The rights of immigrant and undocumented women and children to access free healthcare in South Africa will be put to the test in a court challenge launched by SECTION27 in the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg.
In December 2019, two-year-old Sibusiso Ncube died of poisoning after he was refused treatment at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital because his Zimbabwean mother could not instantly produce his birth certificate or pay R5000, says an affidavit in the court case.
This was not an isolated incident according to Umunyana Rugege, executive director of SECTION27.
“Since 2013, SECTION27 has been repeatedly approached by pregnant migrant women and children under six, who have been denied access to free health services. This is perpetuated through discriminatory subordinate laws and practices,” Rugege says in her affidavit.
“They have routinely been denied access to the health care services, or they are pressured into signing acknowledgements of debt and undertakings to pay for services.”
SECTION27 wants all the relevant ordinances and regulations scrapped. It also seeks an an order that the Minister of Health issue a circular to all provincial health departments recording that all pregnant or lactating women, and children under six, who are not members of medical aid schemes and who have not come to South Africa to obtain health care, be entitled to free health services at any public health establishment, irrespective of their nationality and documentation status.
Rugege says that while the National Health Act does not place any limitation on the right to free health services, there are a range of subordinate laws and practices implemented at hospitals that impose conditions requiring proof of nationality and financial means.
“These laws and practices are unlawful,” she says.
Rugege cited other examples, such as a pregnant asylum seeker who was denied treatment after she was injured in a robbery. She was told she had to pay R2000 before a “file could be opened” at Steve Biko Academic Hospital.
Two months later, when she was eight months pregnant and went to Charlotte Maxeke, she was told she had to pay R20 000 if she wanted treatment and give birth at the hospital. Only after SECTION27 intervened, was she given an appointment, but the night before it she lost her baby.
Another Zimbabwean woman whose child needed emergency surgery was forced to sign an admission of debt for more than R34 000 at the same hospital. Then when he needed further surgery, it was denied because of the outstanding debt. The woman was further told that she would have to pay R5000 for admission and R50 000 for the second surgery.
Again SECTION27 intervened. But in March, when the mother took him back for a checkup, a nurse addressed everyone in the queue and told them that foreign nationals would not be attended to if they did not have money to pay. The mother, and others, left without being seen.
The application is supported by the Jesuit Refugee Service, The Southern African HIV Clinicians Society, and Doctors Without Borders; all are expected to file affidavits soon. Rugege says these will highlight discriminatory institutional policies and systematic xenophobic practices and attitudes that have “detrimental and sometimes fatal consequences”.
“There is simply no coherent approach at different public health establishments … even within a single establishment, different officials treat patients differently,” she said. Access to health care depends on who is on duty that day. On “lucky days” people will gain access without any trouble.
The respondents – the MEC and Gauteng health department head, the Minister and Director-General of Health – have 15 days to file notices of opposition.
COVID restrictions have finally come to an end altogether in South Africa, as Health Minister Joe Phaahla gazetted a number of changes to the rules, as reported by BusinessTech. This means the end of mask use requirements, social gatherings restrictions and COVID border testing. Prof Shabir Madhi was welcoming of the move in a recent tweet, having criticised SA’s lockdowns as overly harsh and economically damaging. Around the world, many had questioned the widespread use of masks, or their use by some subset of the population, such as children – and even questioned locally by a scientist who argued that it didn’t and wouldn’t work in a South African setting, where people are less adherent to regulations.
Professor Salim Abdool Karim likened such a viewpoint to saying Africans with HIV can’t use ARVs because they didn’t have watches to take them at the right time, reminiscent of “a colonial mentality”.
The case for public mask use is well established. Experiments had shown that even simple cloth masks were moderately effective at hindering the transmission of SARS-CoV-2–containing aerosol particle from infected individuals, though they were less effective at protecting a wearer against infection. Predictably, N95 masks and others are better at doing the job than simple cloth face coverings.
