Sometimes it is hard to retain my journalistic objectivity, especially when the news of the day hits home, literally, to my after-hours life – my real life as a mother to a special needs youngster and as a volunteer for Autism Eastern Cape.
Wednesday was one of those days and it was heartbreaking to read the front page of The Herald: “Shock closure of frail care centres – 240 residents must leave as funding withdrawn” (November 23).
As I read my colleague Estelle Ellis’s report on how the Department of Social Development will be closing down the only fully state-funded frail care centres in Nelson Mandela Bay before the end of this year, and the impact this will have on families in and around our region, I felt sick.
These 240 residents are not able to live in the community without specialised help, which is precisely why they are at the Algoa Frail Care Centre in Bethelsdorp and the Lorraine Frail Care Centre.
They are frail, they are poor, and their situation is made twice as awful due to the fact that most have no family equipped to take care of their physical and mental needs, nor the finances for private care.
Does the Eastern Cape Department of Social Development not care about the elderly who are frail or disabled?
Why is funding being pulled? If the department can no longer afford these centres, who does it think can?
What non-governmental organisations will miraculously rise up and offer a safe, affordable and appropriate home to these 240 vulnerable people?
The truth is, we just don’t have any!
The road walked in Gauteng sends chills down my spine, where 36 people have died since being transferred from mental health facilities to under-resourced NGOs.
This news sounds like it is a frighteningly similar cost-cutting move.
Despite warnings from the South African Federation for Mental Health, public interest law organisation Section 27, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group and the South African Society of Psychiatrists that it would be a disaster, the Gauteng Department of Health went ahead with its plans.
However, there were simply not enough community NGOs to absorb such a large number of patients and it was impossible to provide the care they needed on the modest budget offered.
Moving back to the Eastern Cape, although the numbers are lower – 240 rather than 2 000 – what makes our province less likely to see deaths in this group?
Do we have bigger, stronger NGOs, are we richer, wiser and more compassionate?
Sadly, the answer is no, we have far fewer resources.
For example, there is NO care centre for autistic adults who are unable to look after themselves in this province.
There is still only one state school for autistic children in the entire province and, yes, at the age of 18 autistic children are regarded as autistic adults, and what happens after school?
The same questions must be asked for other mental health conditions and physical disabilities. In tandem with that, where are the state-run workshops offering sheltered employment? The state centres offering day care? There are none. Further down the line, what happens when the parents grow old and cannot take care of their ageing disabled children?
And, the situation we see in Port Elizabeth this week, what happens when those vulnerable individuals themselves are old and frail and they have nobody to speak up about their plight?
Algoa Bay Council for the Aged (Abca) chief executive Maureen Andreka is not alone in dreading a repeat of the Gauteng tragedy.
NGOs such as Abca lack the funds to do the work that functioning government should be doing. Also, when it comes to disabilities, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Services for special needs individuals – children and adults – are devastatingly lacking in South Africa.
For example, an elective mute autist, someone with limited use of their limbs due to cerebral palsy and an epileptic otherwise in good physical shape all have different needs.
It is not easy to raise funds or awareness for this group – they don’t look cute in pictures or make articulate appeals to our “ag, shame” reflex. They are often the invisible, unloved and departments unwanted pockets of society.
Despite the constitution of the Republic of South Africa outlawing discrimination against people on the grounds of disability, they are often marginalised, abused and victims of human rights violations.
The NGOs in the metro do sterling work, but nearly every one is underfunded (I know Autism Eastern Cape, for example, receives no government funding).
It looks as if instead of the Department of Social Development giving NGOs more help, it plans to dump one of the most needy groups in our country on these overstretched organisations.
It is a tragedy waiting to happen and I fear it is highly likely to end up as a repeat of what happened in Gauteng. Even one death will be too many.