A “gentle and loving” person who “paid the ultimate sacrifice” for making sure those who needed it received aid. This was how Ahmed Abbasi, who headed the Gift of the Givers office in Gaza, was remembered at an interfaith memorial service in St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, on Sunday evening.
At least 400 people came to pay their respects. Several faith leaders were in attendance as well as government officials, including Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis and former international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu.
Gift of the Givers’ Western Cape project coordinator Ali Sablay told GroundUp that Abbasi and his brother, Mustafa, were killed by a missile while returning from their morning prayer.
Abbasi leaves behind his wife and three children. They have been relocated to a place of safety.
Sablay said that Abbasi was responsible for setting up a women and children care centre, three desalination plants, supplying medicines to hospitals, and more.
“He was the head of this operation and in the last 40 days of this war, he’s been remarkable in the work he’s been doing in getting aid to those affected. He had the option to relocate but he said he could not leave the people behind. He stayed on with his family. Unfortunately, he paid the ultimate price.”
Sablay said the organisation backed President Cyril Ramaphosa’s decision to refer members of the Israeli government to the International Criminal Court (ICC). “We support the political parties that are asking that the Israeli ambassador be expelled. This is not an act of war, this is an act of genocide,” he said.
Reverend Michael Weeder, dean of the cathedral, led the service. Reverend Allan Boesak gave the sermon.
Megan Choritz read out a letter of condolence on behalf of South African Jews for a Free Palestine. “There has never been a moment of crisis where Gift of the Givers has not stepped up and offered help, solace, dignity and hope to those affected. Please, in this dark moment for you and your organisation, accept our prayers, solidarity and support.”
“We will continue to speak up, continue to disavow any claims that this war is waged in our names, or in the name of Judaism,” she said.
The service was interspersed with hymns, songs and poetry readings. Several faith leaders addressed the congregation.
In a pre-recorded message, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of Gift of the Givers, thanked Father Weeder for organising a memorial service for someone he had never met. “This is not a head of state, a minister, or a person of high rank. He’s just an ordinary Palestinian, but he works for Gift of the Givers and that makes him special, even if I say so myself.”
In an interview with GroundUp last month, Sooliman described Gaza as “the worst situation in the world because there is no exit route”.
“You can’t get out. The area is so small. It’s so easy to bomb it … Nobody can have a safety plan. Where are you going to hide? There’s no such thing as safety in Gaza,” he said.
The New York Times reported last week that over 100 aid workers in Gaza have been killed in the past five weeks.
Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of The Gift of the Givers Foundation, has appealed for negotiations, compromise and peace in the Middle East. The respected South African aid organisation has had a presence in Gaza for nine years.
Gift of the Givers doesn’t have an office in Gaza. Instead, the team of three people moves around distributing medical supplies, food and water. They are also involved in a women and child care centre, a health facility, and schools.
Sooliman says the organisation wants to send more people. “We are preparing to send medical teams but only if it’s not any risk to them.” He says a ceasefire or safe corridor is needed before the teams can enter Gaza. The organisation has 40 medical personnel ready to go in, Sooliman told GroundUp.
On Sunday Gift of the Givers reported that the team has been under severe physical and mental stress.
In 2014 Israel attacked Gaza for seven weeks. Sooliman said his team is reporting that this time it’s completely different. “They said it’s so difficult to move around. There’s so much anxiety and so much fear. The amount of bombs being dropped has never happened before.”
On Tuesday the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that 4200 people have been killed, and over one million people displaced, in just ten days, while large areas of the Gaza strip have been reduced to rubble.
The death toll includes a large number of women and children, as well as at least 11 Palestinian journalists, 28 medical staff and 14 UN workers. It also includes over 1300 Israelis, mostly civilians, killed by Hamas on 7 October.
Sooliman said that Gaza’s people face challenges with access to food and water. “Because there’s no electricity, the sewage plants don’t work. Because they can’t do burials, the decomposed bodies are going to cause infections. Because hospitals don’t have antibiotics, there’s a threat of infection there.
“They managed to do some mass funerals yesterday. As the bodies are coming in they are doing it straight away. There are thousands of bodies lying under the rubble that they can’t reach. They don’t have the equipment, they don’t have the personnel, but above all, it’s bloody dangerous to get there,” said Sooliman.
