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Human Rights Day Letter to President Ramaphosa: Overcoming Inequality will help us overcome Covid-19

Updated: May 12, 2020

Published in Daily Maverick on 20 March 2020

On the eve of Human Rights Day, human rights activist Pregs Govender addresses President Ramaphosa on how human rights can beat Covid-19.

Dear President Ramaphosa

Your presidential address was honest about Coronavirus (or Covid-19) and declared it a national disaster, countering the confusion caused by America’s Trump and Britain’s Johnson. 

You and your Cabinet elevated scientific facts above the fake news being spread on social and corporate media. Globally over 240,000 people were infected and over 10,000 people are now dead. 

Your speech rallied many, including all SA’s political parties, to recognize this as a time for united action. 

Many young people were inspired to develop memes on the prevention guidelines, including you jiving to the ‘elbow bump’. People traveling to work on public transport shared that ‘everyone is helping – sharing sanitizers, caring about themselves and each other’. Religious institutions are educating their followers on the dangers of physical contact and advising them to pray in their homes instead. 

Coronavirus has sharply highlighted our interdependence. Everyday we hear stories of the best of humanity – the ancient wisdom of Ubuntu – ‘I am because we are’. China, the first to be hit, has, after a damaging slow start, dramatically cut the numbers of people being infected. Central to its success, are state provision of free, universal healthcare and access to basic housing, food and water. Together with Cuba they have sent medical teams and equipment to help Italy, to try to save over 21,000 infected people. 

Countries like Spain, Singapore, and Italy, along with states in the USA like California have instituted nation-wide eviction moratoriums, ensuring that people who lose their livelihoods do not lose their homes. California has also ordered a state-wide stay at home. In Italy, people confined to apartments sing Italy’s national anthem, opera or hip-hop songs, from their windows and balconies. 

Inequality is an obstacle to Covid-19 preventionAcross SA people are displaying their commitment but the biggest obstacle to the government’s Covid-19 plan is SA’s inequality. SA’s strategy needs to connect immediate responses to the opportunity to transform that inequality.

For example, all those whose immune systems are compromised by illness or age are vulnerable but poverty massively increases their vulnerability to Covid-19. Co-operative governance and participatory democracy are critical. Many organized formations, including women’s movements and trade unions, working in and with SA’s most vulnerable communities, are well placed to advise the government on protecting people and tackling inequality.

Another example is government’s school closures. Some children returned from well-resourced schools to the care of wealthy or middle class parents, to grandparents on private medical aids and live-in carers. Spacious homes in previously white suburbs have gardens and even swimming pools. There are books to read and educational toys, healthy nutritious meals and water to drink and wash with. Here, children have always had access to green neighborhood parks, wide-open fields and forests, expansive beaches and dams.

The experience of most of SA’s children is starkly different. Many of their parents have to leave for work at the crack of dawn and return late at night on packed, unsafe, irregular and costly public transport. Social distancing is not possible. Many women return exhausted after long hard days cleaning other people’s homes and caring for other families, to another shift of cleaning, cooking and caring for their own families. Many return from work at hotels, guesthouses and offices, on farms and factories, where they eke out minimum wages. 

In homes and in the tourist industry workers are exposed to infection from clients and customers, including those who are infecting others while being asymptomatic. Most South Africans returning from Europe and America seem to have been tracked, tested and treated. However, a number of European and American tourists who arrived before the state of disaster still remain in SA. 

Workers employed in even such dangerous jobs are seen as fortunate. Others have long given up searching for work and drown depression in alcohol and drugs.

A number of children return from schools that mirror their neighborhoods – with pit toilets and no water, libraries, laboratories or sports-fields. They live in areas ruled by gangsters who peddle drugs and rape schoolchildren. They lack access to clean water to drink or wash with. They have few books or toys. Their homes are not in safe, wide-open spaces. Fresh air, clean water and nutritious meals are not guaranteed. There is no space to self-isolate in crowded homes where infection spreads like wildfire. Those who take care of them are often grandparents, who are most susceptible to Covid-19, yet have little access to emergency treatment or hospitalization in far-away, over-extended public hospitals. 

Spatial apartheid is an obstacle to Covid-19 prevention

Apartheid planners created separate group areas for those it designated ‘African’, “Indian’ and ‘Coloured’, that were far from education, healthcare and work, with few public services and high levels of unemployment. Apartheid further divided ‘Africans’ by ethnicity into pernicious ‘homelands’. Human dignity was undermined in a myriad ways. Apartheid’s perverse cruelty located poisonous mine-dumps, waste sites, incinerators and power stations close to the homes of the oppressed and exploited. In Cape Town, the nearest ‘African’ beach was its most dangerous beach, where children regularly drowned. In Durban, planners allowed a global oil company to locate its refinery close to ‘Coloured’, ‘Indian’ and ‘African’ residential areas, causing dangerous respiratory illness in many children. Steven Bantu Biko united all oppressed groups as Black people to fight against their common oppressor. 