There are no real-world studies for South Africa comparing mask use vs non-mask use as mask wearing was compulsory from the early stages of the outbreak. It would have been downright unethical to ask people to not wear masks, although some people may have had exemptions due to medical conditions or other important reasons. There is a country with good COVID surveillance and a distinct division in mask wearing – the United States. Implementation of mask mandates in the US was down to local authorities, which provides a basis for comparison.
One US study, published in Health Affairs, found that, compared to nonmasking counties, masking counties saw a daily case incidence decline by 25% at four weeks, 35% at six weeks after introduction of masking mandates. The reductions were strongest in Republican-leaning counties, which is notable since Republican voters were less in favour of lockdowns and mask mandates.
Another study found a 16.9% drop in cases four weeks after counties introduced masking mandates. Real-world data also show mask use was effective in preventing infection. A case-and-control study done in California by the CDC showed a 29% drop for surgical mask/respirator use “some of the time” and a 56% drop for “all of the time”.
While a direct comparison between a wealthy country like the US and South Africa as a middle-income country is impossible, it is easy to believe that masking mandates reduced cases by a significant percentage, perhaps saving tens of thousands of lives especially against the country’s possible true COVID death toll of 300 000.
Once again, concerns are being raised over the implementation of the proposed National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme. This time, it is over the future of private healthcare and medical aid under the contentious Section 33 of the Bill.
Many previous discussions have focused on the NHI’s affordability, accountability, the potential mass flight of healthcare professionals from the country, and even whether NHI is even possible to achieve given South Africa’s challenges.
In a new healthcare stakeholder opinion report [PDF] published by Section 27 and the Concentric Alliance on Monday, 20 June, it is noted that private healthcare is a major contributor to the economy. May public and private sector respondents believe it could play a significant role in achieving health reform thanks to its resources and capacity.
However, Section 33 of the NHI Bill states that medical schemes may only provide “cover that constitutes complementary or top-up cover and that does not overlap with the personal health care service benefits purchased by the National Health Insurance Fund on behalf of users”.
This basically means medical schemes which are not gap cover will no longer operate – something which does not sit well with the private sector respondents in the report, who argue that even in countries with the best developed public health systems, private healthcare funders still exist.
A carrot vs stick approach
An academic respondent suggested incentivising people into switching to a public healthcare funder, rather than removing private healthcare funding. A private sector respondent also suggested the idea of competition with private funders as a means to improve the NHI’s efficiency. Indeed, it may even be necessary the NHI to function well.
The report makes note of Section 33 of the NHI Bill becoming “something of a hill to die on”. The report says that “During the six-a-side engagements between Business Unity and the National Department of Health, urgent discussions on NHI were nearly derailed by demands that Section 33 be re-opened for discussion and one respondent in the NDOH stating that the Bill was now before parliament. This respondent stated that they would rather see this point litigated, than back down. The current approach to this draft provision has the potential to undermine the implementation of the NHI and delay urgent reform to the health system.”
Judge Edwin Cameron, Inspecting Judge of Correctional Services, writes about the need for healthcare professionals working in prisons should be shifted to the Department of Health.
Our country’s healthcare system is a cumbersome double-deckerbus: on top are those of us who have access of some kind to private healthcare (a high estimate is around 27% of the population). The great majority of necessity rely on public healthcare. But, within public healthcare, there is a further divide, an overlooked layer at the very lowermost – the healthcare afforded to people in prison.
During apartheid, healthcare for those inside prison and in police custody was used as a “tool of manipulation and coercion”. There was medical negligence, poor quality care, false medical and autopsy reports, and warped medical ethics. (Bram Fischer, in his dying days, received no treatment for his crippling cancer).
Some doctors and other medics were complicit in abuses, turning a blind eye to what was happening before them.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Special Hearings on Prisons showed how basic access to medical treatment was used to punish. Henry Magkothi recounted how difficult it was to gain access on Robben Island to the hospital. “The doctor didn’t come often enough and even then there were so many obstacles they placed in your way.”
