‘We need to be thankful that we have a safe, warm home surrounded by loved ones’ is the general response people like me get when complaining about the lock-down and the pandemic in general.

By ‘people like me’, I mean anyone not living in a township, on the street or in any government-provided quarantine facility. ‘People like me’ are those with access to private medical aid and privately-run hospitals. The realisation about how fortunate ‘people like me ‘ are flashed through my mind in neon lighting last night as I read the BBC expose doing its’ rounds on Facebook. Reading Andrew Harding’s “exclusive, weeks-long BBC investigation” into “Coronavirus in South Africa: Inside Port Elizabeth’s ‘hospitals of horrors’” (July 15, 2020) was like a physical affront: my anxiety skyrocketed, and so did my guilt.

I knew this was happening- if not the details and the extremity- I knew that our health care was a “system on its knees” (Harding, July 15).

As a member of private medical aid and not knowing anyone who had ever been treated in a public hospital, being made aware of the situation exposed by the BBC article were made that much more confrontational. Anonymous doctors and nurses “spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing they would lose their jobs if they were identified” (Harding, July 15). Witnesses detail how rats were found feeding on medical waste and I’m the one who felt nauseous. I can’t fathom what the patients and medical staff witnessing this must have felt.

The culture of not wanting to speak out for fear of repercussions is not a new one in South Africa. It is also not limited to public health care workers.

In fact, a good friend of mine, who has been a paramedic for a private healthcare scheme for eight years, is also impacted by this ‘climate of intimidation’.

In adhering to his request for anonymity,  his name and the hospital he works for is changed for this article. After I sent urgent WhatsApp messages to John Smith (alias) after reading Harding’s report, John replied with “yeah, I’ve heard and already know about this… that’s the tip of the iceberg and not enough people know about it”.

When I asked John to elaborate, he said that “they’ve (public hospitals) also had rooms filled to the roof with medical waste because they can’t get the stuff removed”. John described how “ambulances [are] waiting outside for hours on end to handover patients” because of overcrowding in hospitals, and that “we [hospital staff] have had people stealing medical waste and selling on the black market as mootie”.

Wanting to know more about the situation in a way that non-medical professionals like me could understand, I asked John to describe the logistical nightmare haunting all hospitals in South Africa. 

“Hospitals have ‘diverts’ ” revealed John. “For example, a hospital’s paediatric ward might be full and they might not be able to take on certain paediatric patients, except perhaps the lower- priority and non-critical patients. Since COVID, the wards need to be split into three sections: COVID positive, COVID negative and then the ward speciality patients (like paediatric patients) etc. So, you are essentially dividing your hospital in 3…

Because of this, your whole hospital system has completely changed. With the COVID influx, almost all hospitals going on ‘diverts’ are unable to accept patients which is a logistical nightmare for paramedics: trying to figure out where you can take your patients adds more stress to a paramedic’s job. My colleague recently waited for 3-4 hours for any hospital to admit an urgent patient. All this confusion, not to mention the cleaning staff on strike, is overwhelming.

Regarding personal protective equipment, John told me how “the country is facing a shortage of masks and basic protective equipment to look after the staff. Now, with red tape on imports and exports, it is a lot more difficult to get the stuff into the country, and so prices are going up exponentially.”

Moreover, John said that patients who desperately need to go to the hospital are too afraid to do so for fear of COVID-19 infection, resulting in these patients’ health getting worse and them eventually requiring an ambulance for something that could have been easily sorted out.

This, naturally, adds weights onto the shoulders of paramedics already overburdened with 17+ hour shifts, confusion on where to admit patients and overbearing fatigue and stress.

After chatting with John (via phone call, no in-person contact was made, thanks to social distancing!) I became justifiably angry at the state of the nation.

Despite my scepticism and mistrust of public service announcements and government-written addresses, the only ‘input’ I have allowed myself to receive about the reality of our health care system during this 120+ days of lock-down has come from President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Along with most ‘people like me’, I’d sit at home next to the fire drinking hot chocolate with the channel turned to Ramaphose addressing “My fellow South Africans…” (July 12, 2020). Warm, fed and uncharacteristically trusting of this government representative, I listened as Ramaphosa detailed how “We have recruited and continue to recruit additional nurses, doctors and emergency health personnel” (Ramaphose, July 12).

Although not naïve, I didn’t think that “over 37,000 quarantine beds in private and public facilities across the country” and “secured 1,700 additional ventilators” was such an exaggeration by the President.

In my unwillingness to think about the reality of this virus in South Africa, I did not recognise the blatant and very characteristic propaganda that is the government attempting (and succeeding) to appease ‘My Fellow South Africans”.

Like John says; “Things are rough… just not enough people know about it.”

Kathryn van den Berg

When trying to come up with an alias for my blog, I turned to words people have used to describe me for inspiration. The term 'control freak' popped up in my mind, but I'm not that confrontational and opinionated (anymore...). And so came into existence a happy compromise between my A-type personality and sense of humour.

Kathryn is The Control Enthusiast.