South African medics threaten court action as staff shortages hit COVID response Access

SOUTH AFRICA -The South African Medical Association (SAMA) has threatened to take the government to court because scores of new junior doctors cannot find placements despite staff shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic.

SAMA said it was “scandalous” that, during a third wave of infections, 228 medical interns who graduated in March and April were waiting for the government to place them at public hospitals to complete their training.

A spokesperson at the Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment.

They (the interns) were supposed to all have been placed by today,” Angelique Coetzee, SAMA chairperson, told Reuters by telephone, adding that she would seek a court order if they were not.

She said the window was narrowing to find them internships because of how the training cycle works: “By July, if you don’t slot them in, they’ll be sitting at home for a year.”

South Africa is now registering more than 16,000 new COVID-19 infections a day, largely because of the more infectious Delta variant, and only about 5% of the population have received at least one vaccine dose.

Underscoring the strain public hospitals are under, patients in Johannesburg, the main commercial hub at the centre of South Africa’s latest wave of infections, were on Thursday spilling over into a makeshift COVID-19 ward set up by a Muslim charity.

Inside the brick building, after a night of little sleep, volunteer doctor Anees Kara was stabilizing high blood pressure in a patient who arrived after failing to find a place in a public ward.

That’s a daily occurrence, hourly occurrence actually,” he told Reuters just outside the treatment room.

He and some colleagues set up the 20-bed ward in five days. “Ever since then it’s been one bed gets cleared and then one patient comes in,” he said.

The department of health also faces allegations of irregular contracts with a public relations firm worth millions of dollars, which last month forced the minister, Zweli Mkhize, to go on special leave.

Meanwhile, skewed attitudes against migrants in South Africa’s public health system continue to fuel medical xenophobia.

Medical xenophobia generally refers to the negative attitudes and practices of health sector professionals towards migrants.

A ground-breaking study by Jonathan Crush and Godfrey Tawodzera on Zimbabwean migrants found that the South African public health system was marred by medical xenophobia, and this directly contradicted the country’s Constitution and Bill of Rights.

In South Africa, as in many other countries around the world, the pandemic has heightened the cleavage of unequal access to public services, particularly healthcare which has negatively affected populations at risk, such as the poor, women, children, the homeless, the LGBTQI+ community and migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers.

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