Sundays River Valley ill-equipped for Covid-19

Farm workers risk increased exposure to the virus as harvest season begins while impoverished Eastern Cape residents have access to health services only four times a year.

The Sundays River Valley Municipality in the Eastern Cape is only 80km from Port Elizabeth but remains underdeveloped. The local economy hinges on citrus and game farms, which are the main sources of employment. Many people become farm workers at a young age and families often do the same work for generations. Affordable and decent healthcare is not an option for workers. Already burdened by the high cost of living, many opt to make use of free public health services. 

The Sundays River Valley Municipality has more than nine residential areas and many private farms, but community members can only access four health facilities and one mobile clinic in the area. The municipality’s integrated development plan for 2018-2022 scores its own service delivery at a very low two out of a possible eight. 

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According to the planning report, the municipality has failed to build health facilities for populated areas such as Beersheba and Enon, which have only gravel access roads. There is no secondary school in the area, so children have to use expensive public transport to get to schools in Kirkwood, 12km away.

Residents told New Frame the mobile clinic is supposed to visit for a full day every week but sometimes does not arrive for weeks. Nurses at the hospital in Kirkwood often turn patients away and advise them to wait for the mobile clinic. This is after they have already taken public transport or been forced to hire private vehicles to reach the hospital. The single operating ambulance that serves the entire municipality is often on call in Makhanda.

Farmworkers at risk

It is, however, the farm areas where residents feel the worst of the service, as they only receive health care on a quarterly basis.

“The mobile service arrives after three months and by that time chronic patients have defaulted on their medication. We are really the forgotten people of this democracy,” says a resident of Endulini Farm.

After engagements with local activists in Beersheba Hall the district department of health last year promised several changes – a three-point plan for frequent home-based visits in Beersheba and  Enon, an immunisation programme for the farms and the building of both temporary and permanent clinics in overpopulated areas. But residents say only part of the first point of the plan was implemented.

Now that Covid-19 has hit the area, a home-based caregiver in Beersheba, speaking on condition of anonymity, says she is afraid.

“We have been given masks and gloves, but we are still scared. We don’t know what the virus is capable of,” she says.

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By 30 March 2020, the area had one confirmed case of the coronavirus, in the town of Paterson. A source told New Frame that nurses from the hospital pleaded with community leaders to ask people not to panic but to stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus.

Harvest season has just begun in the Sundays River Valley and fears have heightened that farmworkers, who are considered essential, may be exposed to the virus. One worker says his employer asked all employees to move to the farm for the harvest. They have provided masks and sanitisers and have asked workers to wash their hands every 20 minutes.

But the Sundays River Valley Farmworkers Forum said in a statement, “Farm management and farm bosses are not adhering to the guidelines of managing the spread of Covid-19. In instances where hands are sanitised, it is only done in the morning. In some of the farms, workers are driven in packed buses with no masks at all. We strongly condemn these actions by farm management and bosses as being irresponsible with the lives of the workers and their families and society at large.”

Lodges close after outbreak

Meanwhile, the outbreak of Covid-19 has forced various upmarket lodges in the Sundays River Valley to close, including the Shamwari, Amakhala, Dung Beetle and Addo Elephant Lodge. International tourists visited these lodges, with game drives and trophy hunting the biggest attractions. A manager at one of the lodges who did not want to be named said all staff members had been put on paid leave and would be called in from time to time during the lockdown to do maintenance work and other odd jobs. 

“We are heavily disturbed by this. Our employees are taken care of but government’s plan to have them claim at the UIF is flawed, as those offices hardly pick up their phones. Our staff call and nobody attends to them so we think leave is best while they wait for the UIF office to be functional,” the manager said.

The district manager for the department of health, Dalene Devos, referred New Frame to the district’s spokesperson, Siyanda Manana, who could not be reached for comment.

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