South African healthcare workers protest, threaten strike

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Members of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) protest in Cape Town, South Africa, Thursday Sept. 3, 2020. NEHAWU are calling for safer working conditions for front line workers after 240 lost their lives to COVID-19. (AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht)

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — South African healthcare workers have protested against poor working conditions and urged the government to end corruption in the purchase of COVID-19 personal protective equipment.

The protesters gathered Thursday in Pretoria and Cape Town, charging that the lives of healthcare workers are endangered as some health facilities have inadequate supplies of protective equipment like surgical masks.

The union leading the demonstrations, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, has threatened that its 200,000 public workers will go on strike on Sept. 10 if their issues are not addressed.

A widespread strike by healthcare workers would cause serious problems for South Africa’s hospitals, which have been stretched to the limit by the coronavirus. Although the number of new confirmed cases of COVID-19 has decreased, South Africa is still reporting more than 2,000 new cases per day and the country has been warned of a possible second wave of infections.

The pandemic has so far claimed more than 14,300 lives in South Africa, according to official figures. South Africa has recorded 630,595 positive cases of COVID-19, the highest in Africa, and the sixth-highest in the world. More than 27,300 health workers have tested positive and 230 have died from the disease, according to official figures from last month.

The demonstrators in Pretoria, the capital, marched in front of the offices of President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Union Buildings. They held up placards, some reading “Thank You Frontline Workers” and “Remove Corrupt Officials.”

South Africa has been rocked by allegations of corruption related to the procurement of personal protective equipment.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokeswoman, Khusela Diko, stepped down after being linked to irregular purchases. Her husband’s company allegedly charged more than five times the regulated amount for surgical masks and sanitizers.

Gauteng provincial health minister, Bandile Masuku, was also forced to step down due to allegations he was linked to the irregular procurement of health supplies.

The country’s Special Investigating Unit said it is currently probing more than 20 cases of corruption related to the contracts to provide health supplies to the government.

Among the workers’ demands are that workers who test positive for COVID-19 must not be forced to work until they have fully recovered. There are allegations that some managers have forced workers back to work before they have even finished the mandatory quarantine or isolation time.

They have also demanded to be informed of the numbers of new COVID-19 cases at health facilities.

“When our workers ask for information about infections, they are charged by their managers, yet the minister releases statistics every day,” alleged union leader Zola Saphetha.

They have also demanded danger pay for workers who are on the frontline in the battle against COVID-19.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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