Not only did doctors have to have security clearance to work in prisons, but there were split institutional loyalties. Some health professionals were employed by the Department of Health and others by the Department of Prisons (now the Department of Correctional Services — DCS). This led to a dilemma of “dual obligations”, where the lines of authority for healthcare and custodial care were blurred. Health professionals owed loyalty to their patients (the inmates). But they had obligations to, and pressure from, their employers (the prison authorities).
Healthcare must be separated from prison administration
This blighted history led Dr Judith van Heerden, an expert in this area, to recommend to the TRC that prison healthcare “must be separated completely from custodial care”. All healthcare professionals in prisons “should be appointed, paid and responsible to the Department of Health” – and no longer to the prison authorities.
The TRC embraced this sound advice in its recommendations. It suggested that: the Department of Health should assume control over prison healthcare; prison health responsibilities and obligations should be clearly defined with an independent line of authority.
These recommendations accord with international guidelines. The UN Mandela Rules entail a demarcation between healthcare and custodial care; there shall be “full clinical independence”. Healthcare professionals “shall not have any role in the imposition of disciplinary sanctions or other restrictive measures”. And clinical decisions may only be taken by healthcare professionals “and may not be overruled or ignored by non-medical prison staff”.
Experts have underscored the importance of providing health services in prison that are separate from the prison administration. The World Health Organisation and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime note that healthcare professionals should act “completely independent of prison authorities” and in “alignment with public health services.”
Furthermore, the Association for the Prevention of Torture advocates for the “integration of the prison health service into the national health service” to guard the “professional and ethical independence of the health staff” and “provide recourse to an independent body in case of conflicts.”
Did democratic South Africa heed this advice? No.
Medical ethicist Professor Solomon Benatar observes that the Department of Health “began to dismantle the District Surgeon Services” and “[i]t became possible for DCS to appoint nurses and other medical staff to deliver healthcare” in our prisons.
This is evident in the plain wording of the Correctional Services Act of 1998. Section 12(1) states that DCS “must provide, within its available resources, adequate health care services” and section 12(2)(b) outlines that medical treatment “must be provided by a correctional medical practitioner, medical practitioners or by a specialist or health care institution or person or institution identified by such correctional medical practitioner”. And according to section 12(3), if an inmate opts to be “visited and examined by a medical practitioner of [their] choice” it is “subject to the permission of the Head of Centre”.
Post-apartheid, healthcare in prisons is still not independent. Benatar slates this “retrogressive step”; “diverting some responsibilities for healthcare away from the Department of Health” and towards DCS, diminishes the “loyalty of some health professionals” as it ranks “allegiance to prison authorities higher than professional responsibility to patients.”
A special duty of care
In his book Health and Health Promotion in Prisons, Professor Michael Ross states that depriving inmates of liberty does not mean we may deprive them of access to healthcare. On the contrary, their deprivation of liberty means we owe them a “special duty of care”. Critically, Ross acknowledges that we provide “good care to bad people because we are professional, and because we, and they, are human” and if bad care is given “the humanity we degrade is also ours, not only theirs”.
Those in prison should have the same quality of healthcare as the public outside. This is the “equivalence of care” principle. It means that you don’t add poor healthcare treatment on top of imprisonment to punish. As I have written before, “prison health affects our health” and “equivalence of care” should be considered a minimum threshold. In light of the higher mortality rates in prisons; government may have to provide higher standards of healthcare in prisons.
We know that injuries and the use of anti-depressants are warning signs of trouble. Many cases of claimed abuse (especially sexual violations, assaults, use of force and torture) are reported to nurses and doctors. Later, investigators, both internal and external, rely on medical reports. Ross emphasises that one must ensure health assessments of inmates are based on medical criteria and inmates ought to trust their healthcare providers and feel safe to report and speak out about abuse.
In addition, nurses, psychologists and other medical practitioners play a role in how prisons are run. For example, they are expected to visit inmates in segregation (sometimes in solitary confinement). The Act provides that segregation “must be discontinued” if medical practitioners determine that “it poses a threat to the health of the inmate”.
Further, independent healthcare can provide another significant layer of independent monitoring over our closed-off prisons.
