SA riots add to pressure on strained health services

South Africans vulnerable to severe Covid-19 because of existing diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV and diabetes are at further risk as deadly riots put increased pressure on an already stretched health-care system.

Unrest that has destroyed hundreds of businesses and led to billions of rand in theft has disrupted access to essential health services in the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces. Both medical staff and patients have been left stranded by barricaded roads and many clinics and pharmacies have closed.


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At least 72 people have been killed since the violence erupted at the weekend, with hundreds more sustaining injuries, including lacerations and burn wounds, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres. While hospitals are open, supplies of drugs, oxygen, food and water are under threat, health providers such as Netcare are reporting.

Several primary-care facilities in KwaZulu-Natal have been temporarily closed and the country’s Covid-19 vaccination program has also been partially halted in both provinces, a blow to a rollout that’s been criticised for its late start.

“The situation is fluid and we remain on high alert to respond promptly to possible new developments,” said Richard Friedland, the chief executive officer of Netcare, one of South Africa’s biggest private hospital companies.

Hospital capacity in South Africa’s commercial hub of Gauteng was at risk of being breached by a third wave of Covid-19 infections even before the rioting. The densely populated province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, accounts for the bulk of the country’s cases in this phase of the pandemic.

President Cyril Ramaphosa last month said more beds and medical workers were needed as the country faced rapidly increasing cases, deploying military personnel in Gauteng to help health-care workers conduct mass-screening and testing.

In addition to hospital staff shortages in the two provinces, emergency rooms are being stretched by a number of people arriving with protest-related injuries. The South African National Blood Service has closed some of its services in hotspot areas, according to a message sent to donors.

“We call for immediate steps to safeguard the right to health care and safety of patients, health-care workers, medical infrastructure and supplies to avert a drastic escalation of the current Covid-19-driven crisis,” MSF, or Doctors Without Borders, said in a statement on Wednesday.

In one area in KwaZulu-Natal, where MSF has run HIV and tuberculosis programs since 2011, “our team was forced to suspend all medical and community-based activities,” the organisation said. In Gauteng, overwhelmed doctors are being forced to choose who receives life-saving treatment and who does not, it said.

© 2021 Bloomberg