Addressing ailing Eastern Cape health services as the fight against COVID-19 ramps up

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize says government is urgently working to fix challenges plaguing health care services in Eastern Cape as the rate of COVID-19 cases spike in the province.

Mkhize was speaking at a media briefing after a two-day visit to the province where he met with provincial and local government officials, traditional and religious leaders, and business stakeholders in affected hotspot areas.

“As we look at it, in terms of our definition, it is definitely a resurgence. Whilst the Eastern Cape in general has shown rising numbers, Nelson Mandela Bay specifically seems to the hotspot. In addition, we have seen a lot of other activities in the areas of Sarah Baartman and Buffalo City. The increasing numbers are not only seen in the Eastern Cape,” Mkhize said.

“The Western Cape numbers have started increasing to the extent that during the surge, Gauteng had the highest number followed by KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and then Western Cape. At this point, numbers in Western Cape are such that the numbers are even higher than KZN, which indicates that we have a resurgence in both provinces (Eastern Cape and Western Cape) at this point.”

The minister expressed concern of rising numbers during the upcoming festive season.

“We have an opportunity still to act on these outbreaks so we can further delay the spread of this infection to various other provinces. But we must upfront say we are concerned as we enter the festive season that the numbers might start rising as a result of the practices associated with the festive season where people congregate in groups, tend to celebrate and have parties, quite often in close proximity,” he said.

“People have not been adhering to the use of masks and distancing and even some sharing items that have got a potential to spread the infection like those who share beer bottles and cigarettes.”

Rounding up the results of his visit, Mkhize said government is working swiftly to address service issues in the province’s healthcare sector.

“Our focus on this visit was to deal with three areas: the first was around the problem of case management, looking at how the health facilities in general are coping with the surge; the second aspect relates to the discussion around the customary initiation which we had a discussion about; and the third had to do with the issue of behavioural change and the community involvement in the fight against the infection,” he said.

“There are challenges that are affecting health services in the Eastern Cape. The challenges arise from the historical underfunding of the Department of Health in the province, so there are issues of infrastructural inadequacies and human resources. With the resurgence, it has now been established that the numbers we are seeing here are higher than the numbers in July and August during the surge.

The fatigue, the psycho-social strain among our staff is a real issue. So we want to acknowledge that our staff have been dedicated, hardworking and have spent all their time fighting COVID-19 and it is understandable that at this point the pressure would be felt.”

Mkhize said work is being done to provide support structures to medical staff. He said issues arising from Personal Protective Equipment stock have been managed.

“At this point, the issue of PPE has been managed in such a way that it doesn’t arise now as such as concern to the same extent as it did before.”

He said it is untrue that hospitals are at capacity.

“What has arisen is the fact that there is a sense that hospital beds are full. We have gone into this matter. The reality is that the hospitals are not full. What has caused the problem are observation wards. Someone will walk in with symptoms and when they get into the emergency ward, they will be assessed and put into an observation ward where all tests are done. We have to wait for the results to confirm the person is COVID-19 positive. If there is a delay it means the patient will stay in the observation ward until the results come out,” he said.

“We are working to reduce this bottleneck.”

Mkhize reminded South Africans that the success or failure in the fight against COVID-19 depends on our behaviour as a community.

“The difference in the way we deal with the pandemic is that in the hospitals and clinics we save lives of people already infected; in the community is where we defeat COVID-19 and ensure the spread is actually reduced. The two have to work together,” he said.