One of the Eastern Cape’s most important rural hospitals has become a ghost facility after doctors and nurses walked out on Monday, leaving patients to fend for themselves or rely on managers for treatment.
The decision by most of the health workers at Tafalofefe Hospital in Centane to abandon their stations brought home the reality of an ongoing health crisis fuelled by a stand-off between the health department, and health workers, represented by unions.
It has come at a time when the province can least afford it, with the Eastern Cape second only to the Western Cape in terms of Covid-19 fatalities.
The beleaguered health department has come under fire from unions for not providing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), while a culture of fear is rife among medical personnel who refuse to put their own lives at risk.
On Monday and Tuesday, patients at Tafalofefe Hospital watched helplessly as health workers went home or embarked on protest action outside the building.
Many survivors of a huge bus crash near Centane in March were treated at the hospital, which serves thousands of patients in the area.
Three staff members, including a doctor, have tested positive for Covid-19.
One of them, according to the health department, was rushed to an East London private hospital in critical condition.
A hospital clerk died last week, although the department said the death was not Covid-19-related.
There are more than 100 people working at the hospital.
They are demanding proper protective gear, more testing kits, the hospital to be disinfected, the decontamination of work stations, and managers to refrain from instructing staff who test Covid-positive not to disclose their status to colleagues.
DispatchLIVE visited the hospital on Monday afternoon. Only a few workers were on-site, as most had gone home.
A nurse, who cannot be identified as she is not allowed to speak to the media, said the situation had become unbearable.
“Never in our lives did we think we would close a hospital and leave patients to fend for themselves.
“We are tired of this failing health system that is putting our lives at risk. We cannot lose a colleague.
“But when we raise concerns we are told to shut up,” the woman said.
Two patients, who met with DispatchLIVE next to the main gate of the hospital, confirmed that they were not being attended to.
One patient said nurses told them they should leave the hospital.
“After a meeting the nurses decided to leave the hospital. We thought at least we will have a few to take care of us, but that was not the case,” the patient, who wanted to remain anonymous, said.
“We hope the management can handle this.”
Two security guards from Phiko Security told DispatchLIVE health workers left the hospital in the hands of management.
“The patients, as you can see, are struggling. Some are carrying their drips,” one guard said.
By Tuesday afternoon, staff still had not returned to work. Instead, they protested outside the hospital.
“The managers [of the hospital] are not telling the truth. If we are to work with them, they must tell us the challenges they are facing, otherwise, we are all going to die here,” one of the protesting workers said.
“They are not even telling us how many other positive cases there are among us. We need to know.
“All the Covid-19 cases in these hospitals have human faces. If we cannot be supported or support those who are infected, we will get sick and possibly die alone.”
Judy Ngoloyi, spokesperson for Eastern Cape health MEC Sindiswa Gomba, refuted the health workers’ claims that the hospital clerk had died after contracting Covid-19.
“That’s not true to say the deceased employee died of Covid-19 because the results came back negative.
“She died a sudden death. But we can confirm that there are three other workers, including a doctor, who have tested positive. One had to be rushed to the private hospital,” Ngoloyi said.
Ngoloyi said the department was meeting with officials and board members to deal with issues at the hospital.
“There are those who are currently outside the hospital protesting but we do have a few who are assisting inside the hospital.
“It is not a total shutdown of the hospital. Their challenges are being dealt with,” she said.