Covid-19 fear takes hold at KZN health department

Employees at KwaZulu-Natal’s health headquarters have accused the department of flouting coronavirus labour regulations and putting their lives at risk. But could fear be overriding a return to work?

Government employees at the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health’s headquarters in Pietermaritzburg are working in fear for their lives as the number of Covid-19 cases in the office block increases.

The towering Natalia Building, which boasts 16 floors on Langalibalele Street (formerly Longmarket Street), should be leading by example to protect employees working in the office during the coronavirus pandemic. But this is not the case, according to several employees who spoke to New Frame on condition of anonymity.

Officials raised concerns about the lack of physical distancing, testing or screening, little or no sanitisation and a lack of transparency when it comes to informing employees about the number of Covid-19 cases in the building.

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Provincial Department of Health spokesperson Thando Nkosi had not addressed these allegations by the time of publishing.

One office administrator said that during level four of the government’s lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, from the last week of March to the end of May, employees worked on a rotational basis depending on the work schedule.

“During that time, there was very little cleaning and sanitisation of the building taking place. Each staff member was given one bottle of hand sanitiser and they had to buy themselves masks … In the beginning, they sanitised three to four times a week and thereafter it was not sanitised as often.”

Full staff complement

The employee said that following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement that the lockdown would ease from 1 June, the number of staff members working in the building rose from 30% to 100%. 

“When the large number of staff were expected back, all of a sudden there was complete sanitisation of the building. There was deep cleaning and they started to follow the labour laws that were stipulated by the government. What is disheartening is that during level four and five, the necessary precautions were not taken for some of the staff members that were already reporting for work.”

The employee claimed to have heard talk in the passages and parking lot about colleagues testing positive. “We were not officially informed,” she said, adding that she later found out the cases had been traced to a small office shared by four to six staff.  

“My concern is that I will go home and put my family at risk. And although we are taking the necessary precautions, I do not feel that the Department of Health is looking after their staff. It is worrying now, especially with the cases starting to spike. 

“We are wondering why we cannot go back to a rotational system like we did in the beginning. At the end of the day … even though I am grateful for my job and to earn a salary during a pandemic, I just feel that sometimes we are at risk of taking the virus back to my family because I deal with people 99% of the time at work.”

Non-compliance in workplaces

The Cape Argus newspaper recently reported that the Department of Employment and Labour found that 40% – two out of every five – of the organisations it inspected were not compliant with the Occupational Health and Safety Act in terms of lowering and eliminating the spread of Covid-19 in offices and workplaces.

According to the article, the department inspected 2 789 workplaces across the country between 30 April and 8 May.

Another department staff member said that in addition to health department personnel, the Natalia Building houses staff from the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs as well as some staff members from the premier’s office.

“Some people are crammed in the office. I am currently sharing my office with two other people and we only get sanitised once, when we enter the building.

“We [bring] our own sanitiser to wipe the door handles, the phones and the desks every morning. As a staff member, I feel done in [let down], because some of our colleagues were told to rotate and lower the workforce capacity and when we asked, they said no.” The staff members were reportedly told that they were essential administrative support staff for all the hospitals in the province.

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“All we want is for the department to observe the rules and regulations. Our building has no fresh air and we breathe in the same air being circulated by the air conditioner. 

“There are people that we know that have contracted the virus, but the department likes to downplay the situation, saying they will deep clean and sanitise the building. But it could be too late, because we have already been exposed to the virus.”

The staff member’s main concern is her sickly son. “I am worried about going home to him. I cannot place his life and my elderly mother’s life at risk. I really cannot afford to get sick.”

Other personnel said they had approached management to voice their concerns, but that their complaints had fallen on deaf ears.

Another staff member complained about the lack of information about the number of cases in the building. “When the Department of Health speaks to the media, they tell the nation that they are adhering to all the rules and regulations. But on the ground that is not happening, there is no screening of employees.”

A man who claimed there were about 10 000 officials working in the building said, “We feel like the Department of Health is not transparent about the number of cases in the building and thus placing our lives at risk.”

Protocols not being followed

Health & Other Services Personnel Trade Union of South Africa (Hospersa) spokesperson Kevin Halama said he is not surprised at the allegations. 

“This is an issue we are having in many of the government offices around the country. This is also happening in the clinics and the hospitals … we are getting these kinds of reports where protocols are not being followed,” said Halama.  

When there are positive cases, he said, there should be a complete shutdown of that particular area. This should be followed by deep cleaning and then the tracking of those who may have come into contact with employees who have tested positive for the virus. “Instead, the department is saying that they are not testing people until someone shows symptoms,” said Halama, who is angered by this stance.  

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Hospersa is a union of more than 60 000 healthcare workers, predominantly nurses, and Halama said lack of sanitisation is a hot issue among health workers. 

“The problem we are facing in the public sector is that the more positive cases recorded means less staff members in those facilities, and that means CEOs [chief executives] can no longer deploy someone to sanitise at the front end of the facility … This is happening in a number of government buildings, and what is concerning is that Natalia is supposed to be a custodian of what health departments around the country should be doing. If this is happening there, what is a CEO situated in a deep rural office supposed to do?”

‘Force of habit’

While employees and union bodies have legitimate concerns, Mosa Moshabela, dean of the school of nursing and public health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the institution’s Covid-19 expert, has warned that it could be the fear of infecting loved ones that is causing employees to feel increasingly distressed and anxious.

“Even though the fear is real, you need to feel confident that you are in control of not taking the virus home. It is the fear of not having the capacity to stop the spread of the virus that has people in a state [of fear].”

Moshabela was very sceptical that the provincial department’s headquarters in Pietermaritzburg could be flouting health and safety regulations. “Every sector has a strategy of managing the spread of the virus. Everyone is afraid. But it could be that people are now stuck in the force of habit and people don’t want to work,” he said.

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