A six-month-old baby, shot in the head in a firefight, was among the patients being treated by Dr Suhayl Essa at the Hillbrow Clinic in central Johannesburg on Sunday. Later that day, four foreign nationals, each stabbed in the chest during suspected episodes of xenophobic violence, arrived within half an hour, followed a man whose eyeball remained almost suspended from his orbit after being hit by a rubber bullet.
“I feel like the citizens of this country have lost their humanity for their neighbor,” said Essa, 28.
During her 2 hour shift, Essa could hear the crackle of gunfire outside. After each salvo, a new wave of patients entered, many of whom were intoxicated and violent.
“Nothing could have prepared me for what was to come,” he told Al Jazeera on Thursday. “It was like a complete war zone.”
The deadly unrest that has plagued parts of the country since former President Jacob Zuma was jailed last week has put pressure on a healthcare system already grappling with the continent’s worst COVID-19 crisis – One that has already killed more than 65,000 people.
In the provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, hit by unrest, ambulances, pharmacies and health centers were looted. Many health workers were unable to get to work because the journey became too dangerous.
Others sleep in their workplace, fearing violence in their community. Some mortuaries have not been able to erase their dead because of roadblocks. Hospital resources have been pushed to the limit.
“Honestly, I don’t see how the Department of Health can handle this new wave of patients, whether they are vigilantes catching and beating looters or people caught in the crossfire by the police trying to contain these crowds, ”Essa said.
“We were already short of staff. We were already running out of oxygen. There weren’t enough beds already – we had COVID patients waiting in hospital hallways for two days awaiting admission due to the pandemic. “
3.The team had to use Mfezi, our armored ambulance to answer calls last night to transfer patients and staff. We implore the communities to end the attacks on paramedics and EMS vehicles so that we can return services to those in urgent need. pic.twitter.com/MK32C6XnU6
– Official_GautengEMS (@GautengEMS) July 12, 2021
Possible increase in deaths
Health authorities have already called the acts of violence, which have left at least 117 deaths and a total of more than 2,200 arrests in the two provinces, as “super-propagative” events.
But Tulio de Oliviera, director of the KwaZulu-Natal KRISP lab, which is responsible for about half of the genomic sequencing of coronaviruses in Africa, says it’s too early to tell if that’s the case.
“The massive looting could be a super-propagating event. But at the same time, many people stayed quietly at home. At the moment, honestly, we don’t know what the effect will be on the spread of the virus, ”he said.
“What we do know is that he [the unrest] disrupted vaccination sites and diagnostic laboratories. It has also disrupted a lot of medical care in hospitals and the transport of oxygen, so we wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a rapid increase in the number of deaths. “
South Africa had struggled to roll out the vaccines quickly enough, even before Zuma was jailed in the early hours of July 8. The temporary closure of many public and private vaccination centers due to the unrest adds even more difficulties.
“Our vaccination program has been seriously disrupted as it grows,” warned President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier this week. “This will have lasting effects on our ability to consolidate some of the progress we are already seeing in our economic recovery.”
The South African economy contracted by 7% in 2020, largely due to restrictions linked to COVID-19 and a drop in external demand. The growing number of cases forced the government to move to a Level 4 lockdown last month, in which all gatherings were banned – adding another level of illegality to the current unrest. The unemployment rate is at an all-time high of 32.6 percent, in a country with one of the highest rates of inequality in the world.
“The COVID period has been particularly devastating for many communities already plagued by poverty and food insecurity. What the COVID lockdowns have done is worsen inequalities, ”said Lizette Lancaster, of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.
“If we look at many areas where looting and general violence has taken place, these are places that are traditionally quite vulnerable to public violence – where shops are often looted or foreign nationals targeted. When tensions are high, these are areas with particularly vulnerable communities. The hot spots shouldn’t have come as a shock to a lot of people.
The economic damage caused during the recent unrest will further compound the impact of the pandemic – especially for some of South Africa’s less well-off.
“Although these may be opportunistic acts of looting motivated by misery and poverty, the poor and marginalized bear the ultimate brunt of the ongoing destruction,” Ramaphosa said Monday.
The number of troops deployed to quell the unrest has reached 25,000, with reservists called in to reach that figure. Until their mission is completed, health workers will continue to work on a razor’s edge.
During her distressing experience at the clinic, Essa remembers two patients who arrived at the same time, both with hemorrhages.
“They brought me a guy who was almost dead and another guy, who had been stabbed in the chest but who I thought could be saved. I felt I didn’t have time to revive someone who was already gone.
Essa had to break the news to the family of the deceased. They quickly pointed at the young doctor, trying to pounce on him, before being held back by security. The deceased’s brother then stormed into the treatment room to get a glimpse of the corpse, angering others waiting for treatment.
A fight ensues with blows exchanged and blood spilled. The clinic sank into chaos. The already overwhelmed police only arrived for an hour and a half – an agonizing wait during which Essa feared for her life.
Essa was eventually escorted out of the clinic by the police and despite showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, he returned to work.
During the week, his resolve returned steadily.
“Yes, we have riots. Yes, we have crowds. But I think there is a good reason for me to get up and go to work every day to do my job. It’s because there are still good South Africans who need my help, ”he said.