Two parallel healthcare systems are not advisable. Does DCS have adequate training facilities to ensure training and updates on clinical care for clinicians on its payroll? The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS), which I head, believes not. DCS clinicians often miss out on training opportunities. Further, DCS’s data systems are standalone – they are not linked to the Department of Health’s facilities (connecting them would ensure continuity of care when inmates are released).
And a heartening thought – why not allocate community service doctors to prisons? This would alleviate costs and skills scarcity.
The state of healthcare in our prisons
Grievously, our prisons are a microcosm of all our country’s social ills. This is true of healthcare, but perhaps it is worse, since, notoriously, prisons are epidemiologic pumps for the spread of infectious viruses and diseases.
The 2020-2021 annual report of the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services paints an agonising picture of the state of prison healthcare.
Inmates do not get regular access to nurses and doctors, clinics in prisons are cramped and there is limited privacy for consultations, correctional officials are not always available to escort inmates to healthcare facilities, medications are not always dispensed on time, some medications have expired, health check-ups and screenings upon admission are not always conducted and medical files are not always updated.
Healthcare professionals in prisons, especially psychologists and social workers, are working with a desperate population. In the single year covered in the report, JICS reported 86 hunger strikes, 66 attempted suicides and 27 suicides. According to DCS’s annual report “suicide is the leading cause of [unnatural] deaths in correctional facilities”.
JICS’s recent quarterly report lists 40 unnatural deaths. We don’t know the cause of most; seemingly healthy inmates died. This requires JICS’s close investigative scrutiny of the post-mortem and medico-legal documents, which are in the hands of DCS and sometimes mysteriously go missing.
Further, there were 113 deaths as a result of natural causes, including pneumonia, cancer, meningitis, septicaemia and asthma. Could some of these deaths have been avoided with early detection, close monitoring and regular access to medical assistance? JICS thinks so.
JICS is also alarmed by the 116 declared state patients in prison; these are individuals whom the courts have found are suffering from mental unwellness challenges. As they wait indefinite periods for a transfer to a psychiatric hospital, they are wrongly housed in correctional facilities. State patients should not be a DCS responsibility. JICS has raised its voice on this: correctional facilities are not conducive for state patients, and correctional officials and fellow inmates are not trained to properly accommodate them.
To end off
While inspecting prisons, I have met passionate nurses and committed doctors. Prisons are tough, dangerous and complicated places. I acknowledge that DCS has worked hard to progress in dealing with Covid, HIV and TB behind bars. But we have to do better.
We need institutional reform. Healthcare professionals working in prisons ought to be independent of DCS. This means shifting all healthcare professionals to the Department of Health and ensuring proper channels of authority and oversight within prisons. In addition, healthcare professionals need specific and ongoing training for the prison environment. We also need more healthcare professionals working in prisons – and they must be accessible, proactive and willing to speak out.
That takes us back to where we started. Our Department of Health must be well-resourced, well-capacitated and well-run – and healthcare professionals must be trained and supported and have job security. And this goes to the heart of whether we have a capable state, strong institutions and a culture of accountability.
Judge Cameron is Inspecting Judge of Correctional Services.
Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.
19 May 2022: Healthcare – Cape Town, South Africa: The healthcare system in South Africa and on the continent is beset with structural challenges and skewed political priorities that hamper the attainment of universal healthcare coverage, therefore a fundamental overhaul of the healthcare system and renewed political will is required to improve citizen’s access to quality healthcare services.
Connected virtually, South Africa’s Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla invited the private sector to submit recommended solutions to strengthen the country’s healthcare systems, emphasising the need for a collaborative approach to transform healthcare.
Dr Phaahla conceded that the health system in the country was already weak before the outbreak of COVID and inequality in access to reliable health services is inextricably linked to the economic and social inequality that our country is facing.
The Minister added, “The country’s healthcare system should be restructured to focus more on preventative services rather than the current curative approach.”
