Health care workers take action to preserve lives as COVID-19 spreads throughout Africa

By Stephan McCoy
17 July 2020

With infections passing the 600,000 mark, strikes and walkouts by health care workers have taken place across Africa over the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and a lack of medical resources to combat COVID-19.

Health care systems are buckling due to government underfunding and corruption.

Although the number of coronavirus cases appears comparatively low, the disease is spreading rapidly. The number of infections is now in excess of 663,107, with South Africa recording 324,221 cases and 4,669 deaths, Egypt 84,843 cases and 4,067 deaths, Nigeria 34,259 cases and 760 deaths, Ghana 26,125 cases and 139 deaths, Algeria 21,355 cases and 1,052 deaths, Morocco 16,545 cases and 263 deaths, and Cameroon 15,173 cases and 359 deaths.

From the onset of the pandemic, health care workers sounded the alarm over the lack of staff and beds, as well as ventilators and ICU beds.

Covid-19 patients are being treated with oxygen at the Tshwane District Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, Friday July 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Wide swathes of the continent have virtually no public health infrastructure to cope with the pandemic, making it certain that the number of infections is much higher than official reports indicate. Even under “normal” conditions, World Bank figures show that Africa requires 25 percent of global health care spending but has resources comparable to just 1 percent of worldwide health budgets. Although the African Union members committed at the turn of the century to spend 15 percent of their budgets on health care, two decades later hardly any country has made it past 10 percent, and many remain well below this utterly inadequate figure.

There are on average just five hospital beds per 1 million inhabitants in Africa, compared to 4,000 in Europe. Malawi has just 25 intensive care beds for 17 million inhabitants, while Zimbabwe’s main hospital in Harare has none. Even in comparatively well-developed South Africa, there are just 0.9 physicians per 1,000 inhabitants, well below European and American averages.

A total of 10 out of Africa’s 55 countries have no ventilators, while many others have a handful of units. There are just four ventilators in South Sudan (population 11 million), three in the Central African Republic (population 5 million), and six in Liberia (population 5 million).

The absence of effective public health infrastructure, the lack of testing facilities and the terrible social conditions mean that the official COVID-19 figures grossly underestimate the spread of the disease, especially among the working class and poor. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that up to 10 million people will be infected over the next three to six months and 300,000 people will die on the African continent. And that is based on the assumption that the authorities put in place some mitigation measures. If mitigation measures are not taken, the WHO warns deaths could rise into the millions.

With little in the way of health care for any other than the most privileged layers, most African governments moved swiftly to impose lockdowns and curfews, often imposed with brute force by the police and in South Africa by the military. They have caused severe hardship and economic distress, threatening millions with starvation under conditions where there is no social safety net.

According to a weeks-long BBC investigation into hospitals in South Africa, exhausted doctors and nurses have been overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients and the health service is near collapse. Bereft of resources and with many staff themselves sick, nurses are forced to act as cleaners, while surgeons wash their own hospital laundry.

There are reports of nurses at clinics where COVID-19 cases have occurred being forced to continue working while awaiting their test results, potentially infecting hundreds of their colleagues and patients.

It is under these conditions that health care workers across the continent are going on strike or threatening strike action, mounting protests to oppose a non-existent and inadequate health care system, unsafe working conditions and growing inequality.

While strikes have taken place in Kenya, Ghana and Sierra Leone, with protests in Lesotho and Malawi, South Africa has seen by far the largest number of strikes and walkouts, where the government plans to cut nurses’ wages as part of a broader plan to cut the public sector wage bill before turning to the IMF for a loan.

Nigeria has seen walkouts by health care workers, including:

Zimbabwe has witnessed:

 

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