Grocery store workers die of Covid-19

Two staff members from the Checkers store in Bayside died of Covid-19.

Bayside Checkers employees fear returning to work after they heard that two of their co-workers died from Covid-19 at the weekend.

Tabletalk has spoken to three of the store’s employees – none of whom wanted to be named fearing victimisation – who described an unfolding Covid-19 tragedy at the supermarket.

On Tuesday, Mary* told Tabletalk there was a WhatsApp group for all the Bayside Checkers staff who had tested positive for the virus. The group now had 52 members, including her, she said.

Reports went viral on social media on Sunday afternoon about the two dead employees, both women. And a video showing their co-workers holding a prayer session at the store also did the rounds.

On April 14, the Bayside store closed for a few days after an employee tested positive for Covid-19.

On Monday last week, the Shoprite Group confirmed that one employee had tested positive for the virus. However, a second Bayside Checkers employee, Jane*, said many more of them had since tested positive.

“On Tuesday (April 14), around 11am, the store closed, and we were told that one of our managers had tested positive. We were screened and told that if we feel any symptoms of a fever, we should go get tested at the hospital. The next day, I went to Vanguard Community Health Centre to test. Other employees went to different hospitals and clinics. A week later, my results came back inconclusive, and now I’m waiting for new test results.”

Jane said staff had learned through WhatsApp of other colleagues testing positive. Bayside Checkers reopened on Thursday April 16 and Jane said most of the staff had been replaced with other workers from other Checkers stores.

But Jane said the store had called her in to work even though she had not received her initial test results.

“We were called in to work, but we said no because we still had not received our initial test results back. We can’t put ourselves, our families and Checkers customers at risk. The company doesn’t seem to care about us. They didn’t even tell us about our colleagues that passed away. We just depend on each other now.”

On Thursday April 23, Checkers Bayside closed again, following another positive Covid-19 test. The store was still closed this week.

According to all three employees who spoke to Tabletalk, one of the women who died had worked as a front-end controller and the other had worked in the fruit-and-veg section. They were Sindiswa Msiwa, 45, of Site B in Khayelitsha and Sylvia Gaxela from Delft.

Ms Msiwa’s brother, Luthando Msiwa, said his sister had two daughters. She loved them and she loved her work, he said.

“My sister worked on Sunday April 12 even though she wasn’t feeling well. She called me that evening saying she wasn’t well, and I took her to Khayelitsha Hospital where she tested positive. She was later transferred to Tygerberg Hospital where she stayed in intensive care. She died on April 22. This past weekend was her funeral in the Eastern Cape, but I couldn’t go because since I was in close contact with her from when I took her to the hospital, I have to self isolate,” he said.

Mr Msiwa said it hurt him that he couldn’t be at the funeral to lay his older sister to rest. He said he had not had any symptoms of the virus so he probably did not have it.

“I’m very disappointed with Checkers, however. Someone from Checkers called our ailing and sick mother asking them if it’s true that her daughter tested positive. They didn’t seem to care about how my sister was doing. To date, they hadn’t called again even after my sister passed away. They are not handling this very well,” he added.

The Shoprite Group said on Monday April 27 that the well-being of its employees and customers was important to it and that it had acted proactively to protect employees and customers.

“Losing one of our own always touches us and it is with great sadness that we extend our heartfelt sympathy to the families and co-workers of any employee who passed away,” said a statement attributed simply to the Shoprite Group.

Another employee, Anne*, said that not everyone at the store had been tested or screened and that was why they felt it was a dangerous situation.

“We are told not to tell anyone about getting tested or tell anyone what your results are. The store doesn’t seem to put our health first,” said Anne.

Shoprite said staff with high temperatures visited the group’s mobile clinics for a consultation and, if necessary, were referred for further testing at the nearest approved testing laboratory.

“Results are shared with the relevant health-care provider and all positive cases are elevated to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and Department of Health for further action. An employee screening programme supported by the company’s mobile clinic is immediately put into place and employees who had close contact with those affected are self-quarantining for 14 days,” Shoprite said.

Tabletalk has tried unsuccessfully since Monday morning to get comment from the provincial Health Department about the unfolding situation at Checkers Bayside, where, if staff statements are accurate, a single supermarket accounts for 2 out of the 90 Covid-19 deaths reported in the country by Tuesday.

Mary lives with her sister and her sister’s two children in Dunoon.

“I’m constantly afraid for the children,” she told Tabletalk shortly before learning that she had tested positive for Covid-19. “In the community, they look at us funny and make remarks about us like we don’t belong or we are going to harm them. Another thing that worries me is that many of us at the store are not permanent workers. So I’m scared that if we stay longer at home, we might not have a job to go back to. But the fear of Covid-19 is much greater.”

Tabletalk asked the Shoprite Group about staff allegations that the company had not told them about their colleagues’ deaths. We asked what steps the store would take to ramp up protection for staff. We asked how many staff had tested positive. We asked if the remaining staff would be given time to grieve. We asked if they would get counselling.

In response to these and other questions, the Shoprite Group said: “Unfortunately no additional comment is available.”

* Names have been changed.