Covid-19 is not a reason to hunt down illegal immigrants

Covid-19 is not a reason to hunt down illegal immigrants
Informal traders buy fresh produce in bulk at the Cape Town Market to sell at their spaza shops in townships in Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. South Africa went into a nationwide lockdown for 21 days in an effort to mitigate the spread to the coronavirus. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (Photo: Gallo Images/Nardus Engelbrecht)

Thousands of people in South Africa are being excluded from government relief programmes simply because they lack the legal requirements to be in the country. In the spirit of unity, this has to change.

The mantra that we keep hearing from government is ‘Curtail, Contain and Control’ the spread of Covid-19. And generally speaking, the South African people are doing their bit. Other countries have lauded President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government for its response and leadership during this crisis.  

But have we really learnt the lessons from the AIDS pandemic? In the early 1980s, it was stigmatised as a “gay disease”. Poverty, prejudice and ignorance contributed enormously to the loss of millions of lives.

Today, as we live through the worst health crisis the world has experienced in recent history, another stigma plagues the containment effort. This time, the fault lines of xenophobia and ‘othering’ appear to be contaminating our response and efforts to control the spread of Covid-19.

The virus does not distinguish on the basis of nationality, and everyone within our borders has a role to play in containing the pandemic. At the same time, people also have the right to be treated fairly and equally under the law.

The lockdown in many countries in Africa, including Nigeria and South Africa, risks threatening the livelihoods of millions of people who are dependent on the informal sector for their survival.

A significant proportion of black African people live in high density slums and townships where physical distancing and regular hand-washing is difficult, if not impossible.

So when the stringent regulations governing the lockdown are not complied with, it is not out of choice or delinquency. The “choice” which people are often forced to make is between obeying the law or watching their children starve.

The crisis has seen an outpouring of solidarity, empathy and support from ordinary people who genuinely want to help alleviate the burden suffered by the poor and vulnerable.

The African Diaspora Form has used its community structures in townships and communities across the country to distribute food parcels to those in desperate need of help. Hundreds of thousands of healthcare professionals are risking their lives to test and treat those infected with the virus. Other essential workers soldier on, ensuring there is food in the shops, garbage is collected, and burst pipes are repaired. We raise our hands in gratitude.

We must acknowledge, too, the efforts by the government to provide social welfare assistance and extensive Covid-19 testing. These efforts are critical.

Yet there is an “un-African” element to the way in which we are responding to the crisis. Not everyone in the country is being treated equally, especially those who aren’t citizens.

Patient Information -RSA identification number or Passport number (REQUIRED*)

We understand that the Covid-19 specimen submission form from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases requires a South African identification or passport number. This immediately excludes refugees or migrants who remain either undocumented or only have asylum permits.

From a public health point of view, this requirement makes a mockery of the efforts that our government is taking to protect our country from the dire consequences of the uncontrolled spread of Covid-19. Why would we not want to register the blood sample of a migrant or an asylum seeker living in South Africa? On what grounds are we excluding people who do not have a South African ID or passport?

All living in SA must be considered

The government has announced measures to ease the impact of the lockdown, bringing the restrictions down from Level 5 to Level 4, effective this Friday. While the easing of the restrictions is to be welcomed, there will be little change for those who are denied access to relief aid through their status as refugees.

It is this kind of discrimination that will weaken our response to the virus. If we hope to flatten the curve, we cannot afford to exclude any section of the population.

The government must respond to all who live within our borders. The president must  acknowledge that communities diverse in race, class and gender are performing acts of kindness and solidarity. All deserve to be treated equally with respect and compassion.

Inclusivity and solidarity

The way we speak about this pandemic also matters. Globally, Asian and particularly Chinese communities are facing prejudice and even violence due to inaccurate and harmful rhetoric about Covid-19. Though it seems the virus originated in China, it was spread by predominantly rich and middle class people travelling from Europe and the US.

Discrimination and stigma affect our ability to respond to this challenge and contribute to spreading the virus, instead of containing it.

Archive Photo: Police and security guards try to control asylum-seekers and refugees outside the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office on June 19, 2013 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Nardus Engelbrecht)

The healthcare system must operate outside of the enforcement of immigration laws. Fearing arrest, detention and possible deportation, many migrants and foreign nationals – documented or not – are afraid to be tested for Covid-19. 

Those without the protection of a legal document – including the thousands who are still waiting for their applications to be processed by home affairs – will not present themselves for screening if they think immigration officers are waiting to serve them with deportation orders. This would mean their infection status would go unrecorded, putting everyone who comes into contact with them at risk.

The slogan, “I am wearing a mask to protect you,” must inform our response to Covid-19. The slogan is not, “I wear a mask to protect South Africans” or “I wear a mask to protect those who can afford global travel.”

Ultimately, the pandemic should not be used as a cover for hunting down refugees and immigrants. Now is the time to embrace our oneness as the human race. DM/MC

Sharon Ekambaram works for Lawyers for Human Rights and is manager of the Refugee and Migrants Rights Programme. The views expressed are her own.




"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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