Sooliman said that he had a meeting with the Egyptian ambassador and South Africa’s Foreign Affairs Department on Monday in an attempt to get a humanitarian aid corridor open. “We are also looking at flying supplies on a cargo plane from South Africa and sending trucks to the border in Cairo.”
Asked how this situation compared to other humanitarian relief efforts the organisation had been involved in, Sooliman responded: “This is the worst situation in the world because there is no exit route. You can’t get out. The area is so small. It’s so easy to bomb it … Nobody can have a safety plan. Where are you going to hide? There’s no such thing as safety in Gaza.”
Gaza is only 350km2. It could fit into Cape Town nearly seven times, yet it has half Cape Town’s population.
Sooliman described Israel’s call to evacuate more than one million people from the north to the south of Gaza as “quite ludicrous”. “How can you move 1 million people in 24 hours when there’s no fuel and no cars? Where are you going to go to? Everything is bombed. How do you move an intensive care unit patient?”
He also called for restraint from both sides. “Civilians cannot be attacked in a war and that applies to both sides … At the end of the day, both sides must remember that there is no winner in war. Everybody loses out. The only way to solve this problem in the Middle East is to make peace, act rationally and make compromises.”
“This is not a thing about Jews against Muslims; it’s human against human. It’s not a religious thing, it’s a human thing … it’s about humanity. It’s in the interests of all parties to make compromises. The only way to solve the problem is to do what is just,” he stressed.
“When you act justly you will have peace, prosperity and peace in the entire region. Nobody loses out. Actually everybody gains more. They should go to the negotiating table, make compromises and give a just solution. If you do that then we never have to send any more supplies to the Middle East again,“ Sooliman added.
Much of South Africa’s public health sector is plagued by long waiting times for surgery, a situation that was made much worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, an inspiring project at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town has reached the target of slashing its backlog by 1 500 elective surgeries – two months ahead of target.
At the end of March, a small team of healthcare workers completed the project called ‘Surgical Recovery’. The project ran from May 2022 and was originally planned to conclude 12 months later.
While this hasn’t cleared the entire backlog of people waiting for surgery at Groote Schuur, it has helped the hospital return to about the same waiting list level as it had before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Professor Lydia Cairncross, the head of general surgery at Groote Schuur. (Spotlight previously reported on the human cost of surgical waiting lists and on what could be done about it.)
The surgeries took place mainly in the E4 Surgical Day Ward at Groote Schuur. Cairncross explains that ward E4 was built as a Day Ward – meaning it handles surgeries where patients don’t require an overnight stay pre- or post-surgery – with the aim of increasing daycare surgery capacity for the hospital. And for the last 12 months, it has been the host of the Surgical Recovery Project.
E4 has 16 patient beds, four recovery beds, and two theatres, which were completed just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country. During the third wave of the pandemic, it was used as a COVID High Care Unit.
According to Dr Shrikant Peters, a public health specialist and the medical manager of theatre and ICU services at Groote Schuur, the hospital’s CEO Dr Bhavna Patel “had the foresight to request provincial use of COVID funding to develop the space as COVID High Care, and eventually to be used long-term as an Operating Suite and High Care Ward in line with prior hospital plans”.
The Surgical Recovery Project
By the end of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Cairncross, there were discussions about how to catch up on the surgeries that had to be postponed because of COVID-19.
“The backlog in surgery comes on top of a pre-existing backlog. So, it’s not that the backlog was created by COVID, but it made it much, much, much worse,” she says, “In November 2021, we did an audit of how many patients were just physically waiting for surgery at the hospital. It was around 6 000 plus. We don’t actually have a baseline for pre-COVID, but we knew that we lost about 50% of our operating capacity,” Cairncross says.
“So, the idea was really to find a way to utilise this theatre space so that we could catch up with some of that backlog.”
From here, the Surgical Recovery Project for Groote Schuur was born with the ambitious target of performing 1 500 surgeries in 12 months.
Funds from the project came from three sources. Kristy Evans, head of the Groote Schuur Hospital Trust, tells Spotlight that fundraising for the project was kick-started by a R5 million donation from Gift of the Givers. The recently established Groote Schuur Hospital Trust focused on Surgical Recovery as their first project to fundraise for. An additional R1 million was raised by the Trust from over 500 corporate and private donors.
“People are always willing… [they] give what they can. We had donations from people who would transfer R10 into the account, sometimes people transfer R180 000,” Evans says.
