How clinic queues are shaping up as virus breeding grounds

The queue outside Alexandra Community Health Centre in Johannesburg on April 15 2020.
Image: Alon Skuy

Physical distancing is being enforced inside clinics and hospitals, but outside people are gathering in tight-knit crowds, creating a perfect opportunity for the coronavirus to spread.

Tessa Born, 49, who lives opposite Hanover Park clinic in Cape Town, has tried to take matters into her own hands.

“We made strips on the floor to show where people must stand,” she said, explaining that every morning she goes out and “tries to control it” herself.

“People don’t stand on the marks, and if they do stand apart the lines go around the corner and then people get robbed,” she said.

Dr Kerrin Begg, a public health expert at the University of Stellenbosch, said many facilities were trying to do physical distancing. “But unlike at supermarkets, where people can stand outside apart for long, it is a lot more tricky when you’re talking about sick people.

“Our health services are still full so we have this delicate balancing act. Waiting areas for the usual acute emergencies as well as chronic diseases cause people to congregate and thus potentially spread Covid-19 at the same time.”

Sharon Daniels, 51, who lives near Hanover Park clinic, said elderly people in the queue were exposed to children who might be infected but asymptomatic.

“The pensioners don’t understand how easily this spreads. I ask them why they aren’t wearing masks and they say there is no point because when you wash the masks, the germs get onto your hand. So you can see, people need to be educated.”

Patients ignore physical-distancing lines on the pavement outside Hanover Park clinic in Cape Town.
Image: Esa Alexander

Prof Shabir Madhi, a vaccinology and infectious disease expert at Wits University, said another indirect Covid-19 impact on the health system could be that parents are not taking their children to be vaccinated.

“The children will thus become more susceptible to preventable diseases,” he said. “This could ultimately cause outbreaks of other diseases that could exceed Covid-19 itself.”

Begg said lockdown regulations had been confusing, and she was concerned some people on chronic medication had elected not to fetch it as they believed they should stay at home.

“With people understanding the lockdown rules differently … it could be that people aren’t collecting their medication for other chronic conditions. We may be putting more pressure on our burden of disease,” she said.

The health department did not respond to a TimesLIVE query but said in a statement when the lockdown began: “Hospitals and clinics must do a daily report of suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases and take necessary steps to protect staff and patients and prevention of further spread.”

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