By Graeme Hosken
As the coronavirus tightens its grip on SA, nearly 200,000 paramedics, emergency services workers and police officers face a growing daily threat to their health.
While national instructions have been issued for police, emergency services workers and paramedics to use protective gear, little seems to have reached those on the ground.
On Saturday, Lt-Gen Bonang Mgwenya, the SAPS human resource management head, sent an internal memo to all provincial and national commanders ordering urgent steps be taken to protect officers, detained suspects and the public who go to police stations.
The memo calls for the entrances of police stations and holding cells to be fitted with hand sanitiser, and members to be equipped with masks, hand sanitiser and disposable latex gloves.
Mgwenya ordered holding cells to be spring-cleaned weekly, specialised bags for the disposal of used protection equipment to put out, and Covid-19 information posters to be put up at all stations and units.
But police on the ground say that, given the speed at which Covid-19 spreads, police management should have acted quicker.
“The spread is now not just from people coming into the country. It’s spreading between us here. We deal with people on a daily basis. You can’t see if someone has the virus,” said a Gauteng K9 unit member.
“With different scenario planning that management does they should have anticipated that the virus would arrive and ensured that we are properly protected.”
A Flying Squad officer said they had received word that they would be receiving masks and gloves, but none had arrived.
“Police stations face a similar situation. It’s scary. If we start falling sick what happens to safety and security?” he asked.
The situation appears to be the same when it comes firefighters and state paramedics.
A Johannesburg firefighter, who cannot be named, said they were hopelessly unprepared.
“We have been given some masks, but not all the protective gear that we need. We should have received basic training on what to do when we come across someone who is suspected to be infected, but haven’t yet.
“We were given a few pamphlets, but that is not enough. We are definitely not ready for this. If we fall ill and cannot work it means that our numbers get less, endangering the public.”
A Cape Town paramedic said it was tough.
“We have to treat everyone regardless of the emergency. If someone is in an accident and we discover that they are Covid-19-positive, we cannot not treat them. We took an oath to help, but the least the state can do is help us to do our job safely.”
Health ministry spokesperson Dr Lwazi Manzi failed to respond to WhatsApp questions.
Police spokesperson Brigadier Vish Naidoo said police management had embarked on extensive and intensive internal awareness campaigns to educate its members.
“Management has also sent out a directive that all precincts throughout the country must procure equipment as well as consumables that will help prevent the spread of Covid-19. These will be for the use by our members and for the use of visitors to these precincts.
“With regards to the handling of suspects and awaiting-trial prisoners, a standard operation procedure has been designed for our members.”
SA Police Union spokesperson Mpho Kwinika said the country faced a major security risk if its 157,000 operational officers became infected.
“They are embedded within communities and if urgent steps are not taken we will see a high provenance of infection within the policing environment.
“While the equipment needed to protect police is lacking, officers must carry on working. They cannot suddenly stop their duties.”
He said management should have planned for and anticipated the arrival of the virus and the need for officers’ protection.
“Steps should have been taken over a month ago to procure protection items. Shops now no longer have sanitisers or masks. We need to know how government is going to procure these items and protect police.”
Kevin Halama, spokesperson for the Health and Other Services Personnel Trade Union of SA, said they were very concerned about the wellbeing of their nearly 40,000 members, especially with the rising infections.
“There is not enough personal protection equipment or training on how to deal with Covid-19-positive patients. Our EMS members say while they have some masks, which were available before the outbreak, no new procurements have arrived. The concern now is where do we find masks.”
City of Johannesburg spokesperson Nthatise Modingoane, speaking on the fringes of a special mayoral committee meeting on Tuesday night, said the meeting was to discuss and evaluate all “touch points” within the city.
“It’s not just emergency services which we are evaluating. We are looking at all city staff community interaction points, from libraries, community halls and clinics to buses and swimming pools.”
Netcare spokesperson Martina Nicholson said all their staff were adequately briefed and had the training and equipment to respond to and treat all patients.
“They are exercising additional caution when treating potentially positive Covid-19 patients.”
ER24 failed to respond to questions.