Safe house pilots Covid-19 protocols

Staff at a far south safe house that was used to pilot new Covid-19 safety measures.

Gender-based violence is the other pandemic gripping South Africa, yet no state of emergency has been declared to fight it.

So says Kathy Cronje, of the Western Cape Women’s Shelter Movement.

Ms Cronje is the director of The Safe House in the far south, where new measures for managing women’s shelters during Covid-19 were piloted.

Ms Cronje, with help from False Bay Hospital’s Dr Wendy Waddington, wrote those protocols for places of safety to follow to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

She had to convert the spaces in her safe house to create a screening area and a separate isolation ward; precautions were needed to prevent cross contamination while doing laundry; staff had to be taught the new health regulations; hand sanitising had to be enforced, especially in the bathrooms; and mothers and children had to be taught that physical distancing was crucial.

Ms Cronje arranged for all safe house residents to be tested for Covid-19 as they arrived. A laboratory gave them a discount and test results were received within 24 hours “to streamline the categorisation of the people in the safe house”.

Under normal circumstances, the far south shelter would have dealt with 10 or 12 women during the lockdown timeframe, instead, Ms Cronje said, it had 144 cases over that time, and the seven full-time staff and two volunteers had had to find ways to cope with increased pressure while still taking all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

There are now four women’s safe houses in Cape Town using the Covid-19 protocols that Ms Cronje and Dr Waddington developed.

“No one person can do this; it took a team,” Ms Cronje said. “My staff were 100% on board even though it meant they were on the front line every day facing many unknowns.”

She praised Dr Waddington, who is the manager of medical services at False Bay Hospital, and the provincial departments of Health and Social Development for providing support and she also thanked the neighbourhood watch which had helped to keep angry husbands away from the safe house.

Ms Cronje said some of the cases they dealt with during lockdown had been particularly disturbing.

The safe houses had been filled with women and children from violent and abusive hostage situations: there was a pregnant 13-year-old; toddlers who attacked their mothers; a case of a teenager who had assaulted his pregnant mother by beating her stomach; cases of missing children; and victims of violent and socio-economic abuse. Ms Cronje said easily 60% of the women at the far south safe house had been pregnant, not necessarily by choice, and some were mothers with three or four children already in tow.

With prisons releasing inmates to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and courts not in session, lesser crimes, such as assault, had been let go with warnings from SAPS, she said.

Some people had also gone off their medication during lockdown level 5 and that had posed medical complications in some cases, she said.

Then there had been the alcohol ban which had seen women and children locked in homes with men, deeply frustrated about lack of access to their particular addiction.

And the lifting of the alcohol ban had coincided with the payment of state social grants, which had led to them being spent on alcohol and resulted in beaten women and children arriving at shelters, starving, she said.

Ms Cronje has appealed to President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare a state of emergency to combat gender-based violence, which, she said, needed a streamlined response from all sectors of society and government.

Dr Waddington said False Bay Hospital provided health-care support to those being helped by The Safe House.

“This requires very careful attention to a safe and confidential environment, so we ensure that the patients are not exposed to queues, or waiting in areas which may put them at risk,” she said.

Dr Waddington confirmed she had also given The Safe House advice on appropriate Covid-19 precautions.