“The socio-economic inequality is perpetuated further by our own health services, which are highly heavily commodified. Our two-tiered healthcare system with one being driven by the private sector for a few who can afford it and the other by the public sector being provided for the majority of the population does not bode well for the future prospects of the country. This system is unsustainable and if we are going to talk about a change in strengthening the health system, we cannot avoid talking about the need to accelerate the creation of a more equitable health system.”
He acknowledged that the passing of the NHI Bill will not in itself be a silver bullet in the transformation of our health system, however, will lay a good foundation for the country to timely start to fundamentally transform our health system towards equity.
Speaking about the relationship between politics and healthcare, Professor Patrick Lumumba, former Director of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission, said, “Politics is at the very heart of the provision of sound healthcare systems.”
He challenged some of the perceptions around the delivery of national healthcare insurance across Africa, asking governments and the private sector to closely examine suitable healthcare solutions that will consider the continent’s current different types of conflicts.
He highlighted that considerations should be made in the best interest of the continent’s populations when making the decision on an approach to be taken for the continent’s healthcare needs, bearing in mind what is affordable to the different countries across the continent, especially given that the continent’s entire GDP is less than that of Italy, which has just under 60 million people.
“The continent is currently under different types of conflict at various intensities, and these conflicts are in turn undermining the provision of healthcare,” said Prof Lumumba.
He noted that in Africa, there is a lack of political will to spend more on healthcare despite the commitments made at Abuja, Nigeria, in 2001 to invest a minimum of 15% of their national budget in healthcare.
“Politicians are rich in making promises. The evidence we have in different countries is that universal health care as promised by politicians and as desired by the population is not easily achievable,” he said.
He cautioned against the temptation to compare the healthcare system in Africa with that of developed countries, citing a lower tax base and GDP in Africa to fund a healthcare system that services a substantially larger population.
“The entire GDP of Africa is slightly over two trillion US dollars, which is smaller than the GDP of Spain, which has a population of no more than 50 million people, it is critical that the private and public sectors; and politicians work together to come up with a system that is going to be beneficial to the majority of Africa’s people,” said Professor Lumumba.
He said the envisaged economic revival of Africa cannot be sustained if the continent’s healthcare needs are not adequately addressed.
“If the continent of Africa is to enjoy the perceived economic growth that is expected, then the population must be healthy. Healthcare is about creating healthcare systems that are also able to retain the skills that are required for Africa’s emerging or growing economies. There is also a clear need for collaboration in the delivery of health services,” said Lumumba.
Dr Millicent Hlatshwayo Chairperson of the Government Employees Medical Scheme (GEMS) reiterated the need for the private healthcare sector to play a meaningful role towards shaping the proposed healthcare funding model to ensure its sustainability.
She acknowledged that the healthcare sector is faced with several systemic challenges, and this is reflected in our international rankings; where South Africa ranks 49th out of 89 countries on the 2022 Global Healthcare Index. Though South Africa is the highest-ranked African country in this index, it has been rated below its peers in BRICS such as China and India, which are rated 40th and 44th respectively.
Dr Hlatshwayo said, “Proposed reforms such as the implementation of the NHI can help to facilitate better cooperation between the public and private sectors. We cannot afford to be passive observers in these deliberations, because our failure to act on these opportunities will be an indictment on the industry.”
Dr Hlatshwayo said from its inception, GEMS has been aligned with the transformation of the healthcare industry and supportive of the principles of universal health coverage.
She said universal health coverage can only be achieved if we get the basics in place, namely qualified staff, equipment and technology, infrastructure and working systems.
The US Supreme Court has voted to strike down the landmark Roe v Wade decision which constitutionally protects abortion rights, according to an initial draft majority opinion leaked by news outlet POLITICO. This comes at a time when abortion rights are being challenged in a number of US states, and such a ruling would cause abortion to become immediately illegal in 22 US states.
In 2019, there were 630 000 reported abortions in the US in 2019, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, an 18% decrease compared with 2010. Women in their 20s accounted for 57% of abortions in 2019. Abortions are highest among black American women, with a rate of 27 per 1000 for ages 15–44.
