A warder at the East London corrections centre in West Bank, alleged to be “patient zero” — the first person presumed to have introduced Covid-19 into the prison — may face an internal disciplinary charge of “intentional infection” of her colleagues.
DispatchLIVE has heard recorded claims by another official about the pending action, which allegedly is on hold until the sick warder recovers and returns to work.
The director of Masimanyane women’s right organisation, Dr Lesley-Ann Foster, confirmed that the organisation had taken on the woman’s case and would consider legal action if officials followed through on the threatened disciplinary action.
The warder was among prison officials to attend a funeral in Majola village at Port St Johns and was allegedly declared by authorities as the first positive Covid-19 case in the women’s section of the prison.
But the department of correctional services says it has no way of determining who first introduced the virus to the prison and has no intention of disciplining anyone “at this stage”.
If proved correct, the claim against the prison authority may have a chilling effect on general willingness to step forward for testing by others, who may fear victimisation.
A source close to the warder contacted DispatchLIVE amid fears the department was preparing to bring internal disciplinary charges against the woman when she returned to work.
DispatchLIVE was told prison officials believed the woman refused to co-operate with their efforts to trace the source of her infection saying she could not remember the name of the village where the funeral took place.
Judy Ngoloyi, spokesperson for provincial health MEC Sindiswa Gomba, said earlier in April that tracing was under way for up to 100 people who had attended the funeral in the town after an East London man tested positive following his return.
However, the source told DispatchLIVE another prison official had tested positive for the virus before the funeral cluster emerged.
That official continued to work and interact with senior staff in the prison’s front office, who are among those now listed in the prison’s infection figures.
The female warder went for a test after she felt unwell at the beginning of April.
Her results came back positive but three other prison officials who attended the funeral tested negative.
She was subsequently hospitalised and is due to be released this week.
DispatchLIVE was told that despite the warder being quarantined and hospitalised, officials were “putting pressure” on the warder, even telling her that a relative must vacate her allocated prison accommodation.
On Monday, she received the call from a colleague and friend warning her of the pending disciplinary action.
But prisons spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said “it’s a lie” when asked if the warder would face a disciplinary hearing when she returned to work.
“That is very reckless and we would never do that,” Nxumalo said.
It was “impossible to know at this stage” who the first case was, he added.
“We rely on the information of the first person who presents for testing but what if the first person testing is not the first person who brought the virus into the prison?
“You will know from the signs that it takes time to know the sequencing of infection and when the virus arrived.”
Attempts to obtain further comment from Gomba were unsuccessful by print deadline on Tuesday.