The Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, was in the National Assembly yesterday to present his department’s plan to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Various MPs then responded to his statement.

Ms Siviwe Gwarube of the Democratic Alliance said coronavirus is the most destructive and fatal pandemic in history. The deaths cannot be regarded merely as fatalities, as in each case it is someone’s friend, brother, sister or colleagues. She thanked frontline workers who are working under impossible conditions to save lives. Ms Gwarube also emphasised that the government’s response should include concrete plans and resources need to be distributed to provinces so that they can cope with the number of infections.

She criticised the R20 billion pledged by the government towards the fighting the effects of the pandemic. She said this amount is not a stimulus package, but rather a reprioritisation of existing budget. In her view, it forces the provinces to use their conditional grants, which in turn affects their service delivery and their potential to respond to the pandemic.

Mr Siphosethu Ngcobo of the Inkatha Freedom Party said upon the announcement of lockdown, opposition political parties supported it, but the surge of infections, now in Gauteng, is a concern. “In the wake of this surge, we called for a return to level five in Gauteng,” he said. He criticised the opening of schools amid the rise in infections. “We demand alternative measures for the wellbeing of pupils and teachers.”

Mr Philippus van Staden said the Freedom Front Plus believes government has failed to use the opportunity granted by lockdown to prepare for rising infections. “Now we see health workers on strike, we see shortages of beds, oxygen, and a shortage of doctors and nurses.”

  The pandemic has laid bare pre-existing weaknesses in the health system and brought it to its knees, Mr Van Staden said. If we dare to return to lockdown level five, “there would be public demonstration and people won’t approve of that. And we will reach a stage where people will not die of Covid-19, but of poverty.”

 Ms Elizabeth Sukers of the African Christian Democratic Party said those who succumbed to the virus are mostly those that attend to the sick and dying, who have paid the highest price while in the line of duty. “We owe all healthcare workers our greatest gratitude.”

People make a mistake focussing on the government, rather than their community. “Our health system reflects the severe limitations of the state. Now we pay the price of the deficiency of competency and trust,” she proclaimed.

Mr Nqabayonzi Nkwankwa of the United Democratic Movement said: “Our concern is that we missed a golden opportunity to implement proper testing, screening and contact tracing strategies during level 4 and 5 of lockdown.” He also lamented the provision of statistics without any critical reflection of their correlation to the department’s strategic interventions.

The Congress of the People’s Mr William Madisha said it’s unfortunate that the government is using the pandemic as a political tool. “As political parties, we agree that stern measures had to be taken to curb the spread of this pandemic, but it has since been used to achieve political ends. In addition, the Covid-19 fund is now at risk from fraud and corruption,” he said.

Also speaking during the National Assembly plenary, the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Health, Mr Sibongiseni Dlomo, noted that the committee is unhappy about conditions in the Eastern Cape, after the committee visited the province to conduct oversight. Progress in readying health centres to deal with the pandemic is slow and shortages in personal protective equipment and personnel is an ongoing problem, he said.

However, he commended the health department’s response to the pandemic, which has also been praised by the World Health Organisation. As a result, “South Africa has been invited to present how it managed the virus during its outbreak. That is a sterling achievement; it cannot be simply overlooked.”

In his concluding remarks, Dr Mkhize made an appeal that the fight against the virus should not “divide us, but unite us”. “No one possesses a monopoly on wisdom of how to curb the spread of the virus. We are open-minded about any suggestions that could show us our blind spot and we will work on them.”   

Abel Mputing

9 July 2020