COVID-19: May healthcare practitioners ethically and legally refuse to work at hospitals and health establishments where frontline employees are not provided with personal protective equipment?
The purpose of this article is not to encourage health practitioners to refuse to assist COVID-19 patients if they are not provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) at the workplace. It is to encourage them to advocate for PPE by pointing out that in South Africa (SA), health establishments that fail to provide them with PPE will be held ethically and legally responsible for the deaths of any patients – not health practitioners – if as a last resort such health professionals have to withdraw their services to protect other patients, themselves, their families and their colleagues. The article refers to the World Medical Association, World Health Organization and Health Professions Council of SA guidelines regarding the use of PPE during the COVID-19 epidemic, especially in the case of shortages. All the guidelines state that the safety of healthcare workers is a priority if they are to care for their patients properly. Mitigation measures are suggested, but do not extend to failing to provide PPE to those healthcare workers who deal directly with patients. The law protects all workers, who have a constitutional and statutory right to a working environment that is not harmful and does not threaten their health and safety. The article concludes that as a last resort, if the international and national ethical guidelines and legal rules are not being followed regarding PPE and advocacy attempts to persuade health establishments to provide PPE fail, and healthcare workers are exposed to the COVID-19 virus, they may ethically and legally withhold their services. These points should be made when health practitioners are advocating for PPE.
D J McQuoid-Mason, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa
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Date published: 2020-05-23
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