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Eastern Cape in race to avoid formation of ‘superclusters’ as Covid-19 infection rate climbs

Daily Maverick logo Daily Maverick 6 days ago Estelle Ellis
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The Eastern Cape is fighting to gain control over fast-growing coronavirus outbreaks as the province’s premier admits that they have only 66 ICU and high care beds. Most of their field hospitals and isolation facilities are still in the planning phase. As the alarm is raised over the ‘technical insolvency’ of the health department, 60 health workers have tested positive for the virus. Five police stations have been temporarily closed after several police officers tested positive.

The Eastern Cape is racing to prevent the formation of “superclusters” of infections in the province as the number of patients testing positive for coronavirus infections grows each day.

In a presentation to President Cyril Ramaphosa, Premier of the Eastern Cape Oscar Mabuyane has admitted that the province has only 66 ICU and high care beds available — field hospitals and more than half of their isolation facilities are still in the planning phase. 

This comes as the province’s economy is expected to contract by a predicted 5.5% over the next year. Opposition parties have raised the alarm that the health department was technically insolvent and has close to R3-billion in unpaid bills while facing R29-billion medico-legal claims. 

Mabuyane said while the province started off with two clusters of infections in its two major metros, there now appear to be two more developing in the rural Chris Hani and OR Tambo districts.

“Both emerging clusters are located in areas of high Covid-19 vulnerability index ratings, according to the CSIR,” Mabuyane said. “There is a substantial possibility that these clusters could join to form a supercluster’ due to a set of existing vulnerability characteristics. Emerging clusters require focused data-driven interventions, to contain the pandemic whilst simultaneously increasing technical capacity and access to such capacity by vulnerable patients to prevent the formation of a supercluster,” Mabuyane said.

He said the province was switching its focus to mass education and has included all political parties currently serving in the legislature, religious community organisations and traditional leadership to assist the government in fighting the outbreak. Mabuyane said teachers aligned to the South African Democratic Teachers Union have indicated that they will go out and teach basic preventative strategies such as hand-washing, social distancing and wearing masks in communities. 

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The two big metros in the province currently have an incident rate of 558 per million for Buffalo City around East London and 469 per million for Nelson Mandela Bay. The Chris Hani District, that includes Cradock and Queenstown and many other small rural towns, has an incidence rate of 243 per million, according to a presentation on the state of the province provided by Mabuyane’s office.

According to the premier’s presentation, there are only four ICU beds available in the Nelson Mandela Metro out of a total of 34 planned beds. Buffalo City has 14 beds available out of a planned 32 beds.

“Most of our health facilities do not have the capacity to deal with this,” Mabuyane said. “Establishing these ICU and high care beds will be part of the legacy of Covid-19.”

The province only has 1,123 beds available for patients to be quarantined out of a planned 2,481. Mabuyane said they are aiming to have 8,000 beds in field hospitals.

Meanwhile, Eastern Cape Health Department spokesman Sizwe Kupelo confirmed that 60 health workers in the province have tested positive for the coronavirus. There are currently 382 people in isolation facilities in the province. Two hundred are at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth where there are only 13 beds left vacant. 

Mabuyane said an investment of R50.5-million is targeted to improve 29 health facilities and R251-million to increase the bed capacity of hospitals in five districts while R3m is being invested into the hospitality sector in order to support the quarantining programme.

The province only has 1,123 beds available for patients to be quarantined out of a planned 2,481. Mabuyane said they are aiming to have 8,000 beds in field hospitals.

The Democratic Alliance’s Retief Odendaal, however, said he had raised the issue at a Finance Portfolio Committee meeting that the Eastern Cape Department of Health had run up accruals (unpaid bills) of R3-billion as at the end of the 2019/20 financial year. 

“This R3-billion will have to be paid out of the department’s current budget, leaving the department with an 11% shortfall by the end of this financial year,” he said. He said he had written to the MEC for Finance, MEC Mlungisi Mvoko, to redirect funding from other departments to the health department to improve cash flow and reduce accruals systematically. So far only R300-million had been redirected. Odendaal said that when he had raised the question he was assured that it was not a problem as money was coming in from the national government for the Covid-19 response.

“The total contingent liabilities in respect of medico-legal claims is now sitting at over R29-billion, more than the department’s total 2020/21 budget allocation of R26.4-billion. Given the above, the department of health has reached the point where it is factually insolvent. This poses a significant risk to the people of the Eastern Cape, caught in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, as service providers may become unwilling to do business with the department due to delays in receiving payment.

“I have now written to the Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, as well as the [acting] Director-General of Health, Dr Anban Pillay, to bring the above to their attention. I will also petition both Mvoko and Mabuyane for an early adjustments budget to be tabled as soon as the 2020/21 budget has been adopted by the province,” he said.

In the past week, police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidu confirmed that the provincial police commissioner for the province, General Liziwe Ntshinga, had tested positive for the virus. He also confirmed that the police stations in Motherwell, King Williamstown, Bhisho, Willowvale and Kinkelbos were temporarily shut after police officers tested positive for the virus. Earlier in May the police station in Zwide, in Nelson Mandela Bay, was also closed after a police officer tested positive. Captain Andrew Leslie, who was the station commander for the Middelburg police station, died after contracting the virus. The Aberdeen police station also had to be temporarily closed after officers tested positive for the virus.

In his briefing to President Cyril Ramaphosa, Mabuyane also asked for R1-billion to set up irrigation schemes to boost agriculture in the province.

“I am asking for a billion rand, we might need a couple more billion,” he said. He said he believed agriculture would be the saving grace of the Eastern Cape as he announced grim economic figures.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the province had an unemployment rate of 39.5%. Mabuyane said he expected this to worsen as “some businesses close and some [will not be] functioning as usual with the informal sector being especially hard hit”.

He said projections are that economic sectors in the province will contract by 5.5% on average with a 24% decline predicted for the construction industry and 23.1% for transport and communication. He said they were at this stage offering an incentive of R10,000 for each job saved in the province. So far, Mabuyane said they had managed to save 1,051 jobs in 16 businesses with 12 applications being considered for approval.

As in his state of the province speech, he said he believed there should be support for the cannabis industry as well as the marine economy and e-commerce to boost the province’s economic viability.

“We are trying to find money and assist wherever possible. But it is not an easy thing. The Covid-19 outbreak has seriously eroded our fiscal baseline. It is not an easy one to manage,” he said. 

Mabuyane said agriculture could pull the province through.

“Agriculture is king. We should be the food basket of the country. We have land. But we need national government to look at this as a serious opportunity to help us move forward. Agriculture talks to our people where they are.” 

Ken Clarke, from the Border Kei Business Chamber, said the only thing that would save jobs at this stage was “to get the economy going again”.

“The lockdown is losing credibility and in some cases the measures being implemented are not consistent with the objective of slowing the spread of the virus,” he said. “We can’t eradicate the virus. We can only manage it. All responsible people know what they need to do. Let’s get the economy going again,” he said.

Mabuyane also requested that Ramaphosa help the province resolve the stalemate with the Western Cape over the transportation of bodies for burial.

“Many people who die in the Western Cape are buried here. We can’t chase people away. This is their home. The only comfort they have is to come home. Home in the Eastern Cape will be better than the Western Cape’s informal settlements when it is winter and the rain starts. We are working with the Western Cape on how to collaborate and find a solution. But the transportation of corpses in taxis remains a problem,” he said. DM/MC

During this time, people across our country have offered to help through the Solidarity Response Fund. To assist or for more information visit https://www.solidarityfund.co.za/.

Stories of hope and positivity amid COVID-19 outbreak (Supplied by MSN) 


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