Homeless exposed to Covid-19

The City of Cape Town is being accused of letting homeless people who may be Covid-positive leave a temporary safety camp untested and unchecked.

The Strandfontein safety site for homeless people is currently in a phased closure period after the City said it was never planned to be a permanent site and set up only for the peak of the lockdown period.

Now, people who were brought to the site are being allowed to leave. In some cases, the City is transporting people back to areas from which they boarded buses to go to Strandfontein. 

The City initially said that every person who had been housed at the shelter was screened for Covid-19.

But nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) working with homeless people now say they believe there may have been numerous cases of Covid-19 at the site, at which hundreds of people lived, slept, and ate in close quarters.

Commenting on one case, Jess Laitinen of Khulisa Social Solutions said: “The person who has tested positive has been screened three times [by the City] and has absolutely no symptoms.

“She has gained many kilograms since she was there and she is healthier than she’s ever been. It’s come as a huge shock to us,” she added

Laitinen said the woman was privately tested earlier this week after leaving the Strandfontein site. She had been living there for five weeks, which indicates she most likely contracted the virus at the site. The NGO said the woman is in isolation.

This has brought into question the City’s preventative measures of housing up to 1200 people at the site.

Laitinen said the woman likely becoming infected at the site “goes to show how the screening and testing plan is not necessarily appropriate”.

“We believe a few people fell through the cracks. I don’t [know] if they were screened or how properly they were screened,” she said. “I know the people who were part of our group were screened three times. But if it is true that many people don’t show symptoms, then what are you trying to screen for?”

Strandfontein safety site (Brenton Geach/Gallo Images)

Another source, who does not want to be identified because they are a monitor contracted to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), said the City had not put measures in place to ensure the safety of homeless people at the camp. “The women left on Sunday. Her results have been pending since Monday. People have now been walking out of the camp and we don’t know if they have been informed and told to stay while the City deals with this risk,” said the NGO worker.

There is now concern that homeless people will now face stigma and discrimination when they are back on the streets.

The City of Cape Town confirmed the positive testing of a person who had recently left the site. “One person tested positive after exiting the Strandfontein temporary shelter. She was tested on May 11 by the Dis-Chem drive-through testing site. She was asymptomatic at the time and continues to be asymptomatic,” said mayoral committee member for community services and health Zahid Badroodien.

“City Health is assisting the NGO with case management at the shelter, and in the process of tracking and monitoring others who were transferred to other facilities during this period,” he added

Badroodien said, in line with protocol, only people who exhibit symptoms of Covid-19 are tested, and that no one is allowed to leave the facility until tests have returned negative.

These wouldn’t be the first cases of Covid-19 at the Strandfontein site. Nine law-enforcement officers working there tested positive earlier this month. But the City said they were based at a control room at the site, and not in close contact with any of the homeless people.

The city has faced criticism since it announced it was launching a temporary site to house homeless people during the lockdown.

Independent reports commissioned by the SAHRC said the site violated national and international human rights and should be closed.

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