Protesters marched through the streets of Jo’burg on Tuesday (23 November) to hand over a memorandum to the Health MEC demanding the government stop denying that the cityʼs key public health institution — Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital — is crumbling and pushing cancer treatment backlogs to crisis level.
The Cancer Alliance and Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) carried a mock coffin and white crosses to represent the growing number of people affected by and dying from cancer. The World Health Organizationʼs International Agency for Cancer Research 2020 put the total number of new cancer cases for that reporting period at just more than 108,100 in South Africa; the number of prevalent cases over a five-year period stood at around 263,000, and deaths in the reporting period were close to 57,000 people.
The Cancer Allianceʼs Cost of Cancer report released in August 2021 predicts a doubling of cancer cases by 2030 with at least R50bn needed by then to address a looming medical and human crisis, reports Daily Maverick.
But the protestersʼ immediate call was for the Gauteng Health Department to stop denying the years of crisis that have beset the oncology unit at Charlotte Maxeke. Their actions were prompted by the longstanding crises at the hospital, which has one of only two radiation treatment facilities in the public sector for Gauteng.
A fire in April was just another addition to a list of problems that includes staff shortages, staff on go-slows because of salary disputes, and specialised equipment that has not been replaced or maintained.
The oncology unit has been back on stream for the past few weeks, but is still functioning at suboptimal levels — even as the patient waiting list grows. There is greater demand for treatment, one reason being that the disease is not detected early enough, especially in the public sector. Later-stage diagnosis means intervention by chemotherapy and radiation becomes critical. According to the Cancer Alliance, the current backlog for radiation treatment at the hospital is more than 2,000 patients.
One of the protesters said she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, and in February 2020 with ovarian cancer and cancer of the uterus. Sheʼs worried for herself and other patients. Sheʼs a patient navigator — someone who helps support other patients through their treatment journeys. Lately, though, she says she feels as if thereʼs little hope to give. “Itʼs very sad and it makes me angry when we know we have to send patients home to die,” she said.
TACʼs national chairperson Sibongile Tshabalala slammed government officials for playing politics and focusing on trying to win votes every five years instead of delivering on health services and upholding the Constitution. She said hospital infrastructure had been allowed to crumble and facilities had not been properly managed for years — “the government is not even trying”.
“We are unable to access services because of corruption. I am angry that, for government, if you cannot afford medical aid, if you canʼt buy your own medicines. then you must die. We are not here to beg for services, we are here to demand that patients be heard.”
Teboho Tenyane, provincial TAC chairperson, was equally scathing about officials ignoring patientsʼ cries and MEC Dr Nomathemba Mokgethi for being out of touch with the people she has vowed to serve — Mokgethi was flanked by two bodyguards and a phalanx of police officers and metro police to receive the memorandum. He also pointed out the shameful legacy of health MECs in the province, those who have been linked to corrupt dealings, fraud and poor decision- making, including what led to the Life Esidimeni tragedy.
In her address to the protesters, Salome Meyer from the Cancer Alliance reminded the Department of Health that SAʼs cancer crisis “has nothing to do with COVID; nothing to do with the fire at Charlotte Maxeke — the waiting list comes from before the fire and before COVID”. She said that addressing the cancer crisis was a human rights imperative.
She called for the government to release radiation equipment supposedly purchased, but still not installed in hospitals; to settle salary parity disputes at Charlotte Maxeke hospital; and to accelerate the training of specialised oncology staff.
The memorandum handed to the MEC also calls for proper communication with each patient on the treatment waiting list, as well as the establishment of a task team that must include civil society and technical experts to advise, oversee and fast-track the procurement of radiation equipment and services in the province. This task team must also implement an integrated plan by World Cancer Day on 4 February 2022, adds Daily Maverick's report.
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