DURBAN – Hundreds of KwaZulu-Natal public service doctors, pharmacists, dentists and emergency works supported the call for a wildcat strike yesterday (Mon 22 June) particularly in Durban and Pietermaritzburg.
Health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo confirmed that there were no doctors at the hospitals he visited yesterday in the Durban area.
‘Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that the tail would wag the dog; that the membership of the SA Medical Association (SAMA) would do something different to their leadership,’ said Dr Dhlomo after an impromptu meeting with strikers at the Nelson Mandela Medical School.
Dhlomo, who left the meeting followed by chants of ‘coward, coward’, said there was ‘no debate about the fact that doctors are under-paid’.
‘The National Health Minister has said this under-payment has to be corrected. Government has engaged SAMA and Cosatu at a meeting at [ANC headquarters] Luthuli House. Treasury is working out the rands and cents and we will finalise the process by 30 June,’ said Dhlomo.
However, Dr Shailendra Sham, one of the strike leaders, said doctors were ‘angry and frustrated and no longer trusted government to transform the health system’.
‘We should not be doing this. We didn’t undergo all our years of training to stand outside on the street like this. But the Department of Health has failed to take responsibility for transforming the system so we have been forced to take action,’ Sham told a demonstration of some 300 health professionals outside King Edward Hospital, including professors and specialists.
Sham also accused the health department of failing to make contingency plans for patients, but MEC Dhlomo said the medical wing of the SA National Defence Force had been ‘activated’ yesterday morning.
RK Khan, Addington, Osindisweni, Prince Mshiyeni Memorial, Wentworth, King George, Mahatma Gandhi, King Edward, Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central, Stanger, and Greys Hospitals were all affected by the strike, according to the provincial health department.
The department added that Durban’s “six major hospitals have reported that student medical doctors, those doing internship and a few junior doctors did not report for duty” and most hospitals were operational.
However, strike leader Dr Rinesh Chetty said the strike was also on at Port Shepstone, Edendale, Northdale, Empangeni and Eshowe hospitals.
Mpumalanga’s Themba, Rob Ferreira, Shongwe and Tonga hospitals as well as Umtata Complex in the Eastern Cape are also affected.
Doctors at Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg confirmed that they would go on strike today (Tuesday).
Other Gauteng hospitals as well as some in the Western Cape are expected to join the protest on Wednesday ‘ the day that salary negotiations resume between the SAMA and government.
According to research commissioned by SAMA, doctors are underpaid by between 50 and 75%, when compared to other professionals in the public sector with similar qualifications.
SAMA appears divided about the strike, with its affiliates the SA Registrars’ Association (SARA) and the Junior Doctors Association of SA (Judasa) supporting the action while some SAMA officials have condemned it.
‘This is not just about money,’ Dr Sham said yesterday. ‘If we were just here because we wanted money, we would have gone overseas or into private practice. We want to stay in public health but we want public health to be rejuvenated so that we can give our patients proper care. The health system is on the brink of collapse and those who remain are extending themselves beyond all reasonable boundaries.’
Dr Keegan Naidoo from Prince Mshiyeni Hospital said there was a ‘complete shutdown’ at his hospital.
‘We started preparing from last week, working hard to do all the emergency operations. By late last week, we had discharged all the patients who could be discharged and told emergency services not to bring any patients to the hospital,’ said Naidoo.
Meanwhile, Dr B Reddy, an intern at Mahatma Gandhi Hospital, asked: ‘Would you accept getting on a plane when the pilot hasn’t slept for 30 hours? But this is how we have to work.’
Dr Kevin Ramdass, the principal medical officer at Imbali Community Health Centre in Pietermaritzburg, said had joined the strike as his centre saw over 20 000 patients a month, but it was short of basic equipment.
‘There is no privacy. We see patients two at a time. Even the curtains in the examination room don’t work. We have been waiting since last year for them to fix the curtain rings,’ said Ramdass.
Dr Kevin Naidu, a senior medical officer at King Edward Hospital, said it was difficult to work in filthy conditions without basic equipment.
‘We don’t have sterile gloves. Our stretchers are filthy and falling apart. There are no ophthalmoscopes [to examine patients’ eyes], not enough torches, no intubation facilities. Some of the beds in the doctors’ rooms have not been changed for two months,’ said Naidu.
A pharmacist who asked not to be named, said she had joined the strike as pharmacists were in short supply and had to work extremely hard ‘and we are no longer being paid for overtime’.
As health professionals in other parts of the country consider joining the strike, Judasa’s Dr Bandile Hadebe has assured them that ‘if you are SAMA member and you strike, SAMA is constitutionally and legally bound to protect you’. ‘ Health-e News Service.