The Roe v Wade decision in 1973 gave women in the US an absolute right to an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy, and limited rights in the second trimester.
In 1992, in Planned Parenthood v Casey, it was ruled that states could not place an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions before a foetus could survive outside the womb, at about 24 weeks.
The draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito completely refutes the 1973 decision which guaranteed constitutional protections of abortion rights in the US, and also a subsequent 1992 decision – Planned Parenthood v. Casey – that largely maintained the right. “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” Justice Alito wrote.
“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled,” he writes in the document, labelled as the “Opinion of the Court.” “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”
In the past, deliberations on controversial cases have been fluid, with justices occasionally changing their votes as draft opinions circulate. This represents a rare breach of Supreme Court secrecy and tradition around its deliberations. The final, binding decision, is expected to be published in two months. Currently, five Republican appointees including Justice Alito have voted in favour of repealing Roe and Casey, while the three Democrat appointees are dissenting. It is not known how the last member, Chief Justice John Roberts, will vote.
The ruling as it currently stands would end the 49 year old US constitutional protection of abortion rights, instead allowing each US state to restrict or ban abortions outright.
POLITICO notes that public disclosure of a draft decision is unprecedented in the court’s modern history. Some observers had predicted that the conservative majority would have chipped away at abortion rights without overturning it.
The draft shows that the court is seeking to reject Roe’s logic and legal protections. “The inescapable conclusion is that a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions,” Justice Alito wrote, declaring that one Roe’s central tenets, the “viability” distinction between foetuses not capable of surviving outside the uterus and those which can, “makes no sense.”
Justice Alito also described doctors and nurses who terminate pregnancies as “abortionists”, instead of the more neutral term “abortion providers” used by Chief Justice Roberts.
A report by IOL revealed mixed reviews by experts and patients for the Western Cape’s healthcare system, which, while providing mostly excellent service in certain hospitals, is seen to be especially lacking in rural areas, infrastructure and handling of patients.
Along with receiving the highest marks for efficiency, Western Cape healthcare has earned recognition such as through the Batho Pele Excellence Awards, with a silver medal going to Dr Barry Smith who worked in frontline COVID hospitals in Cape Town, where as medical manager he organised efforts to deal with devastating COVID waves.
A total of R29.4 billion has been allocated to the province’s 2022–2023 budget to deal with a serious backlog of unmet TB, HIV and other medical care put off during the COVID waves, along with a new surge in mental health issues.
A critical view
The ANC’s Rachel Windvogel said that while Western Cape is said have the country’s ‘most efficient’ health-care system, it is deteriorating and “nearing collapse”.
Dilapidated infrastructure in hospitals such as Groote Schuur and Tygerberg Hospitals is a challenged, with “sections that are cordoned off and not functioning.”
The knock-on service pressure across all district hospitals has resulted in patients having to sleep in chairs or on the floor.
Windvogel said that the Khayelitsha District Hospital is a prime example, with R150 million allocated for upgrades by the hospital but with no provincial government funding forthcoming.
She said that the provincial government’s boasts about a leading healthcare system does not match the situation. This can be seen in rural communities where people wait days for an ambulance transfer to city hospitals, she said, and doctors only visiting rural clinics to issue prescriptions without examining patients.
From the wards
Speaking to IOL, on the condition of anonymity, a nurse with over 15 years of experience currently working at a local government hospital said that while they try their best to deliver a service to residents, the sector has so much lacking.
The quality of new nurses has been steadily declining, she said. “As nurses, we are inundated with work but we manage, however, as an experienced nurse seeing how the ‘latest intakes’ have no feeling towards patients is sad.”
There have been deaths from “incorrect triages” as well as problems with nurses not knowing how to speak to the community, resulting in “pissing off the very community we took an oath to serve,” she said.
While she believes nursing is her calling, she is considering moving over to the private sector, driven by a high workload, crime, poor pay and lack of experienced assistance.
