South Africa’s shortage of medical equipment approaching critical point

Philip van Staden

The situation in which South Africa finds itself as regards the shortage of medical equipment is approaching a critical point. The parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health has already requested the Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize, to urgently investigate these shortages.

At present, South Africa only has a mere 6 000 ventilators available and just 2 000 of those are in the public health sector. Concerning the shortage of intensive care beds, there are presently a total of only 7195 beds available in both the private and public health care sectors.

The shortage of ventilators can be ascribed to the fact that it is currently a worldwide problem, particularly because health care systems usually operate based on the typical need and only a small degree of additional capacity. The FF Plus truly hopes that these problems are considered top priority by the national Department of Health.

The shortage of masks and other protective clothing for doctors in hospitals and clinics must also be at the top of the priority list for the Department and the Minister of Health. If doctors and other health care workers are not provided with the protection they need, South Africa will face an enormous crisis that will put additional pressure on the health care system.

Over the years, the public health care sector has underinvested in the manufacturing and procurement of critical medical equipment. The demand for ventilators is already exceeding the supply and, thus, methods to give preference to the patients who need it the most will have to be considered at some stage.

The criteria for admission to intensive care units will have to be very transparent and must be determined in cooperation with the Critical Care Society of Southern Africa. In order to do this a panel consisting of leading experts must be established. Such a panel must consist of at least one specialist in critical care, a medical ethics expert and a legal aid expert with a very strong background in medicine.

South Africa's population is currently about 60 million people and according to all indications, more than 60% of the population will be infected with the coronavirus at one stage or another – an estimate of approximately 36 million people.

And 4% of these people will need ventilators, that adds up to approximately 1,44 million people. Evenly distributed over a period of a year, it comes down to approximately 12 000 people per month. It is, thus, abundantly clear that the crisis South Africa and the rest of the world are headed toward is becoming increasingly serious. According to published media reports, a country like America already has a shortage of about 30 000 ventilators.

In this context, worldwide communication channels between governments, medical experts, engineers and the like must be established as soon as possible to combat the crisis.

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