'Furious' Mkhize steps in to bolster Eastern Cape's 'weak' efforts to fight COVID-19

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Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has been forced to take dramatic steps to bolster Nelson Mandela Bay's fight against COVID-19, after it emerged in a damning report that the Eastern Cape government failed to provide adequate resources for the municipality to tackle the pandemic, reports Polity. Two of the metro's leaders are quoted as saying that Mkhize lambasted Eastern Cape Health MEC Sindiswa Gomba for failing to fill critical posts. Nelson Mandela Bay is the epicentre of the virus.

Polity says furious with the report he received on the metro's response, the health minister cancelled a planned site visit to Zwide and KwaDwesi. The councillor said Mkhize appointed a new district director and assured that protective clothing would be sent. The minister was also said to have ordered that Litha Matiwane, a deputy director general, head Nelson Mandela Bay to oversee the transition.

Another municipal leader said Mkhize heard the municipality was providing water, electricity and sanitisers for the provincial response. The source said together with district health administration, the municipality established a joint operation centre without help from the province. "They come to meetings but they have no support from (the) province. The district is committed but they don't have the resources from (the) province. The province is weak and the minister has finally seen how desperate the situation is in the metro. What happened is that Gomba's powers are gone. They will have powers only by name," the source said.

The report says Gomba denied that the minister curtailed her powers, saying Mkhize only recognised the metro had a potential to explode. The MEC also denied there were delays in appointing people in critical posts, saying the process was already in motion. Mkhize said the shortage of hospital staff and personal protective equipment (PPE) were among challenges the council faced.

Mkhize emphasised that the filling of vacancies would be fast tracked, while replenishment stock for hospitals would be ready for delivery within a day. Screening and testing needed to be reinforced because the numbers did not add up. He said additional vans from the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) would be sent to the province to improve testing capacity.

He has called for daily reports from the province and also brought a team of 10 doctors from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) to assess and strategise about fighting the outbreak, specifically in Nelson Mandela Bay. According to a Daily Maverick report, Mkhize announced that Matiwane was instructed to “start phoning now” to fill posts for professional nurses that had been left vacant. “By tomorrow we must start filling those vacancies,” he said.

Mkhize has been asked for months to intervene at the Livingstone Hospital complex. The hospital’s entire senior management team was suspended after unions went on strike at the facility. The collective bargaining chamber ruled that there was no reason the management should not be allowed to return – but the situation has been dragging on for 18 months.

He said Matiwane will be expected to provide leadership in tracing, screening and testing for the coronavirus. He also said he expected more wards to be made available, fast. Work on the vacant casualty unit at Port Elizabeth’s Provincial Hospital has already begun.

Mkhize said in the report that personal protection equipment stock will be sent to the metro as a matter of urgency after urgent meetings with stakeholders – Nelson Mandela Bay, the Eastern Cape’s biggest metro, is the epicentre of COVID-19 infections in the province.

Daily Maverick reports that Jane Cowley, Democratic Alliance spokesperson for health in the province, raised concerns over mismatched data from Eastern Cape Health.

“There are serious concerns relating to the accuracy of data being provided with regard to provincial COVID-19 statistics in the Eastern Cape, as well as the lack of daily, updated information. This is extremely concerning, as potentially false information is being spread, while accurate, collated information is being withheld. Information is power.

“Not only should the members of the Eastern Cape Provincial Legislature be provided regular and detailed daily updates from an oversight perspective, but in times of crisis such as these, residents need to be kept up to date on what is being done to assist them.

“Even more frustrating though, is that there are substantially differing numbers of positive COVID-19 cases being circulated, with the main culprit being the Nelson Mandela Bay district. There are lists being circulated on social media, purporting to come from the Joint Operations Centre, which do not align with the provincial statistics being released.

“Accurate and clearly presented information is, however, released to the Health Department’s district offices on a daily basis, but this information is apparently not for public consumption. Why? Does the provincial leadership think that the public will not find out about all the close contacts of COVID-19 patients that have, to date, not been located or tested?

“We also need to know daily screening numbers per community per district, as well as daily testing numbers per district. We should also be informed of the daily track and trace programmes across the province,” said Cowley.

Full Polity report

Full Daily Maverick report

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