SANDF deploys doctors, troops, to hospitals

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The South African Military Health Service (SAMHS) is deploying doctors and nurses to strike hit state hospitals in two provinces. Major General Barney Hlatswayo, the General Officer Commanding the Joint Operational Headquarters in the Joint Operations Division of the SA National Defence Force says they will be accompanied by soldiers to protect the facilities.

He says there is a company of troops on standby per province to provide perimeter protection as well as there were reports of striking health workers intimidating patients seeking medical help. “That is unacceptable” he said at an impromptu interview with e-news and defenceWeb at Swartkop Airfield this morning.

Military personnel are currently headed for Natalspruit and Chris Hani Baragwanath hospitals in Gauteng as well as the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital and King Edward VII hospital in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). Hlatswayo added that the SANDF is ready to deploy to at least one more hospital in Gauteng and two in Limpopo.

Several public sector unions went on strike yesterday in support of salary increases. The Business Report newspaper says the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) and the SA Democratic Teachers Union, representing about 500 000 public servants, embarked on an indefinite strike yesterday. Today the Public Service Association’s 210 000 members and the Health and Other Service Personnel Trade Union of South Africa’s (HOSPERSA) 72 000 members will join the strike.

Unions want an 8.6% salary increase and a R1000 a month housing allowance. But the government says it already has to find an extra R5 billion to pay for its revised offer of a 7% salary increase and a R700 monthly housing allowance.

Public sector strikes in SA tend to be violent and it is not the first time the military has been deployed to public hospitals to maintain basic services and prevent victimisation twice in three years. In June-July 2007, the SAMHS deployed about 2500 personnel to over 80 hospitals in all nine provinces during a bitter nurses’ strike. The effort, dubbed Operation Human/Bata, received great public acclaim at the time. In June-July last year, the SAMHS deployed over 500 medics as part of Operation Human/Bata 2 in KZN, Gauteng, the Free State, the North West, Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

The state BuaNews agency adds KZN Health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo has requested the SAMHS to render assistance at hospitals during the public service strike. “We have made requests to the SAMHS to come to our rescue. Given that this is a national strike, we know that SAMHS can’t be everywhere. Where there is a fairly good attendance and minimal disruptions, we are keeping such institutions running to ensure that some services continue,” Dhlomo said.

Dhlomo, who visited the King Edward VIII Hospital yesterday to see how the public service strike was affecting the delivery of healthcare, was rportedly shocked to find the casualty department deserted, in the dark and the phone ringing frantically. On answering the phone, he spoke to a nurse from one of the clinics (in Ntuzuma) who wanted to transfer a two year-old child, who had been injured in a motor vehicle accident. “For all we know; it could be a child of one of the protesters. To hear reports that people are being intimidated to leave their workplaces is worrisome and disturbing.
“By disrupting healthcare services do they consider what would happen should they or their next of kin become in need of this very care? While we respect the right of public servants to engage the employer and struggle for their rights; that cannot be equated or made to surpass the right of ordinary citizens to healthcare,” the MEC added in a BuaNews report.

Briefing the provincial Cabinet on Wednesday, the MEC and the Head of Department Dr Sibongile Zungu, said a number of hospitals reported that staff members were forcibly removed from their work stations and patients were left unattended. In some cases, the protesters blockaded gates – blocking access into and from the hospital for Emergency Medical & Rescue Services (EMRS). In some areas, reports of people’s lives being threatened were received. “The right to health care services is provided for in three sections of the South African Constitution. The fundamental responsibility of healthcare workers is fourfold: to promote health, to prevent illness, to restore health and to alleviate suffering.”

The department has made a call to all health professionals to consider those sick and vulnerable as they engage in their strike action. “Intimidation of staff members, the department believes, is totally unacceptable and borders on criminality,” the MEC said, adding that the right to strike does not take away the right of citizens to healthcare. The department urged the public to understand that speed and convenience might not be at the required level.



Pic: A SAMHS ambulance along the Zimbabwe border during a media visit there on Tuesday.