Nelson Mandela Bay nurses robbed ‘again and again’ as thugs demand COVID-19 protection money
As a massive outbreak of coronavirus infections hits Nelson Mandela Bay, the metro is edging close to 3 000 case, nurses and elderly community health workers who perform vital tracking and tracing for the Department of Health live in fear as they are stalked and robbed by gangs of armed young men who demand ‘COVID-19’ protection money and want the smartphones used to register patients and call ambulances. When the department of health’s track and trace teams working in Nelson Mandela Bay get ready for work in the morning, they first pray for protection. After six months, most have been robbed more than once. “O Lord, thou art our God; let no man prevail against thee” has been printed on a picture they put on their WhatsApp profiles. Then they get into their vehicles, four at a time. Often, after an hour or two, messages come through that yet another team has been robbed. “Our teams are attacked again and again,” health worker Winky Mngqibisa said. “Like me, many of us are 60 or even 70 years old. These youngsters see the Department of Health vehicle and they know it will be driven by ladies,” she said. “I think as a group we have lost 20 phones already. We have spoken to the ward councillors. They say they know their wards are not safe. They will tell us straight that they cannot guarantee that we won’t be attacked. But the nature of our work is that we believe that the community needs us. That is why we keep on showing up. The robbers know that money is given to the COVID response. They think we have it. They are angry because they cannot get the R350 grant. They know we have smartphones,” Mngqibisa said.
She said the robberies began during the “first wave” in June when they had too many patients to finish work during the week and had to work weekends. “Once one of the robbers jumped on to the bakkie that we were driving. My colleague was on the phone and her window was a little bit open. People saw he was going for the phone and they just carried on like it was nothing,” she said. “The Department of Health just said they will talk to the police,” said Mngqibisa.
“The other day a team was visiting a colleague of ours, who also got COVID-19, to do her contact tracing. While they were there, they stole the vehicle. They found the vehicle but the wheels were gone,” she said.
“Even when a team was helping a patient who had shortness of breath, they were busy calling for an ambulance. They were robbed while trying to help. We know we are under constant surveillance. They watch us as we work. Then they lie in wait for us to come out of the house.
“Our job is hard because we have to look for directions on our phones as people don’t want us to do their tracing. They give us false addresses. It is then that these young men strike. They are trigger-happy. You cannot resist. At one robbery they even came back to pick up the spent cartridges,” she said. “They were shooting at the team even while they were busy doing the screening,” said Mngqibisa.
“I am 60 this year. Many of my colleagues are retired nurses who came back because of the love they have for their job.”
She said New Brighton and KwaZakhele were the two worst places to work.
Another nurse employed by the Department of Health who asked to remain anonymous said she had been robbed twice since June. “We are a track and trace team. Every morning they give us a list of patients who tested positive for the coronavirus. We must go to the house and test everybody in the house. We must check if people have shortness of breath and then we call the ambulance,” she said. “We do our work through WhatsApp. That is how we talk with the doctors and the ambulance service. The criminals know we have phones.
“During the first wave of COVID-19 in June and July, I was robbed twice. The first time was at a house in Red Location. They waited until we were finished. Just as we were about to start the car, these two young men appeared. The one had a gun and the other had a huge knife. They didn’t take the car that time. There were four of us. But they took all our phones.”
“The second time was also in Red Location. They ambushed us in the house. A guy came in with a gun and demanded our phones. The patient still had her phone in her hand. He took it out of her hand. We had one of our male colleagues with us. He tried to hide the department’s phone but they saw him. They took that too. They took our car keys and threw it on the roof of the house next door. We had to go ask the neighbours to take it down,” she said.
“Last week Thursday, 29 October 2020, my team was ambushed with guns. This incident was the most terrible. I had finished early and I was on my way home when I received a message from my sister. They were robbed and a shot was fired in the house. “We need help,” the team said. “They took the car. I made a U-turn right there and went to find them. They were sad and shocked. That patient they were seeing is now in the field hospital. She is very sick. She is one of us, a nurse. They got eight phones in that house,” she said.
“These robbers are young. They have knives and all of them have guns. We don’t want the COVID-19 patients to move because the virus moves with them. I am a COVID-19 survivor myself. They need our services,” she said. “We have a lot of work today so even if you were robbed you will get the list to cover the next day. We must work like there is nothing wrong.”
She said they had worked under the protection of Police officers on Monday. “It was very nice,” she said. “We felt safe.”