A patient’s experience
Candice van der Rheede, director of the Western Cape Missing Persons Unit (WCMPU) has been through a string of hospitals since 2020 following a collapsed lung, and her experiences reflected problems with staffing and gender segregation.
She first stayed at Mitchells Plain District Hospital, and her ward was “spotless” with security “always there”. “If help was needed and you buzzed for help, nurses came immediately,” she told IOL.
The thoracic ward at Groote Schuur Hospital was also praiseworthy – except that her ward was in the middle of the men’s section.
“One night I woke up and saw one of the men standing and watching us ladies with no nurses on the inside,” Van der Rheede said.
However, entering the ICU ward after theatre, her experience took a turn for the worse, being roughly handled when check for bed sores, despite her having a large surgical wound.
In November, Van der Rheede had to overnight in the trauma section at Tygerberg Hospital due to a check-up. While she was generally satisified with the hospital and its staff, there was a major sticking point for her – in the trauma section, “we were men and women sleeping in one room which I had a big problem with. Using one toilet. I could not sleep that night.”
While she has her reservations about the state of hospitals in the province, Van der Rheede told IOL she commended the Mitchells Plain District Hospital for its impeccable service, and the Symphony Clinic in Delft which she currently attends is of the highest standard of service and cleanliness.
More than two years since the start of the COVID pandemic. President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday evening (4 April) announced the repeal of South Africa’s national state of disaster. A transition to new regulations to manage the pandemic will take place in coming weeks.
However, the end of the state of emergency had already been extended, a decision met with much criticism. Its end had long been called for, including experts such as Professor Shabir Madhi of Wits University.
Speaking about the extension in January, Prof Madhi told the Daily Maverick that the state of disaster regulations “have done very little when it comes to protecting people from being infected, because, had it had any impact, we wouldn’t have had 70% of the population infected with the virus at least once since the start of the pandemic.”
In the announcement, President Ramaphosa said the state of disaster and associated lockdown restrictions had been needed to properly deal with the COVID pandemic.
The state of disaster also allowed the establishment of the COVID TERs scheme, the R350 social relief of distress grant, the extension of driving licences and other necessary changes.
President Ramaphosa stated that the state of disaster and its powers were always ‘temporary and limited’, with the country now entering a new phase in the pandemic. While SARS-CoV-2 continues to circulate in the country, experience had already shown early in the fourth wave that the Omicron variant has decoupled COVID infection from rates of hospitalisation or deaths.
“Going forward, the pandemic will be managed in terms of the National Health Act. The draft Health Regulations have been published for public comment. Once the period for public comment closes on the 16th of April 2022 and the comments have been considered, the new regulations will be finalised and promulgated.
“Since the requirements for the National State of Disaster to be declared in terms of the Disaster Management Act are no longer met, Cabinet has decided to terminate the National State of Disaster with effect from midnight tonight.”
President Ramaphosa said certain provisional regulations will remain in place for a further 30 days to ensure a smooth handover to the new regulations under the National Health Act.
The transitional measure which will automatically lapse after 30 days include:
Wearing face masks must continue to be worn in an indoor public space.
Gatherings will continue to be restricted in size. Indoor and outdoor venues can accept 50% of capacity subject to vaccination or a COVID test. Gatherings of 1000 people indoors and 2000 people outdoors are permitted for the unvaccinated.
Travellers entering South Africa will need to show proof of vaccination or proof of a negative test.
The R350 SRD grant will remain in place, with the Department of Social Development finalising separate regulations allowing it to continue.
The grace period for driving licence extensions remain in place.
All other regulations fall away from midnight and the COVID alert levels will no longer apply, President Ramaphosa said. The no-fault vaccination compensation scheme will also continue operating.
The prospect of an exodus of doctors and other key healthcare personnel from South Africa ahead of the planned introduction of the National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme has prompted concern among healthcare stakeholders.
In addition to the loss of skilled healthcare professionals, there is also a growing concern that the country could lose valuable training skills as professionals look to leave.
Thirteen years on from its inception, the NHI continues to suffer from the same criticisms. A May 2021 research paper [PDF} found that South Africa’s per capita spending on public healthcare was higher than even wealthier developing countries, yet it ranked near the bottom for measures of healthcare outcomes.
An informal poll on the QuickNews website in March showed that 81% of respondents had at least considered emigrating due to the planned introduction of NHI.
Professional associations are also warning of an exodus with the start of NHI. The South African Medical Association (SAMA) has said that its members cannot support the NHI in its current form.
This stems from a deep-rooted lack of confidence in the capacity of government and its financial ability to ensure the service is successful, the association said. Other concerns that members have raised include only providing emergency treatment to refugees and illegal immigrants, as well as their children.
SAMA conducted a survey which showed that up to 38% of its members plan to emigrate from South Africa due to the planned introduction of the NHI.
6% of members said that they plan to emigrate for other reasons, while 17% of doctors said that they were unsure about leaving the country. Many doctors have said that the aim should rather be to get the public sector to a state where it can appeal to private sector patients.
They added that there should be engagement with private doctors to provide additional services funded by the state. The group also called for a proper pilot of the proposed systems and payment mechanisms.
The Department of Health noted these concerns in a parliamentary briefing this week, noting that skilled personnel will be needed for the NHI to work. It added that this was not limited to healthcare professionals, but that general skilled human resources will be central to the health system going forward.
It added that the complex interactions between training, registration compliance and employment can all be greatly improved.
“This is a big ship that will need to be turned, but the framework is in place,” said acting director-general of health Dr Nicholas Crisp. “We have heard the threats that there will be an exodus of personnel if the NHI is implemented and a brain drain.”
The department is actively responding to this, he said, with a framework in place to ensure the country retains the necessary skills. A ‘Human Resources for Health strategy’ before was already under development before the start of the COVID pandemic, he added.
This framework sets out a multi-work implementation plan, but it requires money and investment in the health workforce to ensure the country is ready for universal health coverage, Dr Crisp said.
“Every health professional has a place in the National Health Insurance – whether you choose to work in the public portion of the delivery system or the private portion of that delivery system.
“We do not think there needs to be a threat on anybody, or their viability, or their role to be played.”
Hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, two COVID treatments that have been shown to be ineffective for those purposes, were more heavily prescribed in the second half of 2020 in parts of the US that voted for the Republican party, according to a new research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
“We’d all like to think of the health care system as basically non-partisan, but the COVID pandemic may have started to chip away at this assumption,” said lead author Michael Barnett, assistant professor of health policy and management.
The study compared prescription rates for hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin with rates for two control medications, methotrexate sodium and albendazole, which are similar drugs but have not been proposed as COVID treatments. Comparing different US counties, researchers looked at deidentified medical claims data from January 2019 through December 2020 from roughly 18.5 million adults as well as census and voting data.
Overall, hydroxychloroquine prescribing volume from June through December 2020 was roughly double what it had been in the previous year, while the volume of ivermectin prescriptions was seven-fold higher in December 2020 than the previous year. In 2019, prescribing of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin did not differ according to county Republican vote share. However, that changed in 2020.
After June 2020 – coinciding with when the US Food and Drug Administration revoked emergency use authorisation for hydroxychloroquine – prescribing volume for the drug was significantly higher in counties with the highest Republican vote share as compared to counties with the lowest vote share.
As for ivermectin, prescribing volume was significantly higher in the highest versus lowest Republican vote share counties in December 2020 a 964% increase on the overall prescribing volume in 2019. The spike lined up with with a number of key events, such as the mid-November 2020 release of a now-retracted manuscript claiming that the drug was highly effective against COVID, and a widely publicised US Senate hearing in early December that included testimony from a doctor promoting ivermectin as a COVID treatment.
Neither of the control drugs had differences in overall prescribing volume or in prescribing by county Republican vote share.
The authors concluded that the prescribing of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin may have been influenced by physician or patient political affiliation. “This is the first evidence, to our knowledge, of such a political divide for a basic clinical decision like infection treatment or prevention,” said Barnett.