She adds that the Project will continue into its second year, but the details regarding targets had not yet been finalised by the time of publication.
The Western Cape Provincial Department of Health also donated around R6.5 million to the project from their budget for surgical recovery post-COVID-19. According to Mark van der Heever, the provincial health spokesperson, this money was part of the R20 million that the department allocated to various surgical backlog recovery initiatives.
“[The] COVID-19 pandemic meant that elective surgical services had to be significantly de-escalated, as staff were deployed to COVID services, and this resulted in an increase in the backlog of operations. Hence, a specific practi[cal] plan to address this backlog in the short and long term has been developed,” says van der Heever. “Similar projects and initiatives across hospitals have already taken shape and also yielded success, such as at Karl Bremer Hospital, which also received a portion of the R20 million from the department. The hospital was able to perform an extra 328 procedures since August last year.”
Working around difficulties
At Groote Schuur, the project had to find a way to work around the difficulties of surgical catch-up. According to Cairncross, with any surgical catch-up, the challenges don’t just come from needing a physical space to operate in but also from having the appropriately trained staff. Not having enough trained staff in the public health sector, like theatre and surgery nurses, makes it hard to implement a surgical catch-up programme, even if there is money to do so.
To work around these difficulties, they came up with a centralised model for surgical recovery, where one theatre team of nurses could be employed on a contract rate for the 12 months. This team, led by Sister Melinda Davids, the nursing operations manager for the E4 theatre, would work Monday to Thursday in one of the E4 theatres and occasionally other theatres in the hospital for each of the 1 500 surgeries.
According to Cairncross, many surgeons, herself included, would come and operate on patients in addition to their normal surgeries and other duties. The funds, a total of about R 12.5 million, were used to pay the staff involved in the surgeries. The day-to-day operations were run by Davids and Peters.
According to Peters, the 1 500 operations occurred across all surgical specialities, ranging from cataract to cardiothoracic.
Cairncross attributes the success of the project to the existing systems at Groote Schuur, supportive management, and the dedication of the surgical team and surgeons that gave their time to the project.
She says that because the hospital has a relatively functional system to start off with and a supportive management team, it allowed for “enough of a regulatory environment to keep things safe and above board but not to the extent where you can’t move”.
It was also about having the right person in charge of the team, she adds, gesturing to Davids.
Davids, who started her nursing career in 1989 and qualified as a theatre nurse in 2009, started working at Groote Schuur six years ago. She explains that the surgical team at E4 consisted of about 18 people. This includes herself, five scrub nurses, three anaesthetic nurses, three floor nurses, a registered nurse who assists in recovery, and a clerk. Peters adds that there are also two surgical medical officers and two anaesthetic registrars.
According to Davids, when the project started, several of the nurses had not worked in a theatre before so had to be trained and upskilled by her and some of the specialist nurses who make up the scrub nurse team. She also had to get creative about having the right equipment for each surgery, which sometimes meant she had to borrow equipment from other theatres.
“It’s been a challenge, but it’s a good challenge that’s kept me going,” she says. “We’re a good team.”
“Trust [in staff] has been fundamental to this,” says Peters, “I mean, the ability to trust junior staff to upskill themselves to become scrub nurses, to hand surgeons the right instrument when they asked for it. That’s been really heart-warming.”
‘Behind every number on the list is a patient’
When asked why it was so important to do this kind of catch-up, Cairncross says the surgeries that were postponed during the COVID-19 pandemic were ones that weren’t urgent or emergent, but those patients who were bumped still struggled physically because of the delays.
“Behind every number on the list is a patient with a story of either progressive blindness, invasive skull tumours, or tumours around the auditory canal that result in hearing loss, chronic pain from joint problems and urinary retention with recurrent infections and admissions or having a stoma bag [a colostomy bag] with them for months longer than needed,” Cairncross says. “Heart-breaking stories and often these were the patients who kept getting cancelled [on]. They would come in and if something urgent would come up, they would be cancelled or the COVID wave would come.”
She adds that at the time when the idea for Surgical Recovery came about, the morale amongst the surgical teams was at a real low. Patients would be coming to the outpatient clinics and asking, for the umpteenth time, “when am I going to have my operation?” to which the healthcare workers had to keep responding that they don’t know.
