By Mluleki Marongo, SECTION27 Researcher
If you call an ambulance in Johannesburg, there’s a good chance you will be in a hospital within 45 minutes; if you call an ambulance in rural Eastern Cape, you will probably die before it arrives. Sadly, that has been the case for decades.
During 2013, the community of Xhora, in the Xhora Mouth Administrative Area, lodged a complaint
with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) regarding the unavailability of ambulances in their community. In June 2014, the Eastern Cape Health Crisis Action Coalition made a submission to the SAHRC investigation into emergency medical services and planned patient transport in the Eastern Cape. The investigation by the SAHRC culminated in a provincial hearing in which it invited officials from the Eastern Cape Health Department (ECDoH), the Eastern Cape Department of Roads and Public Works, the Eastern Cape Provincial Treasury and more than seven communities, including Lusikisiki and East London. On 1 October 2015, the SAHRC issued a report in which it stated clearly that the ambulance service in the Eastern Cape did not meet the human rights obligation of the ECDoH. It then detailed ways in which the ECDoH should remedy the situation.
After the SAHRC hearing, the Coalition has been travelling to all the communities that participated in the hearing, and to other communities, to establish whether access to emergency medical services and patient transport in the Eastern cape has improved. The Coalition has spoken to and collected evidence, in the form of statements, from people living in Lusikisiki, Port St Johns, Mqanduli, Xhora mouth, Isilatsha, East London, Nier villages in Peddie, and on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth.
On the whole, the statements paint a picture of death and dying in the Eastern Cape. Families, surviving on social grants resort to hiring private vehicles when in need of emergency medical services, or die in their homes because ambulances never arrive. Those who hire vehicles sacrifice an average of R800 for a single trip to their closest hospital, giving the patient a chance of survival, but plunging the family deeper into poverty as the money used depletes funds for other household necessities, like food.
Three years into the investigation by the SAHRC, people are still living in the same conditions that existed when the investigation started, and even decades before that. Some people have told us they have never seen an ambulance before, and others have reported that it took more than five hours for an ambulance to arrive. Furthermore, because of the bad conditions of the roads leading to their homes, these patients often face a 10 to 20-minute walk to meet the ambulance that can’t reach their homes.
Where lives are at risk and human rights are at stake, how is it that in 2016 the biggest emergency many face is not having access to an ambulance?