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Deaths blamed on violent, reckless thuggery of striking healthcare workers

Whatever sympathy striking healthcare workers hoped to achieve in support of their many grievances has almost certainly been dashed by their violent, intimidatory and reckless protest action in the past week, writes MedicalBrief.

The Health Minister has said deaths at the affected facilities during the strike will, pending investigations, be linked to the protest but he would not be drawn on the exact number of people who had died. However, at least 10 deaths have reportedly been linked to the strike which saw essential health workers failing to report for duty and preventing other non-striking staff from doing so.

The widespread strike by the National Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) was strongly condemned by the Labour Appeals Court, government, other political parties and fellow unions.

In a News24 report, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said: “I have heard Nehawu saying (deaths linked to the wage strike) is propaganda. This is not propaganda. People are … seeking medical help. We accept that even under the best circumstances, illnesses lead to death.

“That happens when medical staff have tried all interventions. When that intervention is deliberately denied because people who must provide medical care are prevented from entering health facilities, and when people die without medical help, what do you call it?” he asked.

“If there had been medical intervention, some would have survived.

“Until we get the final reports from clinicians and pathologists, we still say most deaths are linked to the strike. We are talking about people who died in our facility where they could not be attended to, where health professionals were barred from entering.

“Neonatal wards with 50 children at Thelle Mogoerane (Regional) Hospital … ordinarily, you would have 20 nurses looking after them, …only three were able to sneak in …these are children who are premature and need care.

“Every few minutes, somebody needs to check on them. If you have three nurses looking after 50 babies, they will not be able to provide that care.

“This is not speculation or propaganda. If any of these babies die, we must link it with the fact that people who should be looking after them were outside and prevented from doing so.”

Essential workers returned to work by Tuesday after the Labour Appeal Court dismissed their appeal against an interdict barring them from striking, but Nehawu is not letting the matter rest, saying it was consulting with its lawyers about the judgment and their options.

The industrial action saw hospital and clinic staff barred from entering or leaving, healthcare workers including doctors intimidated, assaulted and prevented from reporting for duty, and patients refused entry to the institutions. Ambulances and emergency medical service were also obstructed in their duties.

GroundUp reports that while the LAC ruled that except for staff in essential services, and some other categories of workers, Nehawu could continue its strike, the full Bench of judges harshly condemned the union, the government and the police.

They said the union had issued a strike notice that was “intentionally broad and recklessly so”, which “illustrated a flagrant disregard for the law, the employer and the people of this country entitled to access essential public services”.

They also condemned the violent and intimidatory conduct marring the protests, while the South African Police Service (SAPS) was equally lambasted, the judges calling its failure to act against criminal behaviour “extraordinary”.

“It has become commonplace for the SAPS to walk away from scenes of criminal behaviour in a strike context, calling it a private or civil matter. Criminal conduct is neither private nor a civil matter.”

Nehawu was ordered to inform its members and officials of the outcome of the appeal by 1pm on Monday, “at the pain of being found guilty of contempt”.

The protests attracted condemnation from all quarters, including from within the labour movement, reports Business Day.

Nehawu’s sister union, the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), condemned the “the bullying and thuggery conduct of members of Nehawu”.

And Cosatu called for a peaceful and lawful strike, after “disturbing reports of violent incidents and destruction of property by the striking public service workers”.

“While we fully support the workers and believe their fight is a legitimate one, we regret the disruption to public services which the strike has caused and any violent incidents or damage to property,” said spokesperson Sizwe Pamla.

“We urge our members to conduct their strike in a peaceful, disciplined and lawful manner.”

Nehawu spokesperson Lwazi Nkolonzi: “We complied with the LAC judgment, saying we should communicate with members. We communicated …. insofar as workers at essential services are concerned.”

Nkolonzi said the interdict did not bar the union from continuing with the strike in the public service but was limited to essential services and those at the Special Investigating Unit, the South African Social Security Agency and the South African National Biodiversity Institute.

“The other departments are continuing with the strike, including at home affairs and agriculture. We are intensifying it…”

The Star reports that on Sunday, during a media briefing, Nehawu general secretary Zola Saphetha said the loss of lives was “unfortunate”.

Although the judgment abruptly halted the strikes by essential workers in certain parts of the country, and while the turmoil of the violent protests appears to have mostly abated, leaving behind devastation, destruction and death, the medical profession and departments countrywide are still tallying the costs of lives and damage and resulting trauma to both staff and patients.

Patients, among them the poorest, bore the brunt, the critically ill untreated and neglected, meds not being administered, emergencies ignored, and most patients going hungry.

Phaahla did an oversight visit this week to Thelle Mogoerane Hospital in Vosloorus, Ekurhuleni, where members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) had been deployed to assist, the hospital being one of the hardest hit by the strike, reports News24.

A source said about 10 people had died at Thelle Mogoerane Hospital since the beginning of the protests. Phaahla said among the dead was a three-year-old in Sebokeng.

A two-year-old boy from Katlehong also died at that hospital; according to his death report, he died on 6 March.

A Vosloorus resident said she fetched her grandmother at one of Gauteng’s hospitals, who died allegedly after not receiving proper medical attention.

Phaahla was also concerned about the strike’s impact in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

“The Eastern Cape has been badly affected by intimidation and violence. In Stanger, KwaZulu-Natal, there were reports of attempts to pull a child from an ambulance.”

In KZN, the DA is laying criminal charges against protesters after a seven-month-pregnant woman died after being denied medical assistance at Pietermaritzburg’s Northdale Hospital.

Thandokuhle Mlotshwa (30) died on 7 March after a hit and run accident.

Paramedic Hans Hartmann said they took her to Northdale and because of her condition, were advised to take her to Grey’s Hospital.

