Midvaal Executive Mayor Bongani Baloyi makes the case for the need for private laboratories to provide and process Covid-19 tests for free for certain essential workers.

The emergence of Covid-19, caused by the coronavirus, has thrown the world into disarray, challenged the global order and upended accepted norms.

With reports of the first case found in Wuhan, China, and rapidly spreading to every corner of the world in just a few months, this disease has disrupted the lives of many, affected the entire world’s economy and led to a major medical crisis.

And our beloved country South Africa has not been immune to the wrath, as well as harsh outcomes, of this pandemic.

Emerging from an era of state capture, economic decline and kleptocratic governance, the country has suffered severe damage.

As an attempt to flatten the curve – and distilling a range of theories, advice and ideas – the South African government implemented the National Disaster Act, followed by a nationwide lockdown.

Since the nationwide lockdown was implemented and subsequently extended, South African employers and employees, familiarly categorised as essential workers, have continued to report to their workplaces for duty to rendering services.

With the country moving to Level 3 of the lockdown restrictions, more industries and employees have returned to work. However, there are certain obligations in terms of health and safety, as well as the obligations of employers in terms of protecting their employees and customers by preventing the spread of Covid-19.

Employers are required to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of its employees and all persons that may be affected by their trading so that none are exposed to health or safety hazards, as prescribed by the Department of Employment and Labour.

These employers are required to take steps as may be reasonably practicable to eliminate or mitigate the hazard or potential hazard of contracting Covid-19 or the spread of Covid-19.

Tests cost between R995 and R1 200

The directives state that every employer must take measures to screen all their employees when they report for work daily to ascertain whether they have any of the observable symptoms associated with Covid-19.

The employer should ensure that there are sufficient quantities of hand sanitiser, masks and other mandatory personal protective equipment.

However, there is a certain directive from the employer that takes a financial strain on all, if not most, essential employees, which is the order that requires every employee to go for regular tests for the Covid-19 virus, and this is presented as an unavoidable obligation by the employers.

Yet this test is both expensive and logistically time consuming. Voluntary Covid-19 tests offered by the private medical sector range between R995 and R1 200 per test.

Private sector patients and regulars may be able to afford this, but not every other South African, let alone essential employees, can afford this. Only 16-17% of South Africans are covered by medical aid which would support treatment in private facilities.

Some may argue that these costs are incurred by the employee’s medical aid, but it is likely that employers do not provide this health benefit or the medical scheme does not provide the funds required for the mandatory tests workers are expected to undergo as per the directive of the employers.

World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says “we have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test”, as an international effort aimed at detecting and limiting the spread of this virus in our communities.

However, private laboratories seem to maximise profit with their exorbitant prices for Covid-19 tests. They appear to be not heeding the call by government to pool resources in order to fight this pandemic, including reducing usually rates.

Handsome profit

The reality is a huge proportion of the population are banking on the private sector for coronavirus testing because they have the necessary technical support, expertise and manpower to conduct tests and produce results in a quicker turnaround time in order for employees to present their status to HR to give the greenlight to enter the workplace. The alternative (cheaper option) is to use public health facilities where there is no cost involved.

However, to qualify the employee must present flu-like symptoms, have been in an area where there was a person-to-person transmission or have come in contact with a confirmed case, among other preconditions, according to the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS).

Another reason why public health facilities are not an option for these essential workers is the massive backlog of tests which was sitting at around 63 000, as of 10 June according to the NHLS.

READ | Covid-19 testing backlog: NHLS gradually reducing unprocessed tests, Parliament hears

The Department of Health has said it is having challenges in keeping up and processing tests conducted and that this has resulted in a nationwide backlog.

Private labs are very aware of the challenges public health is facing and are using this impediment to milk the effects of this pandemic, and their posture has left essential workers with no choice but to opt for their facilities or risk sanctions from employers.

Some knowledge has come to light that it costs as “little” as R400 to conduct a test for the virus, but any which way one can look at it, the fee being charged by these private laboratories most likely includes a very handsome profit.

Practically speaking, workers are expected to source approximately R1 200 just to keep their job, without any assistance from their employers, medical schemes and the government, and the private health facilities seems to be the only ones that ultimately profit from all of this.

The division between private and public healthcare in South Africa has not been bridged and the government has not done enough mitigate that factor.

Private laboratories should agree to a quota percentage for free “pro bono” for these essential workers as part of their contribution to the pooling of resources.

The cost of a Covid-19 test should also be agreed to at a national level, calculated at current cost without profit margin, and be standardised across all laboratories.

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