Before Covid-19, public healthcare in South Africa was under-resourced and under pressure. In the pandemic we have seen healthcare workers work under immense stress. Patients have also been experiencing a different kind of care. We spoke to three people about their experiences of public healthcare during a pandemic.
Disclaimer: these interviews were conducted in February 2021.
Tracey Lee Adams, 30 years old, Retreat Day Hospital in Cape Town
I have been visiting the hospital since 2015 after being diagnosed with bipolar mood disorder. My usual visits are once a month for medication and observation. My experiences have been positive. I have learnt how to deal with the environment by being patient. Their system has improved tremendously. There are long waiting periods but things do run smoothly.
I am part of the mental health unit so we had no lockdown delays. I still went for my monthly appointments as per normal. The waiting time was actually better than usual because other chronic patients got their medication delivered directly to them.
The nurses work under so much pressure and they are not even cranky. They have been so understanding working on the front line. I recently visited another hospital; Pelican Park Day Clinic and their system is just as efficient. When visiting public hospitals, we need to keep an open mind and be patient.Things will go so much smoother when visiting public healthcare facilities”.
Sindiswsa Khedama, 37 years old, Nolungile Clinic in Site C Khayelithsa in Cape Town
Her visits have not been going well to the clinic.
I have to see a doctor each month because of my hypertension. We would sit in the hall next to the clinic and other people [would sit] outside – no matter what the weather is like. There would only be a certain number of patients a day, so you are lucky to be called in.
Our clinic cards will be collected and our folders will be fetched. There have been many occasions when the nurses would come out and tell us the doctor cannot see us. The older people and pregnant people are overlooked so much.
It has not been the best experience for me going to the clinic during lockdown. I usually arrive at 6:00 am and can only expect to leave at about 15:30. Requesting medicine is not smooth sailing either. We get told there isn’t any and the government doesn’t send enough for us all. I have been suffering with swollen legs, I inform the nurses and it gets overlooked- they only see my hypertension. I was admitted to the emergency unit and eventually got help there for my swollen legs. There have been instances [ where I was told] they can’t find my folder. The dispensary is more efficient and we get our medication really fast”.
Adiela Ajouhaar, 42 years old Hematology clinic at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town
When lockdown started last year, I had a colonoscopy and two other appointments; they were all cancelled. I started going back regularly around July 2020. My condition deteriorated, and when I went for my usual monthly appointment they prioritised that I get the procedures done. The clinic I visit in GSH is right opposite an emergency Covid-19 ward.
I wasn’t feeling well last month and called ahead and I was told to come in. There are safety protocols with our temperatures being taken. The main doors of the hospital are closed and we use alternative entrances that are heavily guarded and monitored. If your mask is not on correctly you would have about three people approach you immediately to tell you to fix it up.
The nurses do prioritise people like me who have more serious conditions. I think it was easy to be paranoid in the beginning but I have settled back into my usual appointments. I have had minor mishaps at GSH and the nurses would help me, get me clean clothing. The hematology clinic goes above and beyond. The nurses all had to work in Covid-19 wards; they have a rotation system. I feel like patients are being looked after better than before. The older patients are so impatient and stubborn, and they clash with the nurses often. It is a difficult time because of no visitation, but everyone is trying their best. I am grateful for the care I am getting in this pandemic and I can even chat with the clinic on Whatsapp. It is a two way street, if we work together it makes things easier”.
South African public healthcare is a microcosm of our society; contrasts are everywhere. For every painless and efficient hospital visit, there is one that is . Township facilities are more likely to be under-funded and resourced. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on these disparities. We hope for equitable healthcare for all.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.