Will the Eastern Cape pass the Covid-19 test?

The provincial government stands accused of corruption and hiding critical information from the public – and these are just two of the burning issues alarming residents.

Many parts of the Eastern Cape did not have a single case of coronavirus identified in the first four weeks of the lockdown. But as the level four phase of the lockdown began on 1 May, the virus had spread beyond the large metros to the Alfred Nzo district and places such as the farming community of Ndlambe and the seaside town of Port Alfred.

Several days before, Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize visited Port Elizabeth and concluded that Covid-19 cases in the city were likely being underestimated as the number of reported cases and deaths did not match. He deployed a senior official to take charge of the response efforts in the province and sent 10 epidemiologists to help. 

A few days later, the Sakhisizwe Civil Society Structures Forum blew the whistle on a government quarantine facility that had secretly been set up in rural Cala. The site for the facility was a guesthouse, Mioca Lodge, which belongs to the family of Weziwe Tikana, member of the executive council for transport. It was unclear why it would be used to house people from larger towns far away and whether it was properly equipped to do so.

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The province shut the facility down two days after the news broke and moved the patients to a hospital. But Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane hit out at the forum, implying that its members were stigmatising Covid-19 patients. Mabuyane then announced that he would withhold the details of the remaining 120 quarantine sites.

“We will not share the list of the sites with you or any other journalist,” Mabuyane said through his spokesperson, Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha. “The main reason for this is because we want to protect the identity of the people that will be accommodated in these facilities.”

Provincial authorities were then confronted with “huge numbers” of Eastern Cape farm workers at Aberdeen who were trying to get back to the province from the Western Cape. They had to transfer these workers directly to guesthouses throughout the province for isolation.

Siyanda Manana, a spokesperson for the Eastern Cape’s Department of Health, told New Frame that none of the fruit pickers was tested before they left the Western Cape. “So we are screening and testing them and we don’t want them to proceed to their homesteads before we are sure that they are not Covid-19 positive. There are a whole lot of guesthouses we have deployed them to. We are quarantining them for 14 days and they will not be allowed to wander around. As they were not tested in the Western Cape, they have to stay in one place,” Manana said.

A veil of secrecy

But the forum said the government had not disclosed whether any of the guesthouses being used as quarantine facilities were fit for this purpose. Vuyo Mntonintshi, Ariella Scher and Thuli Zulu from the Centre for Applied Legal Studies backed the forum and said the government would need to make the details of all quarantine sites public. “We reject the provincial government’s contention that such quarantine sites can remain secret. Not only should their location be made public, but the containment plans underpinning the selection of those sites should similarly be released,” they said. 

The selection of quarantine sites must be based on an adequate plan for the containment of the coronavirus being in place, they added. “This plan must detail measures for containing the spread of the virus to the quarantine sites; make provision for sufficient and appropriate healthcare measures, including personal protective equipment; and also take into account the dearth of social and economic infrastructure to cope with any spread of the virus should it not be contained to the quarantine sites. 

“We continue to believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant, particularly in holding the state accountable in its primary duty to protect its citizens.” 

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The Eastern Cape government’s use of private guesthouses owned by politically connected people was again in the spotlight on 1 May when Mabuyane announced a forensic investigation into “allegations of an improper contract between the department and Mioca Lodge to accommodate employees of the department’s roads section for a period of more than a year”.

The provincial Department of Transport is also being investigated for the alleged improper procurement of sanitisers, corruption in spending related to funds that had been allocated for the funeral of 26 people who died in March in a bus accident in Centane, and paying R47 million for footbridges that have not been built.

Health workers join the fray 

In addition to these ongoing challenges, the Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union claims that community care workers and primary healthcare nurses are also deeply unhappy with the provincial government.

Community care workers do the important work of tracing patients who have Covid-19 and the people they have been in contact with, said the union’s deputy general secretary, Lindiwe Dumalisile, but they are “super exploited”. 

“Some of them have been on one-year fixed term contracts since 1992 with no benefits. Upon death or dismissal, they exit the system empty-handed. They don’t even qualify for the RDP housing scheme of the government. They are excluded even though they earn a lousy stipend of R3 500 per month,” said Dumalisile.

Primary healthcare nurses were unilaterally demoted to a lower pay scale in 2012 after they were transferred from municipalities to the provincial health department, which has ignored their objections ever since, Dumalisile added.

She said the union has been lobbying the government to provide protection for nurses against criminals for months, but has been told they are “just being lazy and there’s a lot of unemployed people who want their jobs”. On 4 May, a Covid-19 screening team was robbed of their cellphones at gunpoint in Kwazakhele, Port Elizabeth, in the presence of their managers.

Nurses, doctors and health workers have gone on intermittent strikes at state hospitals such as St Barnabas near Libode and Glen Grey near Cacadu because of a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, masks, gowns and hair nets. Local media have also reported that staff at Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth had to reuse these items instead of discarding them, and the washing machines in the hospital could not be used. 

A flailing government

The spokesperson of the Unemployed People’s Movement, Ayanda Kota, says the provincial government has failed the people of the Eastern Cape.

“This Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the bankruptcy and the extent of the rot in our Eastern Cape government. The premier must reshuffle the provincial cabinet and abandon corruption, cadre deployment and patronage, or the province must be placed under administration. This province has been run to the ground. Forensic investigations also need to be extended to all municipalities,” said Kota.

The EFF has also criticised Mabuyane for visiting two local factories based in Dimbaza, near King Williams Town, when there was a shortage of PPE for health workers. Mabuyane allegedly promised to order PPE from the factories, Mathomo Manufacturing and AET Africa, but the EFF said the companies never heard from the premier again.

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Daluhlanga Majeke, the provincial treasury’s head of department, told New Frame there are important safety aspects that need to be considered when PPE is purchased. The treasury needs to establish first whether local factories are able to manufacture quality medical protective gear like KN95 masks for health workers, as opposed to ordinary cloth masks.

Majeke said before Mabuyane and the member of the executive council for health, Sindiswa Gomba, visited the factories, a bulk order of PPE had already been placed with a manufacturer outside the province.

“There still needs to be a procurement process. Even the premier cannot just say we need to give [contracts] to [the factories in] Dimbaza as these are not the only companies manufacturing PPE at this moment. As the provincial treasury, we are now finalising the terms of reference. The specification committee has just met and we will issue a tender bulletin next week, but there needs to be a fair process for all companies, which include the ones in Dimbaza,” said Majeke. 

The provincial government believes it is managing the coronavirus epidemic well. This week, it opened two quarantine sites in the main stadiums in East London and Port Elizabeth. On 5 May, Mabuyane also opened a R100 million temporary hospital in Port Elizabeth, paid for by Volkswagen and the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber, and built on the site of a former VW plant.

“With the mass screening and testing we have embarked on, unfortunately some people will be hospitalised and might need oxygenation. This field hospital will help us with that. Should there be a need for people to be hospitalised we won’t be caught off guard and found wanting. We will be ready for the demand for hospital beds,” said Mabuyane.

MEC for Public Works Babalo Madikizela said the province had set up sites in every town in the province with 4800 quarantine beds across the province, and that 22 state hospitals would be refurbished by the end of next week, hiring small and medium business for this work.

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