The residents of Cala, a small farming village about 140km from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape where no cases of Covid-19 have been reported so far, are concerned that this could change now that ill patients have been quarantined in a local guesthouse.
The Sakhisizwe Civil Society Structures Forum, supported by Wits University’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies, has written a formal letter to Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize, Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane, various members of the executive council and the mayor of the Chris Hani District Municipality, Wongama Gela, objecting to the use of the Mioca Lodge guesthouse as a quarantine facility.
Kwakhanya Tikana, the daughter of Eastern Cape member of the executive council for transport Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe, who comes from Cala, owns the lodge. Tikana-Gxothiwe confirmed that it is on the government’s list of approved quarantine facilities. “It is not the only one in Chris Hani District Municipality. There are many quarantine sites approved,” she said.
But forum treasurer Lungisile Ntsebeza said it strongly objected to the health risks the facility poses and to Tikana-Gxothiwe’s family benefitting from the coronavirus health crisis. He said the facility had been set up in secret and that local residents only heard through the grapevine that Covid-19 patients from Dordrecht, about 100km away, had been brought to be isolated at the lodge this week.
An activist in Cala, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that ill Covid-19 patients arrived at Mioca Lodge on 15 April. He said nurses and vehicles from the Department of Health were present on 16 April, and Mioca Lodge was now being guarded by a private company, Ibhubesi Lika Noni Security. Government officials refused to confirm this, referring New Frame to the Eastern Cape Department of Health, which had not responded to messages by the time of publishing. However, on 17 April Tikana-Gxothiwe confirmed on social media that 14 Covid-19 patients had been moved into the guesthouse.
The forum advocates for local government accountability and the promotion of people-driven socioeconomic development. It represents non-governmental organisations such as the Cala University Students Association as well as local structures such as the Cala Reserve planning committee, Elliot Paralegal Advice Centre, Siyazakha Land Rights and Development Forum, Vulamasango Singene campaign, Elliot Residents’ Association and the Sakhisizwe branch of the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco).
Ntsebeza, a retired professor at the University of Cape Town who holds the AC Jordan chair in African studies and the National Research Foundation research chair in land reform and democracy in South Africa, questioned why Mioca Lodge was chosen as a 14-day isolation facility for patients who live far away in Dordrecht, where there are guesthouses and a school with a hostel available. There are currently two confirmed Covid-19 cases in Dordrecht and a number of residents who had been in close contact with them have been tested for the virus.
“We are keen to support the fight against the pandemic, but we demand transparency and the involvement of those who are directly affected by decisions. We also need to understand the factors considered in choosing the facility identified as the would-be quarantine zone,” said Ntsebeza.
He said other guesthouses in Cala had been approached by the municipality ahead of the national lockdown to ask if they would quarantine Covid-19 patients. At least one guesthouse had “rejected the offer”, Ntsebeza said, having “had no confidence in the capacity of the health service [in Cala] to deal with the pandemic”.
“It is irresponsible for any guesthouse, or house, for that matter, to agree to being a quarantine facility without assurances, demonstrated in a thoroughly transparent process, that those directly affected will be safe. Not seeking such assurances and transparency would amount to guesthouses using disaster for personal gain, which is immoral.” A guesthouse charging R500 a night would make R126 000 if it housed 18 patients over a 14-day isolation period.
Tikana-Gxothiwe said that officials from the Department of Public Works and environmental health officers had come to train the staff. She said she would not benefit from the government’s use of the lodge as she is not its owner. She sent New Frame the lodge’s shares certificate, which shows that her daughter owns it.
“I declared that business. It did not start now; it started in 2014. It is not a new business. I declared that my child is running the business of a B&B. I don’t have anything to do with the operations. I am staying in East London,” said Tikana-Gxothiwe.
However, four Cala residents said it was well known that Mioca Lodge benefitted Tikana-Gxothiwe which was built on the site of one of her family homes which was renovated to establish the lodge.
Demand for information
Cala has inadequate public health facilities to treat residents if the coronavirus were to spread from the guesthouse into the town and surrounding villages.
The government has not released any information about the approved quarantine facilities in different provinces. This contrasts sharply with its handling of the Ranch Resort in Limpopo being used as an isolation facility for South Africans who had been flown back from Wuhan, China. In that case, information about the staffing, care of patients and risks to the nearby community was released in great detail, and the resort was visibly locked down with a large number of guards blocking access to nearby roads.
The forum has demanded that Mkhize and Mabuyane provide reasons for the decision to relocate patients to the lodge. It also wants them to provide a virus containment plan, proof that Sakhisizwe Local Municipality’s public health system is ready to care for the patients, and the reasons for not consulting the surrounding communities on their decision.
“What will happen when the people who work at or manage the lodge come into contact with the patients and they spread the virus beyond the quarantine zone to the rest of the Sakhisizwe municipal area?” asked Ntsebeza. “Do local patients who have symptoms also go to Mioca Lodge?”
Cala resident Taaibos Mangwana said there is an army base in Komani, “which is big enough to accommodate thousands of people. Why then choose a small town like ours to quarantine a deadly virus which can spread through the whole town in a space of three to five days?”
Sanco in Sakhisizwe has written to the health department to object to the facility. “Our Department of Health is under-resourced and our community is impoverished. Should this pandemic spread into our community, it would mean the end of our people. We are also concerned with the staff that will be taking care of these people, that they are not properly trained.”