Another nurse said she too had been robbed twice while working in a track and trace team. “The children think we have COVID-19 money. They know we have smartphones. They don’t ask for anything else. They just want the phones,” she said.
She said last week she had been taking care of a patient when they were robbed. One of the robbers fired a shot in the house. “They were showing us that they meant business, that we must not think they have toy firearms,” she said. “I was in the bedroom with a patient and my colleague walked backwards into the room. The robber was pushing her and demanding our phones. They are quick, these young guys. They don’t take long. They come in and after maybe a minute they are gone. But if they point a gun at you, you lose your thinking for that minute, you have no focus. They took our car. It was just a Chev Aveo. They later found it but the wheels were gone,” she said.
“These robbers don’t care about the coronavirus. There is a sticker on the car saying ‘COVID-19 team’. That hasn’t stopped them. Almost all our teams have been robbed,” she said. “The first time, I had already locked my door. They robbed my colleagues but I said I didn’t have a phone. I managed to hide mine,” she said. “I think they follow us. While we are in the house they prepare themselves.
“We do important work but every day it is like going into a war zone. We pray every morning for our protection. I have been working in communities for a long time and they have never done this before. It is the COVID that is doing this,” she said. “These phones they gave us are a very big risk for us.”
Eastern Cape Department of Health spokesperson, Siyanda Manana, said four of the department’s vehicles had been hijacked at gunpoint. The latest incident was in KwaZakhele last Thursday, 29 October 2020. “The vehicle was recovered by the South African Police Services with all of its four wheels missing,” Manana said.
“These tracing and testing teams are very important in our fight against the spread of Covid-19,” said Eastern Cape MEC for Health Sindiswa Gomba. “These incidents happen at a time when the Nelson Mandela Metro is faced with a spike in numbers of people who are COVID-19 positive,” she said.
“The teams are helping the very same communities that are harming, robbing, hijacking and traumatising them. The withdrawal of the health staff will leave communities very vulnerable to COVID-19 infection,” Manana said.
The number of cases in the Metro has tripled in the past week with just over 700 cases registered on Friday, 23 October 2020 to 2 415 on Saturday and 2 513 by Monday afternoon.
Acting Mayor Councillor Thsonono Buyeye said there was an active case in every ward in the city.
“As at 1 November 2020, the total number of deaths due to COVID-19 stood at 1 189. This is very concerning for us. We are working very closely with the provincial Government to find ways around this crisis. Not so long ago the numbers were so low that we even closed our stadium as we could not justify keeping it open… as an isolation facility but now these numbers are increasing again and it is clear that something needs to be done fast,” Buyeye said.
Nelson Mandela Bay Metro Disaster Management chairperson, Shane Brown, said the city was doing its best to ensure the COVID-19 numbers decline again. “The Police and the Metro Police successfully closed down… some non-complying establishments where residents gathered over the weekend. The Department of Labour is busy investigating if businesses, shopping malls and even the municipality are complying with the regulations. Perhaps we need to remind residents that actually between 12 midnight and 4am there is still a curfew in line with Alert Level 1 COVID-19 regulations.”
He pleaded with residents to wear masks, wash their hands regularly and adhere to physical distancing regulations. “We do not want a harder lockdown but if this trend persists, we might be heading [in] that direction to save lives,” he said.
Member of the mayoral committee for Public Health, Yonela Pali, released shocking photos on Monday showing hundreds of residents partying in the early hours of the morning with nobody wearing a mask. She said six establishments had been closed down by the metro police.
Metro Police head, Commissioner Yolande Faro, confirmed that several people had been arrested for drink driving on Friday night and for breaking the midnight curfew. She said six bars in Port Elizabeth’s Central district had been closed over non-compliance with lockdown regulations. “There were big crowds outside and inside the establishments. There was overcrowding at one nightclub. On our arrival, there were about 500 people outside drinking and they were very noisy. It was young people between the ages 14 years and 23 years. Bottles were thrown on the ground. On further investigation we found that there were about 1,000 people inside the establishment with no masks on, no social distancing and the owners failed to produce the certificate of population on demand,” said Faro.
“We closed the roads leading to the establishment immediately, the facility was closed down and a docket was opened at Humewood Police Station in contravention of the Disaster Management Act. We will continue with these operations in partnership with other stakeholders when necessary.
“Everyone needs to understand that COVID-19 is not over and they need to adhere to the regulations,” Faro said.
Source: The Daily Maverick