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Union warns Life Esidimeni tragedy will repeat itself if health care budget cutbacks continue

Pretoria News logo Pretoria News 2022/12/08 James Mahlokwane

Pretoria - The Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union warns that the Life Esidimeni tragedy is bound to repeat itself if the government continues to drive cutbacks of the health care budget as they learn from the inquest into the tragedy.

The inquest continues and its purpose is to establish if any person is to be held criminally liable for the worst healthcare tragedy in South Africa’s recent history.

In 2016 the Gauteng Health Department ended its contract with Life Esidimeni as part of cost cutting measures, and transferred 1 300 mental health patients from the facility to cheaper facilities, some of which were unregistered NGO’s for treatment.

Exactly 144 patients died unnecessarily including from dehydration and starvation caused by neglect because of the shocking conditions they were exposed to.

President of the union, Rich Sicina, said it is their view that the former Gauteng premier, David Makhura, should not escape accountability.

"As the premier of the province, it is quiet scandalous that he was never forced to resign over this issue as it happened under his watch. The health department was implementing a policy of the ANC which is to cut costs in the health department. The tragedy at Life Esidimeni would not have happened if the health care budget had not been slashed in the first place.

"South Africa operates under an unequal two-tier health system where 29% of the population gets quality health care through privately funded healthcare paid for through exorbitant medical aid. The remaining 71% of the population depends on the public sector.

"The majority of the population cannot afford medical aid and it therefore depends on public hospitals, which are under-funded, under-resourced and severely understaffed.

"This government has been obsessed with cost cutting and we can expect tragedies like this to continue and even worsen. Since the tabling of the budget in February 2021, National Treasury has cut the healthcare budget by R50 billion, and we can expect even more cutbacks in 2023 and beyond," said Sicina.

The union believes it is true that some of the neglect that leads to fatalities, impairments and other traumas experienced by patients which led to the tragedy at Life Esidimeni are also due to neglect of patients by staff, individually or collectively. However, there is a broader systemic failure which is at the heart of these problems based on inadequate funding, under staffing, chronic shortages of infrastructure and incompetent management.

Sicina said the neglect seen in hospitals with the collapsing infrastructure is a reflection of a governing party which does not care for the poor and the working class.

"Members of Parliament and cabinet ministers do not even use public healthcare facilities therefore, they are immune to the suffering experienced by ordinary citizens every day."

"Government is still implementing major cutbacks and this is causing hospitals and clinics to collapse. This has been worsened by persistent load shedding and many hospitals cannot survive on generators to keep the lights on.

“Diesel is very expensive and the cutbacks mean that most of them cannot afford to keep the generator operating. This means that patients who depend on ventilators or machines for survival may die."

The union is warning that the country will experience another tragedy on this scale or worse in the future because not much has changed and there is no political will from the government to improve conditions for patients and for workers in the health care sector.

The tragic and unnecessary loss of life at Life Esidimeni is seen as the tip of the iceberg, of what we can expect going forward if we continue on the path that we are on.

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