I don’t want to send a message that everything is okay – the house is on fire: Gauteng premier

Gauteng premier David Makhura has warned that the province is in the midst of a Covid-19 crisis, as cases show no signs of slowing down.

The premier was speaking at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital on Monday, where he welcomed medics from the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

The province is currently the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak and the SANDF has been roped in to offer a helping hand due to the shortage of staff.

“Our province is under fire. This place is burning with Coronavirus,” the premier said.

On Tuesday, South Africa reported 11,093 new cases, which represents a 23.7% positivity rate.

“Everywhere in the province, the positivity rate is extremely high. The chances of getting infected are extremely high wherever you are,” Makhura warned, adding that families are infecting each other.

However, he assured Gauteng citizens that the provincial government will continue to fight the deadly virus. “During the third wave, we need more support than we ever needed before.”

The infection rate and hospital admissions are doubling almost every other day, he said.

On Sunday, 1,470 people were receiving Covid-19 treatment at public hospitals and 3,448 in private health institutions in Gauteng.

“I don’t want to send a message that is everything is okay. I must say to the people of the province that the house is on fire.”

He appealed to the public to stop the spread by changing their behaviour, as the government works around the clock to tackle the third wave.

“Over the weekend I drove around, the restaurants are full, shops are packed, and it’s not just in the townships but in the suburbs as well.”

In townships, he said people are gathering in large numbers and even hosting soccer tournaments.

Staffing and beds

According to the premier, private hospitals are also full. “They’re facing similar challenges like additional staffing. I don’t want to send the message that we have a lot of beds. Every two days, beds are filling up.”

The provincial government has contracted over 5,000 healthcare workers to boost the staff component. “That’s still not enough. We can do with more healthcare workers.”

While Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital is closed, Makhura said staff has been deployed to other health institutions across the province.

In addition, the province is looking at adding more beds in both public and private hospitals, as healthcare professionals work under tremendous pressure.

Alert level 3 lockdown

Gauteng has not seen the impact of the alert level 3 lockdown, as cases continue to soar. “The healthcare workers will do the best they can but this battle will not be won by healthcare workers alone.”

Gauteng’s Provincial Command Council met on Tuesday where stricter restrictions were recommended.

“I can’t rule that out that we might need more restrictions. The pandemic is out of control. Something needs to be done,” Makhura said, adding that the final decision lies with the National Coronavirus Command Council.

In the meantime, the province is monitoring the situation at schools as well, while also asking the public to wear their masks, including those who have received their Covid-19 vaccine.

Call to action

The Leader of the Democratic Alliance, John Steenhuisen, criticized the country’s vaccine programme, calling it a disgraceful, unforgivable failure.

“A full 15 months into the pandemic less than 1% of South Africans have been fully vaccinated, according to statistics shared by the Presidency’s head of digital communications.

“This puts us far behind not just our upper-middle-income peer countries but also lower-middle-income and many poor countries,” he said.

“It means we have the same Covid response toolkit available to us in the third wave as we had 15 months ago in the first wave, with almost no progress made in preparing hospitals or building track and trace capacity,” he said.

He said that the only tool government seems able to wield is the blunt instrument of blanket restrictions. “We should reject these with contempt since they will do more harm than good.”

Steenhuisen said that much can and must be done to mitigate the third wave crisis unfolding in Gauteng. “The appropriate response is for president Ramaphosa to crack the whip and jolt the National and Gauteng Departments of Health from their lethargy.”

Targeted, coordinated action is required now, to mitigate losses, he said.

He called on the  National and Gauteng Departments of Health to instruct the following:

  • The 500-bed Covid-19 facility at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital (CHBAH) needs to be put to full use urgently. Redeploy unutilised staff from the 1000-bed Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, which is still closed due to the April fire, to CHBAH. Charlotte Maxeke has spare staff but no beds, while CHBAH has beds but insufficient staff, which is why only 100 of CHBAH’s 500 available beds are currently operational.
  • Urgently get other Covid-19 facilities fully operational. This includes the 183-bed facility in Carletonville, the 300-bed facility in George Mukhari Hospital, the 300-bed facility at Jubilee Mall, and the 150-bed facility at Bronkhorstspruit. Do this by ensuring that currently employed healthcare workers are being used efficiently.
  • The Department of Health needs to find the budget to pay overtime. “It is absolutely unacceptable that residents should suffer and die because “there is no budget for overtime”. It makes sense for the national government to provide top-up funding if there are financial constraints. There should be no financial barriers to treatment. Enlist private-sector doctors and nurses, including agency nurses and unemployed nurses and doctors, if necessary. If Ramaphosa hadn’t shut the economy down for nine full weeks last year, there would be far more tax revenue to spend on healthcare now.”
  • Get the 1,000-bed Charlotte Maxeke Hospital operational as soon as possible. “It is just not acceptable that this facility is still closed two months after the fire. If the Western Cape Government could get a fully functional 850-bed CTICC field hospital, the Hospital of Hope, up and running in just four weeks, there is no excuse for the Gauteng Government taking over two months to get Charlotte Maxeke back up and running.”
  • Properly enforce restrictions on indoor gatherings and taxis. Properly enforce mask, sanitation and social-distancing protocols and ventilation requirements. Ensure all taxis travel with all windows open. Enforce an open windows rule at high schools. It is far cheaper and easier to prevent infection than to treat it. The government needs to be prepared to take a differentiated approach in the country if losses are to be minimised.

“At the same time, Ramaphosa needs to face the reality that his administration is failing on vaccines, and outsource the vaccine programme to the private sector. He needs to empower provinces to make their own decisions about restrictions, based on their individual situations,” Steenhuisen said.

Harder lockdown rejected

Group chief executive at Life Healthcare, Peter Wharton-Hood told ENCA that private care facilities are under pressure in the province to facilitate the additional load from public hospitals.  He said that Life Healthcare has 1,450 Covid-19 admissions as of 22 June, of which 850 are in hospitals around Gauteng – 60% of the total.

Wharton-Hood said this was more than the admissions the group had in both the first and second wave of the virus. He said that the peak is expected in two weeks, in early July. “Clearly we are under pressure,” he said.

Wharton-Hood said that a hard lockdown would not prevent the peak, as infections are already in the ‘system’. He said that the social and economic consequences of a hard lockdown are ‘grave’.

“Let’s rather turn this into a responsible set of behaviour patterns where we listen to instructions. Masking, social distancing, that’s in effect what lockdown really is. But we can do that without stopping people from going to work.”

Wharton-Hood called for an acceleration to the vaccination rollout. He said that fewer healthcare workers have been affected in the third wave.

Professor Charles Parry, director of the Alcohol, Tobacco and other drug research unit at the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC) on Tuesday called for a total ban on alcohol sales, to reduce trauma cases and free up hospital space in the province.

Parry told ENCA that Covid-19 cases in Gauteng are expected to peak in July, while hospitals are already at full capacity.

“It isn’t sufficient to only have some controls on curfew and limited controls of alcohol, like the restriction on off-consumption sales from Monday to Friday,” he said.

“What our research shows is that only full a liquor sales ban substantially reduced alcohol-related trauma.”


Read: Ramaphosa and NCCC to discuss move to higher lockdown level in South Africa

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I don’t want to send a message that everything is okay – the house is on fire: Gauteng premier