Covid-19 Roundup | Investigations and dismissals

As the health department looks into the Covid-19 deaths of a doctor who lacked PPE and a hypoxic man in a hospital parking lot, protesting workers are suspended or dismissed.

Attacks on migrants

Some migrant shop owners returned to Phola Park in Thokoza this week to take stock of the damage following last week’s violent protests and attacks on migrants.

Protests over electricity cuts resulted in attacks on migrants in the area, with many driven from their homes and their possessions burnt by fellow residents. Police Minister Bheki Cele met with the community this past weekend. 

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Cele’s spokesperson, Lirandzu Themba, said following “a high level meeting”, the minister resolved to assist the municipality in restoring electricity. Cele agreed to deploy members of the South African Police Service and the South African National Defence Force “to the area to assist with maintaining law and order”.

Themba said there had been no further incidents following last week’s violence and that 17 suspects appeared in court this week on charges of public violence.

Healthcare workers at risk

A lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) in health facilities has led to increasing numbers of healthcare workers contracting Covid-19. 

There are 24 104 health workers infected with Covid-19, and 181 have died from the disease, said Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on 5 August 2020. Mkhize’s office has received reports that insufficient PPE and failure to adhere to Covid-19 safety protocols are putting healthcare workers at risk.

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The Department of Health is investigating the case of a doctor who died of Covid-19 at George Mukhari Academic Hospital in the north of Pretoria, reportedly because of a “lack of sufficient supply of PPE and doctors being made to work in unsafe environments at the facility”. 

The minister has appointed a team of health and legal professionals led by Taole Mokoena to investigate and produce a report in 14 days, which will be made public. 

Increase in excess deaths 

With almost one in four Covid-19 tests that were done on 5 August being positive, the peak of the coronavirus in South Africa continues to swell. The 414 new deaths reported on 5 August was the second highest daily increase yet. 

Increases in excess deaths, in large part due to Covid-19, also continue to rise. The latest estimates by the South African Medical Research Council show that between 6 May and 28 July there were more than 28 300 excess deaths in South Africa. 

With alcohol off the shelves, however, deaths as a result of unnatural causes, such as traffic accidents and homicides, remain considerably lower than predicted.

Communities without water

In the Covid-19 pandemic where regular hand washing is vital, five villages in Limpopo have been without water. Over the past five years, residents of Mbuzini, Morarela, Dichoeung, Elandskraal and Tsantsabela have obtained a number of court orders against the Sekhukhune District Municipality. But the municipality has failed to provide water. 

Communities were in court again on 4 August, represented by the Centre of Applied Legal Studies (Cals), demanding the municipality complies with the court order and implements its constitutional obligation. The communities also want the court to order an arrest of the acting municipality manager for contempt of court. 

An attorney at Cals, Ariella Scher, said the “communities feel they have no choice but to hold officials personally liable in an effort to send the message that this must be treated seriously”. 

Judgment was reserved by Judge David Fourie at the high court in Pretoria.

Meanwhile, a small Eastern Cape community has been without water for more than two months after their municipality allegedly failed to pay Eskom’s bill, and electricity to the water pumps was cut off.

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Community activist Matshezi Beje told New Frame that 29 houses in the reconstruction and development programme housing section of Hamburg, a town situated between Port Alfred and East London, have had no water at all for two months. Other houses had an “on-off” water supply, which sometimes only trickled out of the taps. 

“The entire community gets water from whichever home has working taps, which means some homeowners have a very high water bill,” said Beje.

On 6 August, residents took to the main road at 6am and marched in protest. Beje said they were demanding proof from Ngqushwa Municipality that Eskom was to blame for the lack of water.

Numsa goes head to head with VW 

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) says it will head to the labour court on 7 August to interdict Volkswagen (VW) in Uitenhage, Eastern Cape, if the company does not lift the suspensions of 14 Numsa shop stewards.

The shop stewards were suspended after workers stopped work on 17 July because VW had failed to comply with Covid-19 health and safety protocols, said Irvin Jim, Numsa general secretary.

Jim said by that date, 120 VW workers had tested positive for coronavirus, one worker had died and a further 60 were in quarantine, waiting for Covid-19 test results.

“VW insulated managers and office staff by allowing them to work from home while ordinary workers were required to return early in May 2020 without VW complying with the 50% regulation. What became increasingly apparent from VW’s conduct was that ordinary workers were regarded as mere commercial and disposable commodities,” said Jim. 

The 50% regulation says that workplaces cannot have more than half its workers on duty at a time because all workers need to keep a minimum of one metre from each other.

Farm workers dismissed after gathering

Commercial farmers in Jeffrey’s Bay, Eastern Cape, have fired more than 10 farm and forestry workers for taking part in last weekend’s National Day of Working Class Action, which took place across the country on 1 August. 

Sunday’s River Valley Farmworkers Forum’s Siyabonga Modikoe said the workers were fired by two commercial farms in the Kouga area. Farmworkers and forestry workers from the Sunday’s River Valley, about 100km away, had held a workers’ assembly with their counterparts from the Kouga Farmworkers Reunion in Longmore on 1 August. 

The assembly consisted of workers standing two metres from each other, mainly discussing that they had not received a single unemployed insurance fund Covid-19 payment. The workers resolved to meet again on 15 August to plan ways to work together. Two days later, they were fired. 

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“This is the reality of farm workers in this country, they are not regarded as humans. Two decades into democracy, farm workers are denied their rights to protest and right of association. In these farm areas, these employers do as they wish to workers and now that workers are starting to organise themselves and fight for their rights, the farmers are in panic mode and it does not sit well with them. White commercial farmers have been able to do as they please unchallenged until now,” said Modikoe. 

Clyde Jantjies of CWI Forestry said the company is 100% black owned and that he had not fired the workers but might soon retrench them.

“I would start with employees not attending to duties [and acting violently], and also employees joining strikes that [have] nothing to do with CWI Forestry but [who] still complain about the company,” he said.

The workers are all taking up cases of unfair dismissal at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration. 

New school calendar

On 1 August, the Department of Basic Education released a revised school calendar for 2020 following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement that schools would close for four weeks and reopen on 24 August.

“The school year will be completed on 15 December 2020 for grade R to 11 … The 2020 grade 12 examinations will be completed by 15 December and the marking will be concluded on 22 January with results released on 23 February 2021,” reads the statement by the department.

The revised calendar has 163 school days for teachers and 156 for learners.

Medical staff suspended

KwaZulu-Natal Health MEC Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu has suspended the medical manager and nursing manager at Northdale Hospital in Pietermaritzburg with immediate effect. The acting chief executive officer, who was on sick leave, was also redeployed back to her original post of maternal health specialist, the department said in a statement on 5 August. 

The suspensions come after the death of a 67-year-old man in the early hours of 1 August. Sibusiso Khumalo had reportedly received medical treatment in a partially covered flu clinic in the hospital’s parking lot.

According to News24, the man’s daughter, Hlengiwe Khumalo, posted a video of the makeshift parking lot facility where her father died of hypoxia. 

“The problem that we’re having here at Northdale is that you have people who are employed to do a job, but they do not,” said the MEC. “They wait for others higher up to do their work. You get to the facility and find that management does not see anything wrong with having a tent with open spaces at the top, which lets in air … It is unacceptable for managers to look for excuses as to why certain things cannot be done.”

An investigation into the matter is currently underway.

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