Dr Zweli Mkhize commemorates World Environmental Health Day

 

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize says the risk of complacency amongst our community members can become South Africa’s biggest drawback and result in a second wave of COVID-19 that is more devastating than the first.

Mkhize was speaking during a webinar on Tuesday commemorating World Environmental Health Day.

He also used the opportunity to thank South Africa’s Environmental Health Professionals (EHPs), saying the pandemic also reinforced the need for countries to pursue a more collaborative response.

“The science of environmental health is based on the premise that prevention is better than cure, as this profession is concerned with the key environmental factors that are at the heart of public health dynamics,” he said.

“This was most evident in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic response, where the work of Environmental Health Practitioners became even more critical. The environmental conditions that people live and work in, the availability and quality of water and sanitation, the management of our borders, attitudes and habits of hygiene practices and the management of the infirm and deceased determines the success or failure of our mitigation measures against COVID-19.”

 

He said hand hygiene, social distancing, the safe handling and sale of foodstuffs, environmental cleanliness, and the management of waste and human remains are also amongst environmental interventions government is concerned with currently in the context of COVID-19 prevention and response.

“Practices that were emphasized during the COVID-19 pandemic that now form part of the new normal – such as hand washing, regular sanitization of surfaces sneeze and cough étiquette – have always been advocated by the Environmental Health fraternity.

“COVID-19 has once again reaffirmed the reality that diseases know no borders and no country is immune to the socio-economic devastation that follows the arrival and spread of a new and unfamiliar pathogen. The pandemic also reinforced the need for countries to pursue a more collaborative response, particularly at a regional level,” he said.

“This pandemic has compelled us to mount a multi-sectoral, well integrated response that favours multilateralism over nationalism. We understand better than ever before that leaving anyone behind will only result in a cataclysmic rebound effect – environmental health understands this better than anybody.”

He said EHPs at all levels including in the municipalities have from the onset, been part of a bigger team in our preparedness and response activities.

“Many families have lost loved ones and the health system has lost health professionals who contracted and succumbed to this virus in the line of duty. Amongst these professionals are our Environmental Health Practitioners. We pray that their souls may rest in eternal peace, and that their families are comforted by the knowledge of our deep appreciation for their great service to their fellow countrymen,” Mkhize said.

He warned that as the country moves to Alert Level One, the risk of complacency amongst our community members can become our biggest drawback and result in a second wave that is more devastating than the first.

“Having witnessed a resurgence in many countries around the world currently, we must proceed with the same level of vigilance and care, understanding that the risk of being forced back into hard lockdown remains very real. We can never allow the virus to run rampant, causing massive loss of life, untenable strain to the health care system and wreaking environmental havoc,” he said.

Looking forward, Mkhize said President Cyril Ramaphosa requires that we create a legacy for the health system from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The legacy will find expression in the National Health Insurance. As a legacy, we have to use this pandemic to ensure that environmental health systems at implementation level are strengthened for the future. The national norms and standards for environmental health provides an opportunity to achieve this,” he said.

“It is vital that employers ensure adherence to the norms and standards in rendering environmental health services. Adequate numbers of skilled professionals must be employed and continually developed to deal with pandemics, emerging and re-emerging diseases and current environmental challenges that may have potential negative impacts on human health.”