While South Africa’s healthcare system battles COVID-19, it must not neglect other diseases and illnesses prevalent in the country.

This is the warning from Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, who said a careful balance needs to be negotiated between finding resources for COVID-19 prevention and treating other prevalent diseases in our society like diabetes, HIV, and tuberculosis.

Mkhize was speaking during a visit to Eastern Cape on Thursday. The Health Minister visited the Butterworth Hospital, Nelson Mandela Hospital and Umthatha General Hospital to assess the readiness to deal with COVID-19 patients.

“We must also realise that while COVID-19 may affect many people, the other diseases aren’t going to take a break; they are going to continue affecting our people. The problems of diabetes, heart disease, blood pressure, cancer, mental health, HIV and tuberculosis: we have to still make sure that we provide adequate care for all those people,” Mkhize said.

“The issue of always trying to keep a balance between preparing for new COVID-19 beds and at the same time we have to remember there were people who were sick before COVID-19 and they will remain sick after COVID-19.”

Some provinces have reported a decline in the number of people visiting local clinics to collect their chronic medication. Mkhize therefore stressed the need to continue taking chronic medication during the time of COVID-19.

He said there are “gaps” in South Africa’s healthcare system which have been highlighted by COVID-19.

“This COVID-19 crisis is forcing us to close all the gaps we can find. COVID-19 is a new infection that has just come up; it’s being loaded onto healthcare services which have been struggling all along in terms of infrastructure, management, shortage of staff and medicine,” he said.

“What we can do, we need to do now, and close the gaps because when the numbers increase of people who are going to need services, they must a find a service capable of handling those numbers.

We have been to stadiums that have been converted, derelict hospitals and facilities that were almost abandoned which have now been revamped and refurbished. This has been quite encouraging.”

Mkhize said government is working to alleviate labour issues in the health sector.

“There was the challenge of tension between the labour movement and the Department of Health, in particular with a number of hospitals that had protests and work stoppages. I am now pleased to hear that in a number of these areas, there has been an activation of occupational health and safety committees,” he said.

“It is important that everyone is well informed and well trained. It is important to make sure everyone is well protected…We cannot sacrifice our professionals while we are aiming to fight the infection and save the population.”

Mkhize warned that the number of positive cases will increase and urged citizens to abide to basic preventative measures like wearing cloth masks and regular hand hygiene.

“We have seen the numbers increasing. The number of positive cases is going to increase. Our intention is not to stop the virus from spreading, but to reduce the rate at which it spreads. This is not the time to be complacent…COVID-19 is a much stronger infection now than what it was when we started to introduce the lockdown,” he said.

“We need to make sure that we deal with the issue of stigma. Those who are positive need to be supported…We need to also focus on the elderly, the senior citizens need to be protected. The large majority of people who pass have got other underlying conditions.”