Mothers giving birth at home; babies developing disabilities due to difficult unsupervised births; diabetics unable to reach treatment; old women crossing

rivers and spending most of their pensions to get to the clinic; a 10-year-old boy dying of pneumonia because his mother could no longer carry him to hospital; a young woman dying in pain after a 10-day wait for an ambulance. Countless tragedies occurring every day across the Eastern Cape and stemming from one cause: an emergency medical services system that has failed.

On 25 and 26 March 2015, the South African Human Rights Commission held a public hearing on emergency medical services (EMS) in the Eastern Cape. The hearing followed a complaint made to the commission in March, 2013 by the community of Xhora Mouth, an investigation by the commission into the state of EMS in the province, and ongoing advocacy by the Eastern Cape Health Crisis Action Coalition (ECHCAC).

The EMS hearing was quite unlike the normal consultation processes attended by government officials and community members. It was preceded by mass meetings in Xhora Mouth, Isilatsha Village, Nier Village, and Lusikisiki in which attendees spoke about EMS problems in their areas and elected representatives to attend the hearing. The hearing itself had the feel of a truth and reconciliation commission, with old women, young men, chiefs and grief-stricken family members standing up and talking publicly about the tragedies they have witnessed when an ambulance fails to arrive or arrives hours after it was called. Government officials from the Department of Health, Provincial Treasury and Planning and Roads presented their plans and answered questions. There was nowhere to hide.

The commission published a report on the hearing in October, 2015. In the report, the commission made findings and recommendations for the improvement of the EMS system in the Eastern Cape. A summary of key findings and recommendations can be found from page 9. The commission’s report is detailed. It found that although a number of important achievements have been made in the Eastern Cape relating to access to health care over the last 20 years, many of the same challenges in impeded access persist. The commission recommended a number of steps for the Eastern Cape Department of Health to take to meet its obligation to realise the rights of everyone in the Eastern Cape not to be refused emergency medical treatment and to access to health care services.

The coalition supports the findings and recommendations of the commission and is committed to monitoring their implementation. We cannot allow the department to continue to fail in its obligations to health care service users in their hour of most desperate need and the EMS hearing and report are a step in the right direction. Read the full report from the commission here:  SAHRC Report on Access to Emergency Medical Services in the Eastern Cape, 2015 ECHCAC has developed a document outlining the key findings and recommendations of the commission report, and reflecting some of the expert and patient evidence heard at the hearing. The ECHCAC report is available in English SECTION27 EMS Report 2015 and in isiXhosa SECTION27 EMS Report 2015-Xhosa.