Covid-19 Roundup | Vaccines and worker rights

As vaccine trials get under way globally, workers wage battles for protective equipment, relief pay, permanent positions and a moratorium on retrenchments.

Vaccine passes phase one

On 12 July, Russia’s oldest medical school, Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University, announced it had successfully completed the first stage of its vaccine trial. 

The Gamalei Institute of Epidemiology produced the Covid-19 vaccine and tested it on volunteers. The results of the clinical trial show the vaccine is safe.

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While speaking during a social cluster briefing, Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize said he was aware of the new developments in Russia, but wary of being too optimistic, too quickly. 

“What we understood in Russia is that this is a trial that has gone through one phase … and [the phase] went very well. But it does not mean that there is a complete success. It means that it’s still going to another phase,” he said.

PPE protests

KwaZulu-Natal member of the executive council for health Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu visited the Edendale Hospital in Pietermaritzburg this week to inspect personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies. The visit follows disruptions in services at various hospitals in the province last week because of a shortage of PPE.

During her visit, Simelane-Zulu noted a lack of effective communication between unions and health facility administrators. “We are aware of protests in our different facilities. We were told that the majority of the protests related to a reported lack of PPE. [But the major issues seem to relate to] a disjuncture between the organised labour and the management.”

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Edendale Hospital does not have an occupational safety committee, which contributes to the confusion.

According to the Department of Health, the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality and the uMgungundlovu District Municipality continue to record the highest number of positive cases in the province.

Unsafe working conditions

On 14 July, the Simunye Workers Forum and Casual Workers Advice Office held a demonstration at the head offices of the Department of Employment and Labour in Pretoria. Initially, workers wanted to protest, but opted for a demonstration to ensure physical distancing.

Workers are frustrated by the lack of Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (TERS) payments, working in unsafe conditions and retrenchments. Recently released data from the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey shows that, during the early stages of the lockdown, TERS benefitted only one in every five of the temporarily unemployed workers it was designed to protect. Demonstrators asked that when a worker tests positive for Covid-19, workplaces should close with workers getting full pay. They also want free company transport to minimise the risk of contracting the disease and for the government to declare a moratorium on retrenchments.

Battle for community healthcare workers

Community healthcare workers in Gauteng have won a 10-year battle to be made permanent employees. The workers embarked on a strike in 2012 and won a labour court victory in 2016, which declared them employees of the state. In 2018, arbitration affirmed they were permanent employees.

Despite this, the Gauteng health department has only now accepted that community healthcare workers are “the backbone of the health system”, said the Gauteng Community Healthcare Forum.

Meanwhile, the police shot at members of the United Eastern Cape Community Healthcare Workers group who were occupying the offices of the provincial health department in Bhisho on Thursday 16 July. The group is made up of community health workers, the Treatment Action Campaign, the South African Federation of Trade Unions, the Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union, Workers’ World Media Productions and the National Union of Care Workers of South Africa. 

Because Eastern Cape member of the executive council for health Sindiswa Gomba did not arrive to meet the protesters, they occupied the department offices and, at about 8pm, police officers arrived and opened fire with rubber bullets.

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The group is seeking permanent employment for community healthcare workers, who have been on annual contracts since 1992. They get R3 500 a month, with no unemployment insurance fund contributions, medical aid or retirement benefits. “We are the same [workers] who are doing Covid-19 screenings and doing house visits for TB [tuberculosis], HIV and multidrug-resistant TB. Some of us have … [succumbed] to the deadly Covid-19 disease … We deserve to be treated with dignity,” said spokespeople Nompumelelo Kapu, Mzikazi Nkata and Anele Mbi.

Nkata said that after being shot at, the group scattered. Dozens of the workers then began walking the 8km to King William’s Town in the dark and the cold to find a petrol station at which to sleep.

Hunger here to stay

Findings from the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey, a nationally representative count of the early socioeconomic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and initial lockdown, were published on 15 July.

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Among the findings were devastating figures that appeared to confirm early fears that, without sufficient state assistance, South Africa’s impoverished citizens will sink into hunger. One in every eight people reported frequent hunger during early lockdown, while one in every 14 was perpetually hungry.

Government to blame

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) says the government and not alcohol is to blame for the lack of hospital beds.

General secretary Irvin Jim says shortages were “a direct result of the failed macroeconomic policies championed by the ANC government, [which] called for drastic cuts in government spending, and as a result, many state-owned nursing schools were closed.

“Decisions were taken to reduce costs on primary health and healthcare services, which is why today we do not have enough facilities to adequately treat this virus.”

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Jim says government negligence would be responsible for what experts forecast might be 50 000 Covid-19 deaths and repeated the union’s call for the government to nationalise private hospitals.

Numsa also condemned the government’s decision to allow taxis to be loaded at full capacity. “This is a sick but deadly joke. By allowing taxi operators to fill the taxi to capacity, government is effectively turning these vehicles into mobile coffins because the virus will spread exponentially across the length and breadth of this country.”

Water mismanagement

In Cala, a town about 100km from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, the South African Youth Council says the local government is mismanaging water resources. Water supply was interrupted between September and December last year, with even Cala Hospital’s taps running dry, says the youth council’s Zukile Liwani.

Chris Hani District Municipality manager Gcobani Mashiyi sent out a notice earlier this month announcing that the water supply would be cut off between 8pm and 4am daily “due to low water levels at Tsomo River”. 

But the youth council says the Tsomo River’s water levels have not dropped. “There is no water crisis, only a leadership crisis. Since I saw the sun, I never heard of the Tsomo River running dry. It carries millions of litres of water to the Kei River and ultimately to the Indian Ocean,” says Liwani. He added that the district municipality has failed to explore ways of extracting water from a local aquifer.

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