The growing health crisis in the Eastern Cape has forced Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi to intervene by commissioning a five-person task team to investigate issues in the province raised by a civil society coalition.
The team was put together "with a view to take correctional measures", according to national health spokesperson Joe Maila. He said that the minister hopes "for the team's report to be released soon" but that it was difficult to put a time frame to it because the team "needed to do a thorough job".
Motsoaledi's response comes after he got wind of a report put together by the Eastern Cape Health Crisis Action Coalition that was officially released on Wednesday. Motsoaledi requested a copy before release and was "shocked by the findings", according to former Constitutional Court judge and member of the coalition Zak Yacoob.
The report contains details of the appalling conditions of health care facilities in the Eastern Cape. There are stories of women who had their babies delivered by the light of cellphones and people who had to share beds with bleeding and vomiting patients.
Yacoob said that although the minister was aware of many of the challenges facing the provincial health system, he didn't know the full extent of the "difficult situation in the Eastern Cape".
The coalition, composed of 15 health and human rights advocacy organisations, includes the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Section 27, the Rural Health Advocacy Project, the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (Denosa), the Rural Doctors' Association and the Junior Doctors Association of South Africa.
Titled "Death and Dying in the Eastern Cape", the report draws attention to the "failing health system" by documenting harrowing personal stories of patients and health care professionals.
The 30-page report also has five blank pages, which previously contained a story that was retracted on Tuesday at the minister's request to the doctor who originally reported this case. The doctor withdrew his contribution to the report earlier this week citing "an ethical dilemma".
Baby Ikho, the subject of the redacted article, died just days after his first birthday because of a series of managerial and equipment failures, which were a result of "a broken, inhumane and collapsed health system where accountability is non-existent" – the only information on the case left in the report.
"After seeing the commitment of the minister … I can no longer rightly state that the voice of Ikho has not been heard," the doctor said.
Maila said the minister was "deeply concerned" that the extremely detailed medical information in the original report breached patient confidentiality.
"It is important to raise issues but one must do so within the ethical guidelines of the profession," he said.
The coalition said it took a "human-centred" instead of a statistical approach to the report because "it is people who suffer the consequence of mismanagement, corruption and indifference".
"The reason for these horrific stories is to make a statement that will touch people's hearts," said Thembeka Gwagwa of Denosa at the press conference on Wednesday.
The Treatment Action Campaign's chairperson, Anele Yawa, said the report and a planned "right to health" march were the coalition's last resort.
The march is due to take place on Friday in order to hand over a memorandum giving the provincial authorities 30 days to come up with a turn-around plan for health care in the province.
Marije Versteeg, of the Rural Health Advocacy Project, reiterated desperation of the situation, saying members of the coalition made "countless attempts" to meet with the provincial MEC, Sicelo Gqobana, but their "requests have fallen on deaf ears".
?However, provincial spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said the department already began dealing with all of the issues raised in the report, something he said the coalition "has failed to acknowledge".
"The MEC has never tried to run away from this group. We have an open-door policy to anyone wishing to discuss health matters," he said. The MEC is expected to meet with the group on Monday.
Though some members of the coalition, such as Yawa, called for the MEC's head, Yacoob warned that a change of political leadership will not solve the deep-rooted systemic problems in the province.
Yacoob said the department faces key governance issues, such as corruption and mismanagement that result in poor healthcare delivery.
"R800-million was stolen from the department according to a Special Investigations Unit inquiry into corruption between January 2009 and June 2010. Corruption means no needles, no services, no nurses, and no oxygen. All these sorts of things will cause death and misery," he said.
"We would like the state to produce a plan of how and when all these problems will be resolved," said Yacoob. "If the plan is not good, we owe it to the public to go to court."