NEWS & ANALYSIS

President offers no solutions to struggles of front-line workers – NEHAWU

Union says these workers continue to be recklessly exposed to the virus

NEHAWU statement on government’s response to the rise in Covid-19 infections

13 July 2020

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union [NEHAWU] notes the statement made by President Cyril Ramaphosa last night on the progress in the national effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

The President’s address took place when South Africa has the tenth highest numbers of infections in the world. As of last night, the country had 276 242 positive cases and 4079 mortalities. Just yesterday alone, 12 058 new positive cases were registered. These numbers necessitates that more stringent and effective plans to combat the spread of COVID-19 are put in place as a matter of urgency. In this regard, we welcome the decision to reintroduce the curfew and the immediate suspension of the sale and distribution of alcohol which has overburdened our healthcare system with trauma injuries resulting from alcohol consumption.

While the speech of the President mainly focused on creating awareness about the dangers of the virus including measures to mitigate the risk of transmissions. The national union believes that the speech failed to address the plight of frontline workers nor does it offer any tangible solutions to the struggles they are confronted with on a daily basis. Frontline workers continue to be recklessly exposed to the virus and they lose their lives on a daily basis while trying to fight this invisible enemy. With most of our healthcare facilities already overwhelmed with admissions of COVID-19 cases, the fight against the pandemic must be fought in all the hospitals and clinics across the country.

According to the statistics presented to parliament by the Minister of Health on the 8th July 2020; more than 4 821 frontline workers were reported to have been infected with the Covid-19 virus across the country. Nurses are the most affected with 2473 infections, followed by Community Healthcare Workers with 1971 infections and lastly, doctors with 377 infections. However, we strongly believe that these numbers might be slightly less because we know for a fact that many healthcare institutions hide the numbers of infected workers so as to not allow them to go on self-isolation and deplete staff numbers. As NEHAWU, we are worried that if the situation does not improve drastically very soon we will be facing a similar situation like in Italy where nearly 17 000 workers contracted the coronavirus.

The speech by the President acknowledges that there is a shortage of more than 12,000 health workers, mostly nurses, doctors and physiotherapists. However, it is surprisingly silent on plans to immediately deal with this problem. NEHAWU has been consistent in pointing out that understaffing is a huge problem in both the healthcare and education sector. Government has been refusing to fill vacant posts in the public service and in some cases has elected to put moratoriums on staff recruitment. The problem of understaffing is exacerbated by the fact many workers are getting infected by the virus thus needing self-isolation.

The president also reported that government has procured and delivered millions of items of Personal Protective Equipment [PPEs] to hospitals, clinics and schools across the country to protect our frontline workers. However, our members and workers still complain about working without protection. Government urgently needs to ensure that workers have all the protection they need and that PPEs correspond with the head count in every workplace. NEHAWU will continue to encourage its members and workers not to work if they feel that their lives are in danger.

Once more the issue of the non-payment of salary increases for public service workers was ignored by the President. Frontline workers have not received their annual increase which was due on the 1st April 2020 after government elected to renege on implementing a signed collective agreement. The national union notes with serious concern the failure by the President to address this urgent matter which has left many of our frontline workers dejected and struggling to make ends meet.

We welcome the call to lay the foundation for the National Health Insurance [NHI] for universal access to healthcare for all our people regardless of their ability to pay. NEHAWU has always advocated for a healthcare system that treats people based on their health needs and not the size of their pockets. However, it must be noted that the South African public health system has been neglected for many decades and massive resources are still needed if we are to accelerate the implementation of the NHI. The time for empty rhetoric is over as our people are struggling to access decent health care.

Lastly, NEHAWU had hopes that the President will update the nation on the R500 billion social relief, its spending thus far and the investigation of fraudulent and corrupt tendencies that have allegedly illegally benefitted from it.

Issued by Khaya Xaba, NEHAWU National Spokesperson, 13 July 2020