by Sakeus Iikela

THE Public Service Union of Namibia yesterday threatened to stop their members from attending to patients, should the health ministry fail to provide them with personal protective equipment.

There is a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves, which could compromise the safety of health workers. Photo: iStock

The union’s acting secretary general, Ujama Jamee Kaahangoro, said in a statement issued yesterday, the health ministry was ignorant and had not been telling the truth about its preparedness to deal with Covid-19.

Kaahangoro said the ministry was not adequately attending to the serious issue of the shortage of personal protective equipment at state hospitals, which could compromise the safety of health workers.

“Provision of personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, sanitisers, etc… is a simple function and one would not need to be reminded of this every time, particularly when we are facing this deadly virus,” Kaahangoro said.

He added that the recent case of a doctor who tested positive for Covid-19 was testimony of the ministry’s failure to adequately equip health workers dealing with Covid-19 cases.

The Namibian reported this week that about 16 health workers have been isolated after they came into contact with the doctor who tested positive for Covid-19. There are also fears that more people could have been exposed to the virus.

“These auxiliary staff are indispensable operational components of these units as they have to deal with patients physically at any given time – therefore, their health and safety should be taken care of unconditionally,” Kaahangoro said.

“The ministry is warned that any further non-compliance with set down guidelines and provisions set out in the Labour Act will leave us with no option but to invoke section 42 (1) of the labour law,” he stressed.

The provision cited by Kaahangoro permits employees to leave a place of work if they have reasonable cause to believe that, “it is neither safe nor healthy to continue working in a place of work”.

The Nurses Union of Namibia (NUN) has also directed their members not to attend to patients without personal protective equipment to avoid contracting the virus.

The acting secretary general of the nurses’ union, Junias Shilunga, told The Namibian this week that several hospitals outside Windhoek were heavily affected by the shortage of personal protective equipment.

According to him, at some hospitals, nurses use “the same surgical mask for a month because the masks are insufficient”.

“Indeed, our nurses are exposed and are at high risk of contracting the virus. As a union we call on the government to prioritise the healthcare workers’ safety by providing them with adequate PPEs and training on Covid-19.

“We are also advising our nurses not to get into contact or attend to patients if they don’t have PPEs,” Shilunga said, adding that “the labour law is clear, and the minister of health needs to respect chapter 4, section 39 of the act”.

Labour expert Herbert Jauch yesterday told The Namibian that nurses and other health workers have full rights not to attend to patients if they were not provided with adequate protective gear.

Jauch said it was the government’s responsibility to make sure that hospitals have enough PPEs to ensure the safety of health workers.

“We cannot put our health workers at risk like that. It must be done as urgently as possible so as not to compromise the safety of the health workers. If their health is compromised, it means the nation at large will suffer because there will be no one to treat the patients,” he said.

He added that if the ministry fails to provide PPEs, health workers have the right to “leave work and demand that the employer makes the required equipment available”.

Health executive director Ben Nangombe yesterday, however, denied allegations that the ministry has been negligent towards health workers.

He said although the ministry might not have PPEs “in quantities that we require” there was reasonable stocks to ensure that health workers attending to patients are protected.

Nangombe added that the ministry also has a plan to ensure that the PPEs available were being rationally used to cater for “specific settings”.

“There is something called the rational use of protective equipment. They are used for specific situations and health workers in those situations are always provided with protective equipment. We are not claiming to have everything in the quantities that we require but we will make sure that every health professional should have adequate protection when attending to patients with infectious diseases.

“The well-being of our health workers is our priority and we can never compromise on that,” Nangombe said, adding that the ministry was also in the process of ordering more protective equipment.

“Whether it is Covid-19 or any other infectious disease, we will make sure that they are taken care of.

“People must familiarise themselves with the rational use of protective equipment. For example, I saw journalists being issued with full-body suits that should be used in theatre. That is not logical,” Nangombe stressed.

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