Eastern Cape nurses face Covid-19 stigma

Healthcare workers in one of the most affected provinces in the country are fighting two wars: the battle to get protective equipment and ostracisation by their communities.

Nurses are facing rising prejudice from the public as more than 300 healthcare workers in South Africa are infected with Covid-19. 

The shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) places frontline healthcare workers at risk, especially in hotspots such as the Eastern Cape, where health minister Zweli Mkhize is concerned with the trajectory of the virus. The province has 179 nurses with Covid-19 and more than 100 people died in one weekend.

Contact tracer teams have been sent to areas with high infection rates, including Nelson Mandela Bay and Buffalo City, but their presence in communities is causing panic. The government established tracer teams to monitor progress in patients with Covid-19 and to track people who have been in close contact with confirmed cases. 

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Lindiwe Dumasile, a nurse and deputy secretary general of the Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union (YNITU), explains what happens when residents come across the tracer teams, who dress in full white protective gear and are often accompanied by police.

“When the government contact tracer teams visit nurses who have tested positive for Covid-19 and are under self-quarantine, [the nurses] are placed under a microscope in their communities,” she said. 

This comes after a nurse at Zwide Clinic in Port Elizabeth died after having contracted Covid-19 and 11 more tested positive for the virus. Nurses took to the streets in protest, arguing the Department of Health should close the clinic until it could provide sufficient PPE and sanitise the entire facility. But nurses are not only being mistreated by the health department. 

Those who have tested negative and use public transport when travelling to work have been experiencing verbal abuses by commuters, Dumasile said. 

No stranger to victimisation 

“My colleagues in Zwide clinic who tested positive and are in self-quarantine at home, they were visited by the contact tracers and [the police]. Thereafter a voice note on WhatsApp was circulated by her neighbour remarking about the contact tracer team visit. They since have been the talk of the town,” she said.

A nurse who asked to remain anonymous spoke to New Frame about her experiences. “As an HIV care worker, I have experienced victimisation at the hands of my community. There was a misunderstanding which occurred between my brother and my supervisor. The supervisor then called police into my house, [but] because [I am] a health worker, the community members saw the police vans and assumed that this meant that I had contracted the virus, and this caused panic in my street. A voice note on WhatsApp was circulated by my neighbour, which fuelled the rumour. People are now phobic towards me and my family,” she said.

Another voice note on WhatsApp circulated by a nurse in quarantine remarked on how she and another nurse in self-isolation were afraid of the tracer team visits. The nurse said her colleague had turned away one of the tracer teams, telling them to rather “communicate telephonically” as she feared the ostracisation of her community.

In many parts of Port Elizabeth townships, community members have little information on Covid-19. The YNITU is worried that if engagement does not take place soon, rumours and false information could turn deadly. 

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In another incident, the family of a nurse in iZinyoka township has been spurned after the death of a child. The child tested positive for Covid-19 after the mother, a nurse at a local clinic, had been placed in self-quarantine. A family member spoke to New Frame on condition of anonymity.

“People are now against us. We are treated differently. People in our street are shunning us and running when they see us,” said the 21-year-old family member.

The family lives in a crowded household where self-isolation is not possible. The father has now also tested positive. 

“The family needs to be assisted with psychological help and the community needs to be addressed so that ostracisation of infected families can stop,” said Dumasile. 

Virus education needed

Department of Health spokesperson Siyanda Manana said the matter would be urgently addressed. “As the department, we are embarking on the use of all social media channels and local radio stations to communicate, raising awareness to communities on the virus. We encourage … those [who] have recovered from the virus [to come out] so that people can see that recovery is possible,” said Manana.

As gatherings are still prohibited under level three lockdown, awareness campaigns have been conducted via digital platforms and electronic media. Occasional TV adverts have been screened, explaining the need to exercise proper hygiene. But the government has failed to engage communities at the local level, where there is a need for education, said Dumasile.

Government visibility in townships is necessary now more than ever. Recently the police have been conducting awareness drives and engaging community members in Motherwell. This involved going from street to street using loud hailers, explaining lockdown restrictions and the importance of wearing face masks when going out in public.

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