Show us you care by protecting us from infection, say protesting nurses

Healthcare workers at Tygerberg Hospital marked International Nurses' Day by taking to the streets to express their grievances about the conditions under which they work during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Healthcare workers at Tygerberg Hospital marked International Nurses' Day by taking to the streets to express their grievances about the conditions under which they work during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Image: Esa Alexander

May 12 is a day nurses are supposed to celebrate as the world marks International Nurses’ Day, but some nurses in the Western Cape said there was nothing to be happy about while they risk their lives on the Covid-19 frontline.

More than 100 healthcare workers at Tygerberg Hospital - including nurses, porters and general workers - disrupted the event of the day, in which provincial health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo was due to address them.

Instead, they demonstrated outside the hospital to highlight their plight during the Covid-19 pandemic, and to grieve the death of their colleague, Ntombizakithi Ngidi, who died at the weekend.

Despite being at the coalface of Covid-19 fight, many said they didn’t feel appreciated and Nurses’ Day had become “meaningless to us”.

They alleged that despite several staff members testing positive for Covid-19, hospital management has failed to deep-clean wards where staff work, or close the wards and isolate those who had worked with Covid-19 victims.

Some claimed that despite Ngidi reporting ill and with symptoms of the virus, her nursing manager allegedly told her to continue working and to wear a mask.

Ngidi, who succumbed to Covid-19 on Friday, is the second nurse to die from Covid-19.

Mbombo confirmed on Tuesday that about 200 healthcare workers have tested positive for Covid-19, and half of those are nurses. It is believed 11 of the nurses who have tested positive for Covid-19 are at the Khayelitsha community health centre (CHC).

In a statement, Tygerberg Hospital said it recognised that its employees may experience fear and anxiety following the recent death of a nurse due to Covid-19.

“During this period, the hospital management would like to unequivocally assure employees that it is committed to ensuring maximum protection for all against the spread of the coronavirus. The safety of our staff is of utmost importance, which is why we have spent a lot of time consulting employees and union representatives about various concerns raised by staff. Senior management have committed to a partnership to engage shop stewards to collectively address these concerns.”

Among the protestors was nurse Nkadi Notyela, who joined the demonstration to show her frustration with lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers at the hospital. She said despite being vulnerable to Covid-19 infection on a daily basis, she had to work.

“I don’t feel appreciated.. Some of us are bread-winners. We are here because we need to survive, but the day is meaningless to us. We are not treated as nurses at all,” she said to cheers from protesters who flanked her.

Amina Pinto, a nurse at Tygerberg Hopsital and chairperson of the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (Denosa), said nurses were in grieving mode because of neglect from management.

“We are grieving the death of our fellow members. We feel neglected as there is not enough PPE to protect nurses and not enough transport for nurses. More and more nurses are infected. My deputy is also laying here in hospital, positive for Covid-19. Wards are not being closed. We feel that if there are five or six people who have tested positive in a ward , the ward should be closed,” she said.

The ANC Youth League in Khayelitsha has called for the immediate closure of the Khayelitsha CHC, alleging the facility could be contributing to the high number of Covid-19 cases in the township.

The league’s coordinator, Olwethu Tetyana, said: “The department of health must set up a proper plan for these facilities to ensure  both staff and patients are safe.

“A health facility can never be a contributory factor to the spread of the virus, unless we are agreeing that there is either poor management in the facility or government authorities are unable to enforce decisions and regulations set out to guide the entire country in trying to curb the spread of the coronavirus."

Nehawu deputy secretary Emilia Maloi said despite almost 100 nurses having tested positive for Covid-19 in the Western Cape and several in intensive care units, the Western Cape health department had been tight-lipped about the extent of Covid-19 cases among health workers.

“As labour, we have not been engaged on how the pandemic has affected healthcare workers. We get to hear which healthcare workers have Covid-19 in the corridors,” she said.

Maloi said the union was also aware of threats of disciplinary action or dismissal of staff who dare question non-compliance with Covid-19 regulations by management.

“We know of cases where staff  who work in non-Covid-19 wards had been asked to assist in dedicated Covid-19 wards. We fear this may cause cross-contamination as there is higher risk of infection in those wards which may be brought in into non-Covid-19 wards,” she said.

Danver Roman, provincial secretary of Denosa in the Western Cape, said healthcare workers who had tested positive for Covid-19 had been warned “not to tell their colleagues they are positive”.

“If indeed it is so, we think this is the worst form of recklessness by managers as they are not only putting staff at risk of infection, but are risking the lives of their patients," he said.

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