Union takes SA government to court over protective gear shortage

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South Africa’s major health workers’ union plans to challenge government in court over shortages of protective gear for frontline staff as the country braces for a surge in coronavirus cases.

Under a 21 day lockdown imposed from March 27 in a bid to contain the outbreak, South Africa has 1 749 confirmed cases, the continent’s highest and 13 deaths.

“The risk of employees being infected with the COVID-19 virus is real,” Zola Saphetha, general secretary of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU), said in court papers. COVID-19 is the potentially lethal respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said on Tuesday the country had not run out of protective equipment.

He encouraged health workers to point out shortages so government could move stocks and said no one would be forced to work if they didn’t feel adequately protected.

Doctors are buying their own protective gear in a bid to ward off infection. Officials in worst-hit Gauteng province appealed for public donations of ventilators, masks and gloves.

The union wants the ministers of health and labour, among others, to set up rules on treatment in the absence of appropriate protective equipment.

“The failure to provide guidelines to mitigate the risk to employees in the circumstances unjustifiably and without valid reason places employees at great risk and violates their right to work in a safe environment,” the affidavit said.

The union expressed outrage after several members contracted the coronavirus at a hospital in KwaZulu-Natal. Mkhize said around 48 staff members at the hospital tested positive and provincial officials were discussing closing down parts of the facility.

NEHAWU’s quarter of a million members are part of a group of unions in alliance with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.

“We don’t have an unlimited reserve of doctors and nurses and we know case numbers are going to rise,” Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, which represents 16 000 doctors, told Reuters.

A global scarcity of personal protective equipment for nurses, doctors, porters and other health workers is an obstacle to curb death tolls in Africa and on other continents.

In Zimbabwe, where health workers were striking over pay and working conditions before COVID-19, doctors went to court to force government to provide equipment, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said. The court has not set a date for a hearing.