“However, Grey’s was blocked because of the strike. I begged the protesters to allow us in. I said she had a head injury, but they said she could die and the family must deal with the government.”

Hartmann called Northdale Hospital and pleaded with doctors to assist her. Mlotshwa was eventually taken in by the hospital after three hours, with concussion and internal bleeding.

She died the next morning.

DA KZN leader Francois Rodgers and the party's provincial health spokesperson Edwin Baptie said charges were laid against Nehawu on Tuesday.

Nehawu’s regional secretary Mazwi Ngubane said the DA was using the tragedy to score political points. He told TimesLIVE protesters did not deny anyone medical assistance.

And on the North Coast, KZN, an ambulance service accused protesting healthcare workers of trying to remove a child in critical condition from one of its vehicles, reports News24.

Protesters outside General Justice Gizenga Mpanza Regional Hospital in KwaDukuza (formerly Stanger) attacked the private ambulance carrying a child in critical condition.

IPSS Medical spokesperson Samantha Meyrick said paramedics had been transporting the child on advanced life support to the hospital when protesters stopped the ambulance.

They reportedly attempted to remove the patient and assaulted one of the paramedics, said Meyrick. The ambulance was eventually able to enter the hospital premises, and the child was admitted and treated.

However, the paramedics were then prevented from leaving the property for more than an hour.

In Mpumalanga, a woman doctor was accosted and manhandled by Nehawu members while doing outreach work to primary healthcare facilities at the Buffelshoek Clinic in Bushbuckridge.

A video showed striking workers demanding she delete a video despite her telling them they don’t have permission to be there.

At one point, the video shows workers grabbing her legs while she holds on to her desk. The workers later succeed in removing her from the office.

Department spokesperson Chris Nobela confirmed the incident, reports The Citizen.

In Nelson Mandela Bay, Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital and Mthatha General Hospital were scenes of devastation as Nehawu members brought both establishments to a standstill.

In the maternity ward, pregnant women were left with no nurses or doctors to assist them.

Casualties of the protest mounted, but the strikers said: “We don’t care if hospital patients die.”

A high-risk patient at Uitenhage Provincial was unable to see her newborn baby and her husband as locked out of the hospital and told to “f**k off”.

A young man struggled to breathe at Livingstone Hospital but could not be taken for a CAT scan because there were no porters, reports HeraldLIVE, while locked up and forgotten psychiatric patients banged on windows screaming for help as pregnant women tried to assist one another on the third day of the strike.

Strikers also shut down Dora Nginza Hospital and various government offices in the province, with shop steward Amanda Nonyukela saying their members felt used by the government as they had been at the forefront of fighting Covid-19.

“We were never given any danger allowance,” she said. “We have had enough of the government ill-treating employees. They are only offering us a 3% [increase], meanwhile we had members who died during Covid-19 and I am one of the survivors.”

Nehawu’s secretary for the King Sabata Dalindyebo Municipality, Nombulelo Maphempeni, said there was still no agreement with the government, but he was worried about people losing their lives because of the strike.

There were reports of staff being whipped by strikers to keep them away from hospitals.

Nehawu members protested outside Frontier Hospital in Komani, but allowed sick people and ambulances to enter the hospital.

Zithulele Hospital, near Mqanduli, was also badly affected and hospitals ran out of blood because transport services had been stopped.

In the Free State, which was hard hit by protests, Health Department spokesperson Mondli Mvambi said all seemed normal on Tuesday morning. While staff were back at work at Pelonomi Tertiary Hospital in Bloemfontein, “the department is keeping an eye on the situation because this referral facility has been identified as the centre of the protests”.

At Mofumahadi Manapo Mopeli Regional Hospital in QwaQwa, about 117 workers were still on strike in defiance of the court order, reports TimesLIVE.

The unions, including the Police, Prisons and Civil Rights Union (Popcru), the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (Denosa), the SA Policing Union (Sapu), and the Public Servants Association (PSA) were issued with certificates of non-resolution by the bargaining council, allowing them to go on strike.

Three teachers’ unions including Sadtu, the SA Teachers Union, and the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA, accepted the 3% pay hike.

The unions, arguing that a 10% wage increase is necessitated by the rising cost of living, have refused to participate in wage talks until the dispute is resolved.

Core to the union’s demands are also improved medical aid benefits, a R2 500 housing allowance for all public servants regardless of whether they own or do not have bonded houses, and university bursaries for their children.

 

News24 article – SANDF nurses deployed to help as deaths climb in ongoing Nehawu strike (Open access)

 

Daily Maverick article – Eastern Cape Health MEC obtains interdict against strikers as devastation continues at hospitals (Open access)

 

HeraldLIVE article – As the casualties of the healthcare workers’ protest mount, the strikers say ‘We don’t care’ if hospital patients die (Restricted access)

 

TimesLIVE article – Most health centres return to normal as Nehawu respects interdict (Open access)

 

TimesLIVE article – DA to charge Nehawu after pregnant woman dies, but union accuses party of politicking (Open access)

 

GroundUp article – NEHAWU strike appeal succeeds in part (Creative Commons Licence)

 

BusinessDay PressReader article – Appeal court interdicts essential service workers from striking (Open access)

 

The Star PressReader article – Probe into deaths linked to strikes (Open access)

 

News24 article – Protesting Nehawu members accused of trying to remove injured child from ambulance in KZN (Open access)

 

TimesLIVE article – Stick-wielding workers ‘intimidating’ patients and staff at Durban hospital (Open access)

 

The Citizen article – WATCH: Mpumalanga health probing manhandling of doctor by Nehawu members (Open access)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

Hospitals and patients bear the brunt of disruptive Nehawu strike

 

Court forbids Nehawu’s national strike on pain of SAPS intervention

 

Nehawu threatens nationwide strike and at National Health Labs

 

 

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