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Shops, hospitals shut as virus strikes frontline workers


Shops, hospitals shut as virus strikes frontline workers

With a lack of protective equipment and little government intervention, workers find themselves critically exposed

Senior reporter
A string of closures of both shops and hospital units around the country have drawn the safety of frontline workers into sharp focus.
Hardy little so-and-so A string of closures of both shops and hospital units around the country have drawn the safety of frontline workers into sharp focus.
Image: 123RF/Jozef Polc

Frontline workers in the pitch battle against the Covid-19 pandemic – in the retail and healthcare sectors – have begun to feel the pinch, with stores and hospital units across the country shuttered because of staff infections.

A Dischem in Johannesburg, as well as two Checkers stores in KZN and Cape Town, were forced to close after staff members tested positive, pushing a raft of exposed workers into isolation and prompting a deep decontamination of shops.

The trauma unit of Netcare Kingsway Hospital in Durban had to be closed after a patient wheeled through the emergency department at the weekend tested positive for Covid-19, and nearly 100 staff members at the Sandton Mediclinic were tested and isolated after a nurse fell victim to the pathogen.

As the pandemic continues to gain purchase, and businesses are pressured into reopening when personal protective gear is in short supply, University of Johannesburg sociology professor Carin Runciman said more workers would find themselves perilously exposed.

Runciman, alongside the Centre for Social Change and the Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO), produced a rapid response research report on how employers are responding to the current conditions of the lockdown.

The report found that of companies continuing to operate during the national lockdown, concerning safety gaps were commonplace.

One of the key findings was that many companies cannot provide frontline staff with personal protective equipment.

“Out of 35 companies that are still operating, 30 had not provided personal protective equipment, 29 had not undertaken measures to ensure social distancing in the workplace, 28 had not provided transport to workers and 22 had not provided hand sanitiser,” the report, published on April 9, found.

Runciman added a critical “danger point” was when businesses begin to reopen if lockdown restrictions are eased.

“The reality is that there is a complete lack of PPE, and it is dangerous now under the current conditions and worsened if more people go back to work,” she said.

She called for government intervention in the production of PPE equipment, a move that would follow an international trend.

It would be a high-stakes balancing act, she said, between the welfare of the business against that of its workforce.

“Thinking about keeping businesses alive is one thing, keeping workers alive is another way to think about it,” she said.

The closure of the trauma unit at Netcare Kingsway Hospital is the second blow to land on the hospital group, who were forced to shutter parts of St Augustine’s hospital last week.

This after 48 staff members tested positive for Covid-19. 

At Kingsway, unions slammed the healthcare giant for only providing staff with one mask per day.

While healthcare workers are the tip of the sword, workers in the retail sector also have to brave close contact with people as the invisible virus spreads among them.

At the Checkers in Ballito Junction, north of Durban, management embarked on a broad-scale “decontamination” after a single staff member tested positive.

Similarly, at the Checkers in Table View, Cape Town, the store was closed after a staff member’s test returned a positive result.

Both stores would remain closed until the health department cleared them to resume trading.