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POWER CRISIS

Health Minister Phaahla takes up the cause of exempting hospitals from rolling blackouts

Health facilities have been placed under increasing strain as rolling blackouts affect equipment and delay patient care. On Monday, Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla confirmed he was engaging with relevant stakeholders about exempting hospitals from rolling blackouts.

As Stage 5 and 6 rolling blackouts have placed increased strain on South Africa’s already overburdened health system, health professionals across the country have been calling for public hospitals to be exempted from scheduled outages.

On Monday, Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla confirmed that he was engaging with relevant entities and authorities — including Eskom, municipalities and the minister of public enterprises — on the processes to be followed to ensure the exemption of health facilities from rolling blackouts.

“[The minister] has been concerned for some time with this matter of load shedding, with the hope that [power supply] improves, but it has got worse to higher levels of [stages] 5 and 6 as it impacts on the provision of healthcare services across the country,” stated Monday’s press release from the Department of Health.

The department’s statement comes just under one week after Professor Adam Mohamed, the head of internal medicine at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, launched a petition calling for all hospitals in Gauteng to be exempted from rolling blackouts. The petition has garnered more than 40,000 signatures.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Exempt public hospitals from rolling blackouts, health professionals plead

That health professionals have been connecting across hospitals and regions, and speaking out about the impact of rolling blackouts on health facilities, had made an impact, said Mohamed.

“It wasn’t just one person making a noise; it wasn’t just one province making a noise. It was numerous factions talking about the same thing, and I think that is what made the difference,” said Mohamed.

Phaahla has ordered the director-general in the Department of Health to work with the heads of provincial health departments to finalise an assessment of the impact that rolling blackouts have had on health facilities in the past week.

“We do welcome the [minister’s] intervention — late as it is,” said Dr Aslam Dasoo, convener of the Progressive Health Forum. “It is very necessary, and we urge the minister to go full speed ahead with this, so that at the very least we can remove this additional burden on already burdened health facilities.”


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Minister of Health Dr Joe Phaahla has been engaging with relevant authorities on the processes that need to be followed to exempt health facilities from rolling blackouts, according to a Department of Health media statement of 26 September 2022. (Photo: iStock)

Next steps

While the minister’s intervention is a step in the right direction, there need to be established deadlines for the process of exempting hospitals from rolling blackouts, said Mohamed. 

“The Eskom issue is going to go on for a long time … let’s not go through the stories of, ‘No, we’re working on it, we’re doing a feasibility study.’ On face value, it has to be done,” he said.

According to the department, Phaahla has been seeking alternative energy sources for hospitals. The generators that are used for backup power supply in health facilities are not meant to endure prolonged outages. Alternative energy sources would be used to “complement” the generators as part of an “energy mix”.

“My biggest … concern is if they are looking for alternative mechanisms of power supply for these hospitals, where does that money come from? Again, we’re going to dip into the health budget for electricity and alternative energy, and what happens? We freeze posts, we curtail our clinical activities, we stop buying equipment,” said Mohamed.

Budgets needed to be transparent, not only with respect to the management of rolling blackouts, but also with regard to patient care and human resources within health facilities, he continued.

Questions remain

Dasoo questioned why some public hospitals had already been exempted from rolling blackouts, while others — such as those in Johannesburg — had remained subject to the impacts of outages for more than a decade.

“This thing with load shedding has been going on for 14 or 15 years and, as it’s steadily grown worse, the consequences on hospitals have been growing worse. So, it’s not like it’s unknown,” he pointed out.

“Health workers, health professionals, have been tearing their hair out and going home extremely distressed because they have lost patients [to] absolutely avoidable causes that result from a lack of provisioning by the provincial authorities … That background, I think, is very important.”

There was a need for the media and citizens to hold provincial health departments to account for not doing something about the situation sooner, he continued.

“For us to protest and so on is great, and we get somewhere with it, we get some responses, but we never get the taking of responsibility — 15 years [of rolling blackouts], how many people have died as a result? Who accounts for that?” 

Phaahla is due to deliver a comprehensive report on Friday on the impact rolling blackouts have had on health facilities, as well as the interventions that are planned to address the situation. DM/MC

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