cancer screening by Cansa, Plaatjies raised funds to pay for her own scan.
“I had a tumour. After the scan I got into Livingstone quickly and I was treated very well. They destroyed the tumour with a laser. Now it is just the asthma bothering me. Last year they wanted to send me to hospital for asthma. I fought them. I said no. If you go in there you will come out with Covid-19. Eventually they sent me home with medicine.”
“God hit us hard. But we are still here. We are grateful,” she said.
The province’s new MEC for Health, Nomakhosazana Meth, said during an interview with Maverick Citizen last week that addressing the long lines at health facilities and ensuring the availability of drugs at clinics and hospitals were among her top priorities to address during her tenure.
Health spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said he does not have any reports of stock-outs at clinics at the moment. He added that the clinics did not stock cough medicine. DM/MC
Like what you’re reading? Sign up to the Maverick Citizen newsletter and get a weekly round-up sent to your inbox every Tuesday. Free. Because paywalls should not stop you from being informed.
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved