The unfolding public health emergency in the country arising from the spread of the Coronavirus and the growing impact of the COVID-19 decease has compelled the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union [NEHAWU] to take necessary steps to protect its members and other workers alongside, who are exposed to personal harm and even death. The National Department of Health has left us with no choice but to take an urgent and drastic legal action to compel it to comply with the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1993 in order to protect our members on duty.

Scores of our members, who are nurses, doctors, pharmacists, cleaners, dispensary and reception clerks, community health workers, potters, ambulance and morgue workers, community care workers, laboratory technicians and other allied health personnel have thrown themselves to the frontlines in carrying out their duties to save the lives of our people in the face of this unfolding national epidemic. They have joined still more others who continue to be on guard at our ports of entry and performing an outstanding service to our country. This decision was taken after numerous and mounting reports from different workplaces in provinces and health districts which paint a very bleak picture of a looming disaster as a result of government’s failure to develop and implement a budgeted and comprehensive roll-out plan, especially with regard to the provision of Personal Protective Equipment [PPE’s] and sanitisers.

Even before the declaration of the State of Disaster, we have been making requests for a meeting with the Minister of Health, Dr Zwelini Mkhize and departmental officials to no avail. On the 5th March 2020 we received a phone call from the Minister, who promised to meet us on the 7th or the 8th but the meeting did not materialise. Since then there have been a number of contacts in the form of text and Whatsapp correspondences with the Minister, but still all our initiatives have been to no avail up to now. We have written a letter to the employer seeking information on government’s plans to enforce the provisions of the Occupational Health and Safety Act to ensure that workers on duty in the face of this scourge would be protected. And subsequently we have taken other additional steps, including making proposals to the government’s National Nerve Centre, to mitigate the situation. In this regard, amongst others, we have raised the following:

·       Our concern about the ineffectiveness of the personnel responsible for National Nerve Centre

·       Inadequate supply of PPEs and sanitisers

·       The lack of ventilators and quarantine beds

·       The provision of transportation for all the critical workers during the lockdown

·       Provision of catering for the critical staff under the present conditions 

Our proposals also take into account of the fact that the provision of the PPEs and sanitisers to protect healthcare and other supportive staff, in an environment lacking other critical interventions to protect the community members would on its own not be adequate. Without a large-scale related programme that ensures that more quarantine beds and ventilators are available, that community members arriving at healthcare centres are screened, tested and there are well-protected teams embarking on contact-tracing, our frontline workers and the healthcare centres themselves would eventual be overwhelmed by the spiking infections and the number of the sick.

Unfortunately, to date the department is still not forthcoming with such as plan, let alone the fact that in many healthcare centres there is still no delivery of the PPEs, sanitisers and others such preventative paraphernalia to protect workers and indeed the patients from cross-infections in healthcare centres.

We are aware of the fact that across the world countries are scrambling for the same protective materials. However, we are outraged and alarmed as it is clear to us that government has been paralysed for weeks even after the notification of the first case of the Coronavirus infection on the 5th March 2020. We are also convinced that the perverse Neoliberal logic of Tito Mboweni’s austerity programme is undermining government’s capacity to respond to this catastrophic national epidemic. According to the GUIDELINES ON THE MANAGEMENT OF THE CORONA VIRUS (COVID-19) IN THE PUBLIC SERVICE, provinces were expected to fend of themselves, through “budget reprioritisation” from their already reduced budgets, in the face of this catastrophic scourge.  NEHAWU is not prepared to allow our members and frontline health workers in general to be sacrificed in the name of austerity.

Indeed, the national union was amongst the organisations raised their hand when called upon by the President to contribute in the greater fight to combat the corona virus hence we have deployed resources in creating awareness for both our members and the general public.

We have produced numerous pamphlets aimed at educating our people about best practices and ways to avoid getting infected and also issued regularly statements to update our members and the public about the fight against COVID-19.

The national union even engaged its Investment arm to mobilize resources as a contribution of the union to control and management the spread of this virus including securing PPEs and ventilators to save lives through protecting its members, health workers and every citizen from getting infected by the virus. Unfortunately, the secured personal protective equipment such as testing kits, masks, gloves, hazmat suits, ventilators and even pop-up hospital and funding available up to manufacturing facilities of these items cannot be brought and used without the approval by government, the department of health in particular. 

In line with the provision of the Constitution of the Republic of South Action, Section 11 in particular, stipulates that ‘everyone has the right to life’ and workers are citizens of this country and protect by this Constitution too. Workers therefore are beneficiaries of this provision and the national union shall protect this right of our members, workers in general and that of their families and communities.

NEHAWU welcomes the announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa of a mass testing campaign to be done by the 10 000 volunteers to be recruited to test people in communities. However, we are highly worried about the lack of PPE’s for these volunteers. If they work without proper protective clothing and sanitizers they will run the risk of getting infected or spreading the virus as they visit households. In this regard, we appeal to community leaders to help these volunteers to make their jobs easy. Maximum community cooperation is a must in order to ensure that people are tested and educated on how to stop the spread of the virus.

Issued by NEHAWU Secretariat

Zola Saphetha (General Secretary) at 082 558 5968; December Mavuso (Deputy General Secretary) at 082 558 5969; Khaya Xaba (NEHAWU National Spokesperson) at 082 455 2500 or