Maverick Citizen: Covid-19 and Human Rights

Civil Society at Work – Human rights organisations coordinate to maintain legal advice services

By Mark Heywood 20 March 2020

(Image: Adobestock)

Although Covid-19 has changed our lives, forced us out of our offices and brought many things to an abrupt halt, there are some needs that don’t go away. Human rights violations of poor and marginalised people continue – and sadly, can even increase at times like this. Recognising this, South Africa’s well-respected not-for-profit legal service sector has come up with a plan.

On Wednesday, 18 March a group of 10 organisations issued a public information poster providing details of the issues on which they can provide support; contact details; and hours when they are available.

The participating organisations are the Centre for Applied Legal Studies; the Centre for Child Law; the Centre for Environmental Rights; the Equal Education Law Centre; the Legal Resources Centre; Lawyers for Human Rights; Ndifuna Ukwazi; SECTION27; Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA; and the Women’s Legal Centre.

The advice the organisations are offering covers almost all rights that are protected by the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, yet frequently violated, including access to housing, health, basic education, children’s rights, and services for women and others experiencing gender-based violence. 

Almost all the organisations, except for the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA (SERI) have suspended “walk-in” consultations because of the threat of Covid-19. However, some are still offering consultations by appointment only (the Centre for Child Law in Pretoria and Ndifuna Ukwazi in Cape Town), and all the others are offering telephonic consultation.

According to Nomzamo Zondo, the Director of SERI, herself and two attorneys continue to work from the office so as to be available to people in need. She says that the building where SERI is housed in Braamfontein has instituted adequate infection control and that some staff have chosen to remain on deck. 

This is necessary because there are some instances where “we can’t provide people assistance without being face-to-face”. She adds that SERI focuses on housing rights and evictions and that, at times like this, unscrupulous landlords may carry out evictions precisely because they think “people can’t get help at this time”.

Reaching out to vulnerable communities

In a recent statement, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called for human rights to be “at front and centre in the response to Covid-19” pointing out that:

“Our efforts to combat this virus won’t work unless we approach it holistically, which means taking great care to protect the most vulnerable and neglected people in society, both medically and economically. Such people include those on low incomes, isolated rural populations, people with underlying health conditions, people with disabilities and older people living alone or in institutions.” 

She also added that they:

“Need to ensure all relevant information reaches everyone without exception, including in readily understandable formats and languages, and adapted for people with specific needs, such as children, the visually- and hearing-impaired, and those with limited or no ability to read.”

This is especially important in South Africa, with large migrant communities. As a result, several organisations have produced basic information on Covid-19 targeted at foreign-language speakers.

For example, the Scalibrini Centre, whose vision is “to foster the cultural, social and economic integration of migrants, refugees and South Africans into local society”, has produced a set of basic information pamphlets in French, Swahili, Lingala, Portuguese and Amharic. 

In a letter sent to President Cyril Rampahosa, and Ministers Zweli Mkhize and Aaron Motsoaledi, they write:

“As you’re no doubt aware, Scalabrini Centre is concerned about the impact of the Covid-19 virus on South Africa’s refugee and asylum seeker community, as well as its impact on foreign national migrants. … We are aware that your various Departments and offices may have many other urgent tasks at present, so we are emailing to send you these information sheets on Covid-19 …We are all in this together. We, at Scalabrini, are committed to doing our part.”

The posters are available here.

Finally, on the eve of Human Rights Day 2020, there are organisations that will use the day to begin campaigns to ensure that all of those who are vulnerable to Covid-19 are reached with information and services. 

In the Eastern Cape, the Amadiba Crisis Committee has cancelled its annual human rights rally and opted instead to start a campaign “to go from village to village for several weeks to inform everybody what has happened and how we must protect ourselves”. This, they say, is necessary because “households don’t have access to information from newspapers and TV and radios. There is no signal in large parts on the Amadiba coast and no electricity lines … We don’t want to be hit again by this virus, like we were hit by HIV/Aids 15 years ago that caught everybody unaware.” MC

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