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South African Local Government Association (SALGA) Webinar | Environmental Health Response to COVID-19





Posted: 28 September 2020

Environmental Health Practitioners (EHPs) are the resilient unsung heroes of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

This was one of the sentiments that emerged from a South African Local Government Association (SALGA) webinar on the environmental health response to COVID-19 on Friday, 25 September 2020.

The webinar, which among others, highlighted the unique role of environmental health practitioners in supporting the efforts to fight COVID-19, was convened by SALGA in partnership with the Department of Health (DoH), South African Institute of Environmental Health (SAIEH), Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) and higher education institutions.

The webinar saw SALGA officials, municipal officials, health practitioners, representatives from other relevant departments, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) and training institutions, offer their unique insights on different aspects pertaining to the prevention and management of the pandemic.

The webinar also coincided with World Environmental Health Day, which places environment health practitioners under the spotlight in relation to their roles in preventing disease and creating health-supportive environments.

Setting the scene, Nector Mavundza, SALGA Specialist for Municipal Health, said among others, that the virtual dialogue would reflect on questions relating to the ability of municipal health services to respond to the outbreak of the disease and added that the platform would generate discussions, inputs, sharing of knowledge and experiences on environmental health responses to COVID-19.

“After the declaration of the national state of disaster everything else stopped, except environmental health and other essential services,” Mavundza said.

“A number of interventions were directed to municipalities and provinces including the provision of water and sanitation services, hygiene education, communication and awareness, waste management, cleansing and sanitizing of municipal spaces, facilities and offices, issues of pertaining to isolation and quarantine, monitoring and enforcement, issuing of permits to informal food traders, decontamination and sanitization of public facilities.

“You will be aware that over and above this, our usual environmental health functions are also essential services and they had to be delivered at the time. They had to be delivered at a time where we know that we don’t have capacity to respond to our day-to-day business. It does not matter whether we have been mentioned before or not, but the fact is that we have been instrumental in the response, we have been instrumental in getting the numbers to be where they are now,” Mavundza said.

Dr Patrick Nodwele, Deputy Director of Municipal Health Services at Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, spoke about the need for a health services framework to respond to the emergency generated by the new coronavirus (COVID-19).

“Is there a framework for these kinds of health emergencies? We need those kinds of frameworks. If the national state of disaster was not declared, what framework would we have used as health services? A framework, or a national framework for health emergencies or municipal by-laws for these kinds of emergencies and these frameworks should provide coordination of resources and procurement so forth,” said Dr Nodwele.

Murdock Ramathuba, National Director of Environmental Health in the Department of Health, shared his reflections on the threat by funeral undertakers across the country to go on strike amid the pandemic.
He spoke on how the department moved swiftly to avert what he said would have dealt a severe blow to the country’s fight against the disease.
“We resolved to agree to all their demands. Because we saw them as not having any impact in terms of the legislative provision that relates to the management of human remains in the country. If it went on, it was going to devastate the country because we would have seen a piling of human remains in our health facilities because we have limited capacity,” said Ramathuba.

Calls for standard operating procedures for responding to natural disasters in order for necessary measures for preparedness, response and relief required to be taken, were made.
“Standard operating procedures are important for everything. A standard operating procedure for when we are in a national state of disaster, what do we do? and who does it? That is where there is still a gap. We need to be better prepared in the future. As local governments we need to put our heads together,” said Sibusisiwe Goba-Sigawuke, Senior Advisor for Inclusive Communities at SALGA.

Representing the higher education sector, Dr Tobius Poswa, HOD: Environmental Health at Mangosuthu University of Technology, said the sector responded effectively to the lockdown by focusing on online learning resources amid the pandemic.
“The option of virtual learning came in as an area that was unutilized for some time and now we are able to reach students and reach others using various virtual platform options including the stakeholders that we work with,” said Dr Poswa.

Dudu Sibidi, former Chairperson of the Professional Board for Environmental Health lauded environmental health professionals on their commitment to stay on the job amid the pandemic as well as the absence of incidents of ethical misconduct on their part.

“This was unchartered territory and one of the concerns for the board was the issues around human resources. Are we going to manage in terms of discharging our function for prevention with the few human resources that we have? And since the 27th of March, we never received even a single case of professional or ethical misconduct and we are proud to say that we can call ourselves professionals,” Sibidi said.
Dr Selva Mudaly, President of the South African Institute of Health (SAIEH) and International Federation of Environmental Health (IFEH), spoke about the constraints that related to human resources in the environmental health services.

He lamented that there was 1 environmental health practitioner for every 30 000 people in the country.
“We are under-resourced and we have been asked to take on expanded duties under stressful conditions. In the face of these challenges, we continue to carry on the task. I personally feel that we missed an opportunity to address the human resource needs and other needs needed to carry out our tasks,” said Dr Mudaly.

Dr. David Musoke, Lecturer in the Department of Disease Control and Environmental Health at Makerere University School of Public Health in Uganda, shared some best practices for the management of COVID-19. “We detected our first case on the 21st of March this year and shortly after the government introduced a very strict lockdown as many you have had, which ran for a few months. It was really strict and indeed a lot of restrictions affected professionals but fortunately, as essential workers, environmental health practitioners in Uganda were allowed to continue working. This was a testament to how the profession is looked at as a key driver against the pandemic,” said Dr Musoke

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