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South African union takes govt to court over COVID-19 gear shortage

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa’s main health workers’ union planned to challenge the government in court on Tuesday over shortages of protective gear for frontline staff as the country braced for a surge in new coronavirus cases.

A health worker wearing a protective suit takes a swab from a resident during a door-to-door testing in an attempt to contain the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Umlazi township near Durban, South Africa, April 4, 2020. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

Under a strict 21-day lockdown imposed from March 27 in a bid to contain the outbreak, South Africa has 1,686 confirmed cases, the continent’s highest number, and 12 deaths.

“The risk of employees being infected with the COVID-19 virus is real,” Zola Saphetha, general secretary of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), said in court papers.

A health ministry spokesman did not respond to a request for comment, but Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said last week that government had held talks with NEHAWU and was working with both foreign and local manufacturers to ensure supplies.

Many health workers are buying their own protective gear in a desperate bid to ward off transmission. Officials in the worst-hit Gauteng province appealed over the weekend for public donations of ventilators and vital masks and gloves.

The union wants the ministers of health and labor, among others, to establish rules on treatment in the absence of appropriate protective equipment. Some of its members in KwaZulu-Natal have been infected, it says.

“The failure to provide guidelines to mitigate the risk to employees in the circumstances unjustifiably and without valid reason places employees at great risk and violates their right to work in a safe environment,” the affidavit said.

Unions exert great power in South Africa. NEHAWU’s quarter of a million members are part of a group of unions that are in a alliance with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.

“We don’t have an unlimited reserve of doctors and nurses, and we know the case numbers are going to rise,” Angelique Coetzee, chairwoman of the South African Medical Association, which represents some 16,000 doctors, told Reuters.

A global scarcity of personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, for nurses, doctors, porters and other health workers is a big obstacle to attempts to curb death tolls, elsewhere in Africa and on other continents.

In Zimbabwe, where health workers had been striking over pay and working conditions before COVID-19 arrived, doctors have also gone to court to force the government to provide equipment, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said on Monday. The court has not yet set a date for a hearing.