Blame game over QEII medical waste

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By ‘Majirata Latela

Medical waste discarded along with the rubble from the demolishing of Queen II hospital continue to lie bare, posing a threat to humans, and it appears those responsible for endangering human lives will get away scot-free because there are no legal mechanisms to prosecute them.

Medical wastes targeted for handling and disposal precautions include laboratory waste pathology waste, blood specimens, blood products and body fluids specimens. This does not exclude the risk of either injury or infection from sharp objects like needles and scalpel blades contaminated with blood.

Upon theReporter’s visit to one such unauthorised dumping site at Ha Lower Thamae in Maseru this week, the publication saw needles, syringes, vials, cotton swabs and files of confidential patients’ records.

This has got villagers living in fear of theirs and their loved ones’ lives, and one of the residents told us they have to be constantly vigilant that children do not play anywhere near the rubble lest they come into contact with the potentially life threatening objects.

The demolition of Queen Elizabeth II Hospital was carried out in April, but not without controversy around the questionable and mysterious manner in which the exercise has been handled by the ministries of health and public works.

The exercise, meant to make way for a new and modern M400million Chinese-funded hospital, had been postponed numerous times for various reasons, including disagreements over budgetary allocations.

In January this year, the ministry of health, through its principal secretary Thebe Mokoatle, said the ministry had resolved that, due to financial constraints, the job would be done by the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) at no cost at all. The ministry had initially budgeted M8-million to put the hospital down before the ministries of finance and public works budgeted M16-million and M29-million, respectively.

Contrary to the ministry of health’s position, public works public secretary Mothabathe Hlalele was at the time adamant private contracting was the best route to go, and he argued the demolition of Queen II would have been complete by then if it had been left to private contractors. The demolition tender was eventually awarded to nine private companies amid concerns that government procurement regulations had been flouted. These are the companies that have been dumping the rubble at undesignated places at Lower Thamae, Lithabaneng and Lifariking outside Maseru, triggering uproar from concerned residents.

In a bid to find an explanation for this rather sudden and unannounced change of heart, we approached the ministry of health’s information officer who kept referring us to Mokoatle who did not respond to our text messages and voice calls. Neither did then health minister Nkaku Kabi.

As for Hlalele, he was quick to deflect all questions to the ministry of health as “it is the one responsible for the project while the ministry of public work was only limited to an oversight role”.

This publication this week approached the National Environment Secretariat’s senior environmental officer, Kobeli Tšasanyane who did not mince his words as pointed out that he ministries involved in the demolition had been reckless, endangering people’s lives in the process.

“We are aware of the potential environmental hazards of the pollution that happened following the demolition of the hospital; some ministries here did not do their job and no one wants to take responsibility for their actions.

“Prior to the demolition I wrote a letter to Maseru Council on November 26 2019, advising them of the need to identify proper places where to dump the rubble and the need for such places to be rehabilitated.

“I remember that in February 26 2020 a demolition permit was issued as MCC involved us in the matter. However, things did not go as planned as shortly after that – even before we could visit the site to ascertain its readiness, we heard on the media that demolition was already underway,” Tšasanyane said.

In a bid to assess the impact of the exercise NES later visited the site and discovered that, among others, hazardous materials like asbestos had been removed and it was not clear where it had been dumped.

“Apart from the medical equipment that we see, which at this point we could say poses a physical threat, we do not at this point know where the asbestos is kept and none of the ministries that were involved in the demolishing seem to know.

“Asbestos is a very dangerous substance if not handled with care; people that handle it have to wear protective clothing. If not handled properly it could disintegrate and cause serious respiratory complications like asbestosis if inhaled.”   

Tšasanyane said, in April 23 2020 communication copied to the ministry of local government, ministry of public works, ministry of development planning and the Town Clerk, NES alerted the ministry of health to the fact that the presence of medical waste in the rubble suggested there had been a violation of environmental regulations.

“The ministry of health never responded to that letter addressing these environmental issues. NES has a mandate to oversee environmental affairs and coordinate their implementation. It is difficult to prosecute the guilty parties because we are all arms of government that share a legal representative, namely the Attorney General.

“Even so, our laws are not deterrent enough when it comes to penalties. We have been fighting for NES to be autonomous so that in cases like this people don’t just get away with murder despite endangering lives. Protection of the environment should be everyone’s concern,” he said.

Meanwhile, MCC ‘Makatleho Mosala fired a broadside at the contractors and the ministries involved for doing a sloppy job of the demolition of Queen II Hospital.

“When we learned that the contractors were dumping the rubble at unauthorised places, we took it upon ourselves to get our police to escort their trucks to the designated dumping sites. They obviously did not like this as the company owners, heavily armed, went out of their way to scare off our law enforcement officers just so they could dump the waste illegally. However, we did not press charges against them because they had already completed the demolition and haulage.”

We sought independent legal opinion on the matter, and local lawyer, Advocate Potso Mokhachane, was quick to dismiss the ministries as ducking responsibility and instead playing the blame game.

Mokhachane said the ministry of health should have made sure that they do not put people’s lives at risk by allowing the ministry of works to demolish the hospital without taking necessary environmental precautions. As a result, it tops the list of people who deserve criminal charges.

“Lesotho’s constitution section 27 under protection of health (1) says Lesotho shall adopt policies aimed at ensuring the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health for its citizens, including policies designed to- (b) Improve environmental and industrial hygiene; and (e) improve public health.

“In this case the medical waste that has been dumped in the villages subjects the community to the risk of diseases and that shows that standards and procedures to dispose of the medical waste have not been followed. Also looking at Section 11 of Lesotho’s constitution, people’s right to privacy has not been respected; with all those patient files flying around the streets and everyone being at liberty to take and read about the health of other people, it makes them vulnerable,” he indicated.

Mokhachane added that the demolition of Queen II Hospital was not done in line with the provision of the Environmental Act of 2008, as failure to secure the place resulted in pollution of the environment.

“The whole process required an environmental impact assessment study which should have been done and its report documented and made public. We should remember that a hospital has a lot of waste that is contaminated and thereby had to be treated with precaution to avoid putting people at risk. Take a look at the water waste for example, it still leaves a lot of questions as to how it was handled during the demolition, and whether it will not cause any problems at a later stage.

“It is surprising that NGO’s, the Law Society of Lesotho and human rights lawyers have not said anything about the dumping that has polluted the environment, let alone a statement to shame the ministries that have been tasked with the job.”

In conclusion, Mokhachane said Lesotho has signed many treaties such as the Basel Convention on the Control of Transbody Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their disposal, the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides in international trade and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Yet, all these have been reduced to ineffectual ornaments.

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