‘We don’t feel safe’: SA doctors on virus front line

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‘We don’t feel safe’: SA doctors on virus front line

Medics worry about poor hygiene and security as they deal with an increasingly paranoid public

Journalist
A street cleaner takes no chances in central Cape Town on Thursday.
hats off to her A street cleaner takes no chances in central Cape Town on Thursday.
Image: Esa Alexander

“I don’t feel safe as a doctor. The practice we are working from is [near] OR Tambo [International Airport] and a lot of the patients we see on a daily basis work at the airport.”

These are the words of a medical practitioner who works at a public hospital, where tests are done to detect Covid-19. She and other doctors Times Select spoke to did not want to be named, fearing reprisal.

There were 150 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the country as of Thursday, most of them detected in Gauteng.

The doctor said patients were becoming more anxious as the number of cases increased.

“A lot more patients are asking questions about symptoms and where to get sanitisers [and] wipes,” she said.

The coronavirus is considered most dangerous for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. Patients from Spain, Italy and Denmark who have recovered from the virus share their experiences.

She said patients were anxious and paranoid, with most going to hospital to test when they presented symptoms that mimic flu.

“The exposure is heightened in this facility. There are poor measures of hygiene and control. Besides the security guard at the entrance of the hospital who is spraying hands as they walk in and out, within the practice itself we have a sanitiser in the passage, but not one for the patients in the sitting area,” she said.

“We’re not wearing masks, we don’t wear gloves and we stand a metre apart from the patients, which makes me nervous. And a lot of them are presenting with flu symptoms. I do feel at risk.

These are challenging and uncertain times for both patients and doctors.
Doctor at a public hospital

“These are challenging and uncertain times for both patients and doctors,” said another doctor.

“The general feeling among patients is either one of two extremes. On the one hand you have the unworried and unconcerned, who feel this is way too far-fetched and far from hitting our country in as bad a way as it has in badly hit countries.

“On the other hand, you have the group that is panicking, anxious, inquiring and curious about the virus.

“We do not feel safe as doctors. Naturally, one would be concerned about the risk we expose ourselves to on a daily basis and the potential risk of also exposing our beloved families and our patients should we, God forbid, contract the virus. But we took an oath to put our patients as priority, so in such circumstances the best we can do is exercise all the necessary precautions to stay safe.”

A third doctor, who works at a private practice in a Johannesburg township, said while colleagues were not feeling safe, they were taking extra precautions to deal with the pandemic.

“At this point ... there seems to be much control over the spread internally and that is providing some kind of comfort. It is imperative though for us to keep drilling the prescribed precautionary measures into ourselves, our families and our patients to provide safer practising conditions,” said the doctor.

He said one of the challenges he encountered working in a township was seeing walk-in patients whose symptoms he couldn’t check before their consultation.

“I don’t have the opportunity to ask them about the symptoms before they get to the consultation rooms, to prevent exposure of myself, the staff and other patients. It is therefore likely that I would pick up cases after I myself, the staff and possibly other patients had been exposed,” said the doctor.

The precautions he had taken since the outbreak included refraining from handshakes and using gloves.

“I no longer greet my patients by hand. I wear gloves to examine and I have a hand disinfectant that patients have to use as they get into the practice. There are masks available that the staff give to all patients presenting with flu-like symptoms. The staff have to continuously wash their hands and use the disinfectant,” he said.

“It is a challenge, but I try to emphasise the importance of these measures.”