Stats-SA reveals that in 2020, on every single human right, the national averages skyrocket in apartheid-era homelands, townships and informal settlements. Since 1994, government has convened numerous experts, including through public hearings on transforming apartheid-era spatial planning. Their solutions need agreement and implementation to prevent millions dying if Covid-19 spreads.

Health Minister Mkhize reiterated that the needs of the poorest must be prioritized. Anyone, regardless of income, who displays all Covid-19 symptoms, needs access to testing, be able to be quarantined and access treatment. 

Government has the power and goodwill to collectively pool SA’s expertise, talent and resources to give effect to universal healthcare (‘national health insurance’?). Doctors take an altruistic oath of office to save human beings and together with nurses and community health care workers, most do so selflessly. 

Covid-19 demands that the private sector, including private health insurance companies and hospitals, honor this code. Spain has responded to Covid-19 by nationalizing all private hospitals. How will SA effect universal healthcare for people who are poor?  

Interdependence of rights

As a key architect of SA’s Constitution, you know that SA’s success in ‘flattening the curve’ of this global pandemic rests on recognizing political, civil, economic, social, and cultural human rights as interdependent, indivisible and universal. 

Good health is dependent on access to clean water, nutritious food, homes in decent human settlements with proper roads, streetlights, dignified sanitation and municipal services, quality education, safe, effective and affordable transport, good childcare, decent employment, peace and safety, sufficient rest and leisure amongst other human rights. 

It is a virtuous cycle.

Yet, as the International Labour Organization (ILO) reports, Covid-19 is increasing unemployment and the numbers of the working poor through underemployment and precarious employment.  Workers in SA are losing even the precarious incomes they received as seasonal farm-workers, restaurant and hotel staff or virtual platform contracted drivers or domestic workers. 

Global obscene responses include Virgin’s Richard Branson, who made 8500 workers take 8 weeks unpaid leave, when the total wage-bill of 34 million pounds would barely dent the 4 billion pounds (approximately R70 billion) he is worth. 

The ILO recognizes the ‘central role of employment, social protection and social dialogue in mitigation and recovery policies’. In SA government, business and trade unions have forums like NEDLAC to ensure the protection of workers jobs and the survival of small, medium and micro enterprises. With no income many workers and their families go hungry because they cannot afford food. They also face eviction from their homes, while wealthy metros lease large tracts of land to golf courses for minuscule fees. 

SA has ratified the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The ICESCR Committee has called on governments to ensure that adults with little or no income have access to social assistance by October 2020. SA needs to develop a comprehensive social security safety net, building on existing social grants. 

Government has promised to ensure that this month’s social grant payments at SASSA offices, at pay points and SAPO branches are in line with Covid-19 guidelines. According to the Black Sash, only 5% of grantees use these outlets, 95% of 12 million grantees collect grants at ATMs and retailers. Government and the private sector, such as the banks that benefit, need to resolve this without demanding more from people who have the least.

Healthcare workers, including medical doctors, community health care workers, nurses and cleaners will help South Africa survive this pandemic. Government must stop planned austerity budget cuts for nurses. The Labour Court has also ruled that community health care workers be recognized as employees and their wages need to reflect their valuable services. 

Government can reinstate its 1998 commitment to a gender-responsive budget to help address economic policy biases that devalue women’s contribution to social reproduction.

Addressing Covid-19 & Inequality together

SA has experienced deep hatreds including racism, xenophobia, misogyny and homophobia. Apartheid’s leaders and beneficiaries need to accept the crime they committed against humanity, and their responsibility to address SA’s wealth inequality. The TRC’s wealth tax, land redistribution and ending illicit financial flows, are a small price to pay. 

Human Rights Day honors the courage of those killed by apartheid soldiers in Sharpeville and those killed before and after 21 March 1960. Many of those fighting patriarchal, capitalist Apartheid were motivated by love for humanity. As you lead SA’s response to the Covid-19 disaster, may SA also create an economic, political and social system that values all children and fulfills human rights in an equal society!

With respect and solidarity,

Pregs Govender MC

Govender is a writer and author of Love and Courage, A Story of Insubordination. She is a former Human Rights Commissioner and Deputy Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).

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