Residents in over 96 villages in Giyani, Limpopo, have been relying on a single ambulance for medical emergencies since the beginning of the year.
“When you contact the Giyani EMS station for an ambulance, they will tell you straight that you might have to wait for a few hours before an ambulance can come to your area because there’s a shortage of ambulances.
“But that ‘few hours’ can turn to days if not weeks,” says Vusimuzi Chauke who heads a concerned residents’ group.
Chauke says that most often residents who don’t have their own cars are forced to hire private transport in the case of emergencies.
Patients left to suffer
Shirly Sithole* is a nurse at Nkhensani hospital in Giyani. She says the hospital is often unable to transport patients to other health facilities such as the Polokwane Provincial Hospital for specialist care due to the lack of ambulances.
“Just last week, a group of patients were supposed to be transferred to Polokwane. But their trip was postponed for the third time in three weeks. It is so sad having to tell a critically ill person that ‘you will no longer be going to see a specialist this week’ because there’s no transport,” says Sithole.
“Patients are left to suffer. Some only get to the hospital when it is too late because there are no ambulances. And then when some of them die, healthcare workers shoulder the blame,” she says.
Critical shortages across the province
The ambulance shortage is a problem across Limpopo, not just in Giyani. In December 2022 the Democratic Alliance (DA) in the province wrote to the South African Human Rights Commission, imploring it to intervene as residents continue to battle an alarming shortage of ambulances.
At the time the DA indicated that Limpopo had only 262 ambulances available for a population of six million, which is almost half of what’s needed. The National Health Guidelines recommend a ratio of one ambulance per 10,000 people.
“In Polokwane, for example, there was recently only one ambulance available for the whole town. A lot of ambulances have broken down and have not been repaired for months,” DA spokesperson on health in Limpopo, Lindy Wilson, tells Health-e News.
Cash strapped department
Wilson says that the Department of Health in the province is battling to repair or replace broken ambulances because of financial constraints.
Department spokesperson Neil Shikwambana says the department has been increasing the ambulance fleet on a staggered basis.
“But due to a number of factors such as the conditions of roads leads to a high turnover in the number of ambulances which get damaged,” says Shikwambana.
But Chauke says that every time residents raise the issue of lack of ambulances in Giyani, they are promised that new ambulances will be delivered but that never happens.
“Like now, two weeks ago we were told that five new ambulances will be sent. But even today we are still waiting and no one from the department is saying anything on why the ambulances are still not here,” says Chauke.
Shikwambana explains that ambulances are not owned by health facilities. Rather, these vehicles are stationed at a central location from which they are dispatched. So, it would be incorrect to say that Nkhensani hospital has one ambulance.
According to Shikwambana the province has a plan to address the current shortage of ambulances. “The department is in the process of procuring 500 ambulances which we anticipate will be delivered before the end of 2023,”.-Health-e News.
*Not her real name.