Covid-19: We don’t have a full picture of what’s going on in the Eastern Cape

Province has failed to keep the population informed

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The Eastern Cape government is not keeping the population informed about measures to combat the spread of Covid-19, says the author. (Image of SARS-CoV-2 virions emerging from a cell by the US NIAID, CC BY 2.0)

The Eastern Cape government is failing to sufficiently inform the population about the coronavirus pandemic and appears to be inadequately prepared to deal with it.

This province is one of the most populous and the second most destitute, according to StatsSA, and it is of grave concern that the provincial government appears inadequately prepared to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. The failure to inform the population, the shortage of personal protective gear (PPE), the shortage of ICU beds, and the continued movement of people between districts are particularly alarming.

During a pandemic, it is important that citizens have access to readily available and relevant information. Credible information which is frequently updated is required for purposes of transparency and accountability and to ensure that the public is aware of the implications of the pandemic so that they too may take personal responsibility in “flattening the curve”. The Constitution guarantees our citizens the right of access to information. This right enables them to exercise and protect other rights, in this context, the rights to life and health.

The Disaster Management Act calls for the establishment of a centre for provincial disaster management, responsible for coordinating an integrated approach to disaster management, with special emphasis on prevention and mitigation. The centre is also intended to collect and spread information about disasters, impending disasters and disaster management in the province.

However, there has been no indication that such a centre is functioning in this province, and if so, where it is and who is running it. Also, there has been no communication about any platform created by the centre to disseminate information about the management of the disaster.

The Eastern Cape’s ability to deal with the pandemic will be complicated by the rural nature of the province, its geographical structure, health facilities, infrastructure, distribution of healthcare personnel and capacity.

Many in the province have to walk a distance of 5km or more to get to a clinic. Health facilities in the Eastern Cape are in disrepair. The facilities are small, aged and rundown, which leads to overcrowding, lack of dignity and lack of privacy. At times, the facilities lack electricity and face water shortages.

Health workers are at risk in this pandemic and Personal Protective equipment (PPE) is necessary to keep them safe.

The Premier’s deployment of 2,000 nurses and 1,000 nursing assistants is welcome, as is the proposal for temporary appointment of unemployed nurses. It is also commendable that community health workers have been appointed to conduct mass screenings, as well as referrals of suspected Covid-19 cases. But they too need proper PPE.

Healthcare workers in the Eastern Cape have already gone on strike due to the lack of PPE. It is commendable that the Province is looking for manufacturers, but there seem to be no short-term plans to deal with the immediate shortages.

On 20 April 2020, residents of the Eastern Cape were encouraged to present themselves for testing. But without sufficient information about testing, it is very difficult for anyone to do so.

We do not know how many private and public testing sites (clinics, hospitals and community health centres) there are in the Eastern Cape or where are they located.

We do not know what is the screening schedule for the province as a whole or the schedule per district and ward.

We do not know how people who have been screened and need to be tested will get to a testing facility, or whether this information has been adequately disseminated to the public to increase awareness and prevent misinformation about screening procedures.

We do not know how many isolation facilities have been identified throughout the province and where they are.

The Clinical Management of Suspected or Confirmed Covid-19 Disease dated 27 March 2020 outlines steps to be taken to manage persons under investigation and persons who fulfil the criteria of suspected Covid-19 cases. However, it is silent on what steps are to be taken to get the patient from the clinic to a designated isolation facility. What means are to be employed to transport the patient?

Are emergency medical services and medical personnel to be set aside specifically for this purpose?

We do not know how many healthcare personnel have been employed to date in response to the Covid-19 outbreak; how many of them have been trained, and what procedures are in place to make sure that health care workers including community health workers have themselves been screened and tested for Covid-19?

We do not know what steps have been taken to deal with the current shortages of PPE for healthcare personnel, in light of national and worldwide, shortages.

We also do not know what measures, beyond the National Disaster Management Regulations and their amendments, are being considered or taken to address the transmission of the virus through the attendance of funerals, what measures have been taken to identify and trace all those who have attended where necessary, or how many individuals have been traced to date.

We do not know what measures are being taken to restrict cross-district travel.

We need clear communication from the province in order to dispel uncertainty about the response to the pandemic.

Mothudi is a health researcher at the Public Service Accountability Monitor, School of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University. This is based on an open letter sent to Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane and MEC for Health Sindiswa Gomba.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.

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