South Africa: COVID-19 - Emergency Workers Refuse to Attend to Patient Until They Get Proper Equipment

Eight Emergency Medical Services (EMS) workers at Greys Hospital, Pietermaritzburg, face a disciplinary hearing after they refused last week to attend to a patient with Covid-19. They cited a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) as the reason.

They also told GroundUp that they had not been trained on how to handle patients with Covid-19, and that management threatened to fire them if they kept questioning the situation.

Last Monday, the eight employees were served with letters charging them for not attending on 23 March to a man in Northdale confirmed to have Covid-19.

Their disciplinary hearing is scheduled for 17 April at UMgungundlovu District Health office.

"Our lives and our families are in danger," said one of the eight. "We are scared but the department doesn't care."

The EMS employee said: "We did not refuse but we asked questions that needed answers. We told him [the supervisor] we are scared because we don't have PPE. There was nothing to protect us. On top of that the staff had not been trained on how to handle a patient sick with Covid-19. None of us attended that case."

He said they went to a workshop on 25 March, but "the lady who was heading the workshop spoke about Covid-19 origins. There was nothing related to paramedics. It was about ... just the usual. We asked questions and the lady failed to respond. Instead, she said she will channel our questions to her superiors."

Another employee, who asked not to be named, said: "On Saturday we were given two masks. We can't be using the same mask the whole day. Paramedics are the first people who are called to attend cases. We touch people. Part of communication with patients is touch. We can't do that if we don't have PPE ... We will go out, contract the virus and infect our families. There is nothing we can do because we are going to lose our jobs. We have to put food on the table, but it is very hard."

National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) Deputy Regional Secretary Mazwi Ngubane said workers must not allow managers to threaten them.

"Since there has been an outbreak of Covid-19 we have been discussing the same thing with [the health] department. They continue sending the paramedics to confirmed cases without any protective gear. We are saying the workers must not be threatened and put their life in danger," said Ngubane.

KZN Head of Department of Health Sandile Tshabalala said the department faced challenges with protective clothing, not only masks but aprons, gloves and gowns.

He said the department will have a conference call with the union leaders on Tuesday to discuss the situation.

GorundUp is still awaiting comment from the employees' supervisor.

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