Human Rights – a vaccine to limit the spread of Covid-19
According to President Ramaphosa Covid-19 is ‘a medical emergency far graver than what the world has experienced in over a century’. He told the nation that: ‘Never before in the history of our democracy has our country been confronted with such a severe situation.’
Although nobody in SA has yet died he may be right, because we do not yet know how many people may die if Covid-19 infections spread rapidly into our communities. We must apply the precautionary principle and be united in our efforts to try to stave off the worst.
That is the reasoning behind declaring a state of national disaster and the far-reaching measures being taken. It is to protect the most vulnerable among us.
That’s good reasoning.
Yet, let us not forget, we have faced disastrous epidemics before which have taken — and continue to take — a terrible toll on our people. Over three million people have died of HIV/AIDS in the past 20 years. In 2018, according to the WHO, 64,000 people in South Africa died of tuberculosis (TB), a treatable disease.
However, our job is not to hold a macabre contest between different types of deadly virus or bacteria — one death is too many. It is to point the way out of the Covid-19 pandemic and to demand the fulfilment of fundamental human rights that will create conditions to prevent future ones.
In this regard, it is a happy coincidence that 21 March is Human Rights Day in SA because it forces us to consider why the realisation of the Bill of Rights, described in the Constitution as “the cornerstone” of our democracy, may in fact be the best vaccine we have against Covid-19.
First, we have to remember that every person within SA — including every migrant — has a right to dignity, equality and life. During an epidemic, if we treat people with dignity, they will return the sentiment.
People will listen to and act on messages about prevention and seek testing and care if they are treated equally, with respect and if necessary resources are directed to those whose poverty and inequality make them most vulnerable to infection and illness.
Second, although the president’s disaster plan sounds good on paper, its success depends on urgent measures to ensure the fulfilment of basic rights.
For example, many people are asking how communities, schools or clinics where there is no piped water can follow instructions for regular hand-washing? Or, how can people who live in overcrowded homes or take taxis to work practice social distancing?
These are not questions to be ignored or pooh-poohed away, because to do so is to treat the people affected by poverty as lesser people, without dignity and equal rights to protection.
We can’t continue watering exclusive golf courses when down the road people lack water to wash their hands. It is possible to meet these needs, if there is will and willingness.
Sacrifices are needed from all of us.
The same can be said of everyone’s right to “access to healthcare services”. In the months ahead, our public health services will come under massive strain. So now is the time for private hospitals and pathology labs for testing to open the doors of healthcare to all on the basis of urgent need. It is unconscionable, for example, for Lancet Laboratories to charge more than R1,200 for a test that costs half that. Such demands should not just be made by advocates of the poor, but also by privileged people because, as President Ramaphosa said:
“Those who have resources, those who are healthy, need to assist those who are in need and who are vulnerable.”
This applies too to people who, perhaps for understandable but unwarranted reasons of panic, are stockpiling foodstuffs or other essentials, thereby catalysing further panic — and sometimes denying access to those with the greatest need. The job of the young, the healthy (and the wealthy) is to act to protect the elderly and ill.
We are all in this boat together!
Obviously, emergency measures to provide water and equal access to healthcare are needed in the short term, but they are a wake-up call for lasting change. Well-off people need to embrace them rather than resist them.
Covid-19 reminds us of our common humanity and therefore our common vulnerability.
Social justice activists will pledge now to be volunteers on the frontlines of the fight to stop its spread and will rally behind the leadership of the government. But we also seek a pledge that when this battle is won, there will be a serious reckoning with the inequalities and deprivations that have left us prostrate before a virus, and which may yet take many lives. MC
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