Coronavirus in South Africa: whistleblower questions deaths in winter tents

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Jeanette Mlombo says corruption and neglect are responsible for her son’s death


According to an exclusive BBC News survey.

The revelations emerged as the South African government acknowledged and condemned rampant corruption and mismanagement during its response to the pandemic.

“It was cold in this tent. As soon as night falls, it’s horrible, you can see the patients decline. Hypothermia is one of the main causes of death here. Especially in this tent, ”said a doctor from Sebokeng Hospital – a whistleblower who spoke to us on condition of anonymity.

The doctor said 14 people would have died in the tent over a 48 hour period – but not all of them from hypothermia.

‘Disorganized havoc’

“We are tired, sad and fearful for our patients. I wonder how many people have to die needlessly for there to be a proper investigation, ”she said.

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The Sebokeng Hospital tent was erected in the parking lot


Doctor described ‘horrific’ scenes in the marquee-sized tent – erected in the parking lot and used by the hospital as a makeshift yard and waiting room – over several cold and hectic weeks in July, with elderly patients collapsing after being left for two or more days without adequate sanitation, food or heating.

She said sick people were forced to crowd around three small electric heaters that broke frequently.

“I felt very stressed, angry, [and] desperate. The lack of resources in this tent is an absolute joke … disorganized havoc.

“We don’t have any drugs. No ventilation equipment. There was PPE everywhere waiting to infect more people, ”said the doctor, who complained that a number of medical staff had caught the virus as a result of the conditions. .

“It’s corruption and recklessness,” said Jeanette Mlombo, whose son, Martin, died last month at Sebokeng Hospital at the age of 30.

She said he had not been tested for Covid-19 and initially complained of swollen legs, but was left for a total of 12 hours in the tent.

“It was freezing. He was shivering, dying of hunger. He said, “I slept all night here without a blanket. I will die. Nobody takes care of me, ”recalls Ms. Mlombo.

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Leaked messages revealed that the decision to use tents prompted an angry reaction from experts from the provincial health department.

Internal discussions over a WhatsApp group, seen by the BBC, show medical advisers urging management not to use the tents, precisely because of the risk to patients.

Some read:

  • “The tents are very cold now. “
  • “I have never been in favor of tents… I find it inhuman to put our people to sleep in cold tents. “
  • “Tents are a no-go area for me. “

Well-stocked hospital

Responding to the whistleblower’s claims about Sebokeng Hospital, Gauteng health department spokesperson Kwara Kekana rejected the suggestion that “many” people had died from the cold, writing in an email that “death statistics based on the hospital report do not reflect death diagnosed with hypothermia.”

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The spokeswoman also denied allegations of a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and a lack of suitable areas for putting on and taking off, sharing documents showing stocks of hand sanitizer, gowns and clothing. ‘other relevant hospital equipment in August.

In recent weeks, the situation in Sebokeng has improved dramatically, partly thanks to management actions, but also, it seems, because the number of infected cases has started to drop significantly.

Overall, South Africa appears to have weathered the first wave of the pandemic with some success.

Some provinces and hospitals have been widely praised for their response.

The government’s early and aggressive lockdown regime has also been hailed – along with strong criticism from some quarters.

“Hyenas profit”

But the pandemic has also revealed deep institutional weaknesses, including a widespread culture of corruption and apparent nepotism, and the dangers of a system of “executive deployment” that has seen key departments run by allegedly incompetent political representatives of the government. Ruling African National Congress (ANC).

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President Cyril Ramaphosa angrily condemned corruption, citing examples of 900% price hikes and attacking “hyenas” seeking to profit from the disaster.

A number of senior officials and ministers have been criticized for cases where their relatives have secured important contracts with the government.

South African authorities say they are currently investigating government departments into irregularities in coronavirus-related tenders worth 5 billion rand ($ 290 million; £ 220 million).

The whistleblower at Sebokeng told us that she and other staff members had repeatedly complained about the conditions, and asked how the special Covid-19 relief funds were being disbursed.

“We haven’t seen this money. I know the management is aware of our difficulties. We have tried several times as doctors and nurses to try to ask management where the money is going, ”the doctor said.

“Are we going to have more staff, more resources? And we’re not really getting answers, and it’s devastating for us. “

Contracts under investigation

The hospital’s communications department declined our request for an interview, saying all queries regarding Covid-19 should be directed to the provincial health department.

In response to these complaints raised by doctors, Ms Kekana said the hospital held regular staff meetings and had a compliance officer and a dedicated team to ensure standards were met.

The local government minister responsible for health in Gauteng province, Bandile Masuku, was recently forced to take leave following allegations of corruption against him. Mr Masuku denied the allegations, saying he was not involved in the ministry’s procurement processes and did not influence the processes.

Investigators are examining more than 100 contracts related to Covid-19 in the province.

“This pandemic has exposed many flaws in our system. But we hope we can fix it, ”said the whistleblower.

“We need to learn the lessons of this pandemic in order to be better equipped to deal with other diseases in the future. “

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