Needs of other sick people in hospital still require care even if it's not Covid-19

The panic over Covid-19 has impacted doctors and nurses to the level that in some instances they tend to be in conflict with standard practices of healthcare. / Gallo Images/Nardus Engelbrecht
The panic over Covid-19 has impacted doctors and nurses to the level that in some instances they tend to be in conflict with standard practices of healthcare. / Gallo Images/Nardus Engelbrecht

Health minister Zweli Mkhize has warned us to brace ourselves for a surge in Covid-19 cases in the months of July and August.

We knew that this was coming. Covid-19 stigma, however, is serious and insidious and could prove to be more deleterious to the fight against the virus.

One of the reasons given for the necessity of a hard lockdown was to allow the healthcare system to prepare for the peak in infections.

As hospitals have been assessing their capacity and strengthening their protocols, the unintended consequence of possibly denying healthcare to many who have health problems unrelated to the pandemic has been ill considered.

During the lockdown I have had an encounter with some private hospitals. It has struck me how the prioritisation of the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in an air of callousness in how those environments approach caring for patients ailing from other diseases.

It is true that in the wake of a deadly virus, vigilance is key. Nothing should be left to chance and healthcare practitioners should take every precaution necessary.

But this should not mean an unmindful implementation of procedures that disregards the pain and needs of a sick person who has come to a hospital to seek relief.

Doctors and nurses are burdened with the fear of not only contracting the virus but of what it means to their practices and the hospital's operations should it be discovered that they failed to screen a patient who actually has the coronavirus.

This has led to screening processes that bundle up a long list of symptoms that are related to any number of illnesses other than Covid-19.

Screening officers have become the new gatekeepers with inordinate powers. They can set aside the screening protocols and use their own discretion to decide whether a patient should get a Covid-19 test.

Just last week I witnessed such an incident. A patient at the screening booth, who suffers from a chronic illness known to her doctors, was denied access to the facility because she happened to have a sore throat and was told she could only see her doctor on condition of getting a Covid-19 test. This is despite passing every other part of the screening process aimed at excluding Covid-19.

The form provided by the hospital is divided into a number of sections. One asks questions regarding relations to and contact with healthcare workers. Another deals with Covid infections in the household and contact with infected persons. There is a section that deals with attendance of funerals and other permitted gatherings. And then there's a section that lists symptoms known to be related to the virus.

This protocol is not unique to Covid-19. It is used by doctors and medical facilities to exclude certain conditions and guide them in investigation of patients' cases.

The fear and panic around Covid-19 means that patients get profiled from far. The screening personnel (doctors and nurses) can decide you're a risk by just looking at you. In this way, patients are stigmatised before getting tested, whilst waiting for test results and after testing positive.

This situation can have the unintended consequence of sick people who need medical attention staying away from clinics and hospitals for fear of being victimised or singled out.

Even worse, people could lie about their symptoms, contacts and movements, thus rendering futile any screening instituted for our safety.

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