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Coronavirus: Urgently safeguard access to healthcare and medicines as social unrest deepens in South Africa

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Coronavirus: Urgently safeguard access to healthcare and medicines as social unrest deepens in South Africa

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) notes with deep concern the growing social unrest in two South African provinces, including widespread looting and disruption of crucial health care services, and the consequences for public health and safety. To date, more than 60 people are reported to have died and many more have suffered injuries, including lacerations and burns, as a result of these events.

The unrest is also impeding the provision of medical care, preventing patients, medical personnel and critical supplies from reaching the facilities. A drastic escalation of the current health crisis driven by COVID-19 is inevitable unless immediate steps are taken to safeguard the right to health care and the safety of patients, health workers, medical infrastructure and supplies. .

There have been outages in all KwaZulu-Natal districts, including staff unable to work due to public transportation shutdown and road closures in many areas, while certain hospitals and their emergency departments already hit by an increase in COVID19 cases are overwhelmed by staff shortages and an influx of people in need of wound treatment, forcing doctors to choose who gets life-saving treatment and who doesn’t. COVID-19 vaccination sites have been closed.

MSF’s medical services and support operations in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng have also been disrupted.

– In Empangeni, an MSF team supporting the regional COVID-19 response from Ngwelezane Hospital was forced to stay away as a result of looting and unrest in the area. Several departments of health physicians working in the COVID-19 ward were down, hampering the overall COVID-19 response.

– The Richard’s Bay-based MSF COVID-19 response team was confined to their accommodation due to insecurity.

– In Eshowe, where we have been running HIV / TB programs since 2011, the MSF team was forced to suspend all medical and community activities. Clinic-based HIV / TB services are currently inaccessible for many, and people with comorbidities that put them at high risk for severe COVID19, such as diabetes and hypertension, cannot access their medications. Our team had to hide vehicles in different parts of the city to protect these medical transports from looting that occurred on the same street as the MSF office. One of our doctors, caught in the mob of looters, was tear gassed.

– In Tshwane, the threat of unrest led us to temporarily close the MSF-supported clinic and downtown center that cares for vulnerable people, including undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees living in the Tshwane metropolitan area. These are people who, in most cases, cannot access adequate medical care and / or social services, and even more so during violence and riots.

– Until now, work has continued normally in Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape, where another MSF medical team supports the COVID-19 ward at Livingstone Tertiary Hospital, but the threat of protest action could prevent this team from accessing the hospital, which makes the COVID-19 room non-functional and directly affects patient care.

Providing humanitarian medical assistance in more than 70 countries, MSF recognizes the challenges medical personnel face when working in unsafe environments and when violence causes the interruption, suspension or closure of healthcare services, as well as the negative consequences for populations. in dire need.

The status of health services as essential services must be visibly prioritized in South Africa. The facilities must be respected as safe spaces by all: those involved in protests and looting, as well as the police and the army. MSF calls on all these actors to take immediate steps to ensure that access to medical care and medicines is not threatened or interrupted.

MSF requests the support of community leaders, political leaders, the South African government security group and the South African presidency. Community and political leaders must call for calm and unite for the protection of health care. Security forces must protect vital healthcare infrastructure and services, while the president’s condemnation of targeting healthcare must be upheld.

Failure to respect and protect health services and health workers will have disastrous consequences, especially for the most vulnerable in society during the ongoing health crisis: COVID-19 patients, trauma patients, chronically ill, elderly, mothers pregnant women and babies and migrants and asylum seekers.

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