“It’s just a terrible thing and so people [staff] started to feel disempowered and disillusioned and I really think that the project helped them to at least see some progress. That there were some changes or some shift in what they were dealing with,” Cairncross says. “It hasn’t cleared our entire backlog, and a once-off project will not do that, but it has reset us pretty close to where we were pre-COVID-19.”
Peters adds that while the backlogs haven’t been fully cleared, “for every case that we’ve done in the project, it’s someone off of a waiting list”.
Health system at a ‘precipice’
While the COVID-19 pandemic caused many surgeries to be postponed and added tremendously to surgical waiting lists, it isn’t the only factor contributing to backlogs. According to Peters, the issue of a shrinking health budget for tertiary services is and will continue to add to the existing backlogs across the country.
“There’s this building backlog coming up against the shrinking budget. And that’s going to be with us for multiple years going into the future and if the clinicians aren’t protecting the budget for these patients that get missed, we’re going to focus on as we have been the emergency patients that come through the door,” he says. “But it’s always difficult for tertiary academic services because to keep up the skills of surgeons to maintain the quality of care, they do need to be managing waiting lists of booked patients. And so, I think across the country we’re going to be struggling with that across all tertiary services.”
Cairncross tells Spotlight that the project is just a temporary measure. In the long term, healthcare systems need to be fixed in order to address issues like surgical backlogs.
“The lesson, I suppose, is that these are temporising measures. We can do them, but fundamentally we need to fix the health system at a core, structural level. And we can’t work in isolation from the rest of the country because we are one health system and tertiary hospitals are only a part of that ecosystem,” she says. “The services at Groote Schuur Hospital, for example, cannot be sustained if the health systems from primary care to district health facilities, in urban and rural facilities, and across provinces are not supported and strengthened.”
The health system is at a precipice, according to Cairncross, and big academic hospitals need to be anchoring elective surgical services together with emergency services, as the problem with emergency services will only get bigger down the line if electives aren’t dealt with now.
“We know that postponed elective surgery just becomes emergency surgery over time, making cancelling elective surgery a false economy. We need to plan robust systems that ensure all types of surgical services are maintained,” she says.
“The strongest voice [in defence of the health system] is a conscious and motivated health workforce. So, where the nurses and doctors and managers are standing and defending patient services, they are supporting the health system,” she says. “I think this is an example of health workers standing up and saying, we can’t allow this deterioration in services. We’ve got to do more. We really want to tell the story, so that people can see it can be done.”
Three weeks into Johannesburg’s water crisis, which has put tremendous strain on hospitals amid the pandemic, Gift of the Givers have said they will drill for water at Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital.
“Having delivered bottled water on 28 and 31 May, Gift of the Givers drilling teams will be arriving at the hospital shortly, having been granted permission by the management and infrastructure team to drill for water,” said Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of the non-governmental disaster response organisation, the largest African one on the continent.
According to the Daily Maverick, Johannesburg Water’s infrastructure woes are the consequence of years of chronic under-funding. In its business plan for the year, the entity has “has an infrastructure renewal backlog of approximately R19.9-billion as a result of underfunding, which has also led to having 25% of the asset base (reservoirs, towers, pipes, etc) that has a remaining useful life of less than 10 years.”
Amidst concerns about knock-on effects on facilities such as Helen Joseph and Rahima Moosa hospitals, Gauteng health department spokesperson Kwara Kekana said that since last week, the hospitals’ management were trying to ease the pressure on the two worst affected facilities by transferring some patients to other hospitals and performing some theatre operations at sister hospitals.
Hospital staff and management had approached Gift of the Givers, requesting bottled water, portable toilets and any means to augment the water tankers arriving daily.
Rahima Moosa is one of the feeder hospitals for the temporarily closed Charlotte Maxeke Hospital and healthcare workers trying to work through a backlog of non-COVID patients between the second and third waves. It couldn’t have come at a worse time, said Sooliman,
“Add to that a desperate community thronging to the hospital in search of drinking water, clearly worsening COVID risk,” he said.
Sooliman said a drilling site had been identified.
“Existing, defunct boreholes will be assessed with a view to resuscitating them while drilling for new boreholes then pumping water directly into the hospital infrastructure using booster pumps and setting up taps outside the hospital for community use once the water has been tested and approved for human consumption,” said Sooliman.
Bottled water from companies will be welcomed while they waited for the work to be completed, he added.