In Practice

Critical care triage during the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa: A constitutional imperative!

B M Morrow, P D Gopalan, I Joubert, F Paruk, A Pope


Triage and rationing of scarce intensive care unit (ICU) resources are an unavoidable necessity. In routine circumstances, ICU triage is premised on the best interests of an individual patient; however, when increased demand exceeds capacity, as during an infectious disease outbreak, healthcare providers need to make difficult decisions to benefit the broader community while still respecting individual interests. We are currently living through an unprecedented period, with South Africa (SA) facing the challenges of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The Critical Care Society of Southern Africa (CCSSA) expedited the development of a triage guidance document to inform the appropriate and fair use of scarce ICU resources during this pandemic. Triage decision-making is based on the clinical odds of a positive ICU outcome, balanced against the risk of mortality and longer-term morbidity affecting quality of life. Factors such as age and comorbid conditions are considered for their potential impact on clinical outcome, but are never the sole criteria for denying ICU-level care. Arbitrary, unfair discrimination is never condoned. The CCSSA COVID-19 triage guideline is aligned with SA law and international ethical standards, and upholds respect for all persons. The Bill of Rights, however, does not mandate the level of care enshrined in the constitutional right to healthcare. ICU admission is not always appropriate, available or feasible for every person suffering critical illness or injury; however, everyone has the right to receive appropriate healthcare at another level. If ICU resources are used for people who do not stand to benefit, this effectively denies others access to potentially life-saving healthcare. Appropriate triaging can therefore be considered a constitutional imperative.

Authors' affiliations

B M Morrow, Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa

P D Gopalan, Discipline of Anaesthesiology and Critical Care, Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, College of Health Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa

I Joubert, Department of Anaesthesia and Peri-operative Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town, South Africa

F Paruk, Department of Critical Care, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Pretoria, South Africa

A Pope, Emeritus Associate Professor, Private Law Department, Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town, South Africa

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Triage; ICU; Intensive care unit; Critical care; Frailty; Equality law; South African Constitution; Emergency treatment; COVID-19; Pandemic; Scarce resources

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2020;110(12):1176-1179. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.2020.v110i12.15411

Article History

Date submitted: 2020-11-05
Date published: 2020-11-05

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