Speech notes: Jane Cowley – COVID-19 and implications for the EC

Issued by Jane Cowley, MPL
Shadow MEC for Health

Madam Speaker, Honourable Premier, Honourable Members of the Legislature and officials, good morning to you all.

Madam Speaker, the Covid-19 virus has not only taken the world by storm, but it has also changed life as we know it forever. Whoever would have thought that social distancing would keep us alive and well?

Our biggest concern, Madam Speaker, must be whether our responses now, as government, will change the lives of our people in the Eastern Province for better, or for worse.

As of this morning, 3 195 316 people from across the globe have been inflicted with this highly contagious virus, which attacks the respiratory system. Currently 227 705 people have died from Covid-19 related illnesses across the world, which is a mortality rate of 7,12%.

In South Africa, this pandemic is behaving somewhat differently so far and has many experts and researchers scratching their heads.

Possible reasons given are our warm climate, which inhibits Covid-19, although this is not the case in Brazil. Another theory is that the first patients were middle class travellers who could immediately self- isolate which prevented initial spread. A third theory is that the early declaration of the State of Disaster flattened the curve even before the lockdown was implemented.

Madam Speaker, experts also expected a higher death rate in South Africa because of our high levels of comorbidity such as HIV and TB, our high risk factors such as poverty and overcrowding, and our poorly equipped health service. This has not happened.

Whatever the reason for our lower infection rates, they have resulted in the capacity of our private and public health care systems not being challenged – at this point.

At National level, our President and our Minister of Health have led from the front in what can only be described as extraordinarily challenging times. They have made very difficult decisions, but have done so with the nation’s best interests at heart and we applaud their efforts. They have won us valuable time for further preparation.

In the Eastern Cape, however, a  different picture emerges.

Our health system has been standing on the precipice of collapse for several years now. Let us firstly acknowledge that our fledgling democracy inherited a substandard and poorly maintained third class health care system.

While great strides were made to develop and upgrade the heath system in the province in the first fifteen years of democracy, the last ten years have seen construction and maintenance of infrastructure dwindling to an almost complete stop.

This could be blamed on a floundering economy, or the burgeoning tenderpreneur economy, which has driven building and maintenance prices through the roof and severely limited the number of projects the department can afford annually. Hospitals and clinics across the province are now quite literally falling apart.

Then we have crippling medico-legal claims against the department, which have made effective health care almost impossible.

Tragically the filling of critical posts has been delayed, so that money meant for salaries can be diverted to the payment of claims against the department. This has overburdened an already stretched workforce and exposing the department to further claims against them.  Departmental leadership has been rudderless in this regard. Robbing from Peter to pay Paul has had no positive impact on the situation at all. In the midst of this chaos, we face a global pandemic.

At the beginning of March, meetings were held to establish the readiness of the province to manage the inevitable outbreak of Covid-19 here. Epidemiologists warned then that our staff shortages would be the biggest barrier to successfully managing Covid-19. Why then did it take a furious visit from the Minister of Health, a FULL SIX WEEKS later, before any steps were taken to fill vacant posts? What was our leadership thinking?

Experts also warned, at the beginning of March, that PPE shortages would threaten the successful management of the disease. Why then was it only reported this week that a tender had been finalised for the production of PPE? Why has leadership wasted so much time? ?

Reporting on the infection rates and the state of readiness of our facilities to combat the virus, have been dismal. Our district JOC reports are misaligned and have huge data gaps, and our reports from the OTP are of poor quality. Why has our leadership not taken steps to insist on accurate and aligned information?

Madam Speaker, instead of the number of screening teams in the province, tell us how many people have been screened. We do need to know how many close contacts of Covid-19 cases have NOT yet been tracked and traced, as they are potential super spreaders.  Our departmental leadership needs to insist on meaningful daily data that can ultimately keep communities safe.  They must lead this charge!

When we as the Portfolio Committee members ask difficult questions, we do not need obfuscation, smoke and mirrors. We do not need to be undermined and treated dismissively. We ask questions because we need the truth. The citizens of this province deserve to know the status of the disease in their communities and across the province. They are tired of being kept in the dark. Abantu beliphondo badikiwe. This information is NOT exclusive to officials and politicians.

This virus demands from us a co-ordinated, comprehensive and inclusive approach by all stakeholders. Currently officials and health workers run around putting out fires and reacting to situations, instead of planning and exercising proactive measures to curb transmission. This is indicative of poor management at the very top echelons of the department. No more smooth talking from the MEC and the HOD – they must account for the poor planning thus far.

The Covid-19 pandemic will ruthlessly hunt down all the flaws in our health system and expose them. How many of our people will live or die in the coming months depends on how prepared we are. The numbers will speak for themselves. There will be no hiding from the truth then.

Madam Speaker, when we look back at this time in years to come, will we be able to say that the leadership that is currently in place, and the decisions they have taken now, changed the lives of our people for better, or for worse? Time will tell.

Thank you.