Pounded by Covid-19, nurses live in fear as numbers surge

The mere thought of going back to work has been nerve wracking for Alica Maart, a nurse working at one of the private hospitals in Cape Town. She has just lost her mother to Covid-19.

Maart said her mother Petronella Benjamin, 61, died on April 29 just a day before she officially retired after she had been a nurse for a mammoth 35 years at Cape Town Reproductive Clinic. She was the first frontline worker in Western Cape to die of Covid-19 related illness.

"I have been on leave and with the rising number of nurses who are either infected or dying from Covid-19 related illnesses, I am scared to go back to work," she said.

Maart described her mother as someone who was dedicated to her work. Before she died, her mother booked off sick for a month as she was suffering from bronchitis, but she forced her way back to work as she wanted to serve people. She said a week before she died, she began vomiting and her temperature was rising.

"She was admitted to hospital on a Thursday and unfortunately she died on a Wednesday the following week. It was hurting when she died because we tried to force my mother to retire last year in December, but she refused. The hardest thing was that when she was buried my father was not at the funeral because he was sick. He was in the intensive care unit because he had also tested positive. We could not even hug each other."

Benjamin was one of the 21 nurses who died in Western Cape after they tested positive for Covid-19.

Some families told Sowetan that it was still too soon to talk about the death of their loved ones.

The biggest number of deaths recorded thus far is in Eastern Cape, which has chalked in 27 both in private and public hospitals. At the time of going to print, the Gauteng tally was unconfirmed.

In KwaZulu-Natal four nurses have died, in North West two, in Mpumalanga one nurse has died after testing positive for Covid-19 and in Free State it was only an operational manager who passed away last month.

While updating parliament on the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the lives of South Africans, health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said as of June 30 there were 4,821 healthcare workers that were reported to have been infected with the Covid-19 virus across the country.

Mkhize said this data represented cases of health workers in both the public and private sector. He said Western Cape continued to account for the majority of infections with (68%) of healthcare workers infected.

"The leading number of infections are among nurses, with 2,473 infections followed by other health professionals, including health workers reporting 1,971 infections and doctors recording 377," Mkhize said.

The Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (Denosa) has warned that the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in healthcare facilities would be a silent genocide for healthcare workers.

Denosa's spokesperson Sibongiseni Delihlazo said the shortage of PPEs was a major contributing factor to the death of their members.

"We strongly feel that many nurses who fell on the Covid-19 sword had been failed dismally by management, especially those who have underlying illnesses.

"There had been instances where nurses who were in contact with patients who tested positive for Covid-19 were not allowed to isolate for 14 days, but would be recalled back to work in a matter of six to seven days. This had increased the risk of exposure to infection for many others," he said.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) echoed the same sentiments as Denosa.

Nehawu added that lack of training on dealing with Covid-19 and training on using PPEs was also a contributor to the increasing number of Covid-19 infections among the healthcare workers.

Nehawu national spokesperson Khaya Xaba said: "We also believe that failure by healthcare institutions to comply with occupational health and safety measures, including the non-existent infection prevention and control measures have contributed to the growing number.

"There is an issue of understaffing which is also a big issue. Workers are overworked, exhausted and some are depressed and anxious because of the workload and the fear for their lives."

Nehawu believes that the Covid-19 infection among healthcare workers could have been avoided if sufficient PPEs were provided, including training workers on donning and safe disposal of materials.

Meanwhile the family of a Gauteng nurse who worked at George Mukhari Academic Hospital alleged that the nurse's status had been kept a secret.

A family member who spoke on condition of anonymity said they lost two family members.

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