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Load Shedding and Health in South Africa

Since 2007, Eskom, the primary electrical provider in South Africa, has implemented a power-sharing technique across the country. This technique, referred to as load shedding, works to distribute power across the country by staging scheduled power outages in some municipalities for multiple hours a day. The power outages switch across different municipalities on a schedule to compensate for Eskom’s inability to provide sufficient power to the entire country at once without the collapse of the national grid. It is not known specifically why Eskom is unable to provide total power to the country, but the most commonly understood reasons for why load shedding was introduced involve the company’s failure to maintain power stations, update electrical infrastructure and uphold quality administration. Health in South Africa is adversely affected by these load shed power outages, particularly for those living in poverty.

There is considerable controversy surrounding the effects of load shedding, particularly on the topic of health in South Africa. Healthcare in South Africa is under-funded by the government, which is reflected in the inequality of access to care for those without jobs. This lack of healthcare support is especially detrimental due to the quadruple burden of disease in the country, referring to maternal and child health, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, non-communicable diseases and injury in South Africa. Together with the daily fundamentals of preventative and reactionary health procedures, each burden of disease is independently impacted by power outages in the country. Here are five ways that health in South Africa is impacted by the country’s load shedding system.

5 Ways that Load Shedding Impacts Health in South Africa

  1. Refrigeration: High rates of HIV and tuberculosis in South Africa call for the refrigeration of medications, which is impacted when load shedding occurs across the country. South Africa’s incidences of both HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis are among the highest in the world, with over 20% of the adult population living with HIV/AIDS and over 450,000 people developing tuberculosis every year. Many anti-retroviral medications used to treat these diseases require specific temperature-controlled storage to remain effective. Without proper access to refrigeration, medications can spoil, leading to further expenses for patients, along with potentially fatal health repercussions.
  2. Traffic: Traffic lights losing power as a result of load shedding often results in automobile collisions, which contribute heavily to the incidence of injury in South Africa. In 2000, injury was responsible for around 12% of all deaths in South Africa. The most common causes of injury in the country are interpersonal violence and traffic incidents. With a safer driving environment implemented across the country through a reliable traffic light system, traffic accidents would be more preventable. Fortunately, the country has discussed implementing crossing guards and traffic directors at intersections in need of guidance during load shedding to prevent collisions and improve health in South Africa.
  3. Food safety: Hygiene within households surrounding food storage, processing and consumption is obstructed by extended periods without power in South Africa. Nearly 80% of South Africans use electricity to sterilize food, and improper food preparation could lead to serious health implications for this population. In addition to sterilization through proper food processing, the loss of refrigeration for perishable products like dairy and fresh vegetables enables bacterial growth in food. Consuming bacteria from poorly kept foods could lead to health complications such as diarrhea and dehydration.
  4. Hospital admissions: Load shedding poses many risks to both pediatric and adult health. As reported through a case study of load shedding and its impacts on one pediatric hospital admission rate, load shedding periods consistently result in a 10% increase in hospital admissions. Superficial health, then, is impacted by a loss of electricity due to load shedding.
  5. Public hospitals: Public hospitals are impacted by load shedding due to inconsistent support for reliable electricity. Public hospitals are reliant on government funding in order to maintain back-up power generators that provide stable electricity to physicians and patients. According to a recent study on the impacts of load shedding on hospitals, one electrical generator could cost a monthly maintenance fee of nearly $50,000. If the high expense for generator maintenance is not tended to at public hospitals around the country, many who seek public care could be impacted. Only 20% of the South African population is not dependent on public healthcare, meaning that a great majority of South Africans are at a higher risk of health complications in the event of electrical failure at a public hospital.

With proper support through government funding, the infrastructure for generating ample electricity could be improved and maintained in South Africa, which would not require load shedding. Preventative health measures would become possible with improved access to electrical resources, and reactionary medicine in hospitals would also become more reliable and effective without a dependency on unstable generator electricity. Not only would increased funding for electrical infrastructure contribute to equal access across the country, but it would also support the overall status of health in South Africa.

Lilia Wilson
Photo: Flickr