Covid-19 limits access to human rights for most South Africans: study

24 March 2021 - 14:57
A recent study shows that Covid-19 has limited access to human rights for most South Africans.
A recent study shows that Covid-19 has limited access to human rights for most South Africans.
Image: 123RF/alexskopje

The government has relied on coercion in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic instead of community engagement, according to a survey released on Wednesday.

The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and University of Johannesburg conducted an online survey to find the public’s opinion on access to human rights during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The survey was conducted in April, July and December 2020 among adults of different races, age and gender.

Human rights and social justice activist Mark Heywood, who was one of the panellists at the launch of the survey, said the study showed that most people were willing to make “reasonable” sacrifices in the interest of greater good during the pandemic.

Combating Covid-19 does not require the suspension of all rights and freedoms.
Advocate Tseliso Thipanyane

“That is a positive. The survey also shows that there is a connection between the people who call themselves pro-human rights as opposed to those who are antisocial behaviour like the refusal to wear a mask and an unwillingness to take a vaccine,” Heywood said.

The findings, Heywood said, were quite affirming of SA’s population and its understanding of human rights.

“I felt like I was locked up in jail in my own home and that's very bad since I have rights,” one of the participants said.

“The crux is whether that understanding has been abused or has been taken advantage of by government,” Heywood said.

“These limitations of rights in the interest of saving lives have had a limited effect in preventing infections or preventing deaths.”

He said if the purpose of the limitations of human rights was to contain the spread of Covid-19, then the sacrifices were not worthwhile for the people who made them.

“Did the means justify the ends? No.”

“Rather than restricting rights in the interest of public health, public health crises are times where you enhance and take extra measures to protect rights. By protecting rights you have a paradox that you protect public health,” Heywood said.

“The response has been that government has relied on coercion and force and power to try and contain the pandemic rather than social contract and engagement.”

'This is a human rights matter'

Advocate Tseliso Thipanyane, CEO of the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), said the government’s response to the coronavirus was an attempt to try and ensure the country sailed through the Covid-19 storms, and to maintain democracy.

“However, we are aware that there has been a tremendous violation of human rights; the conduct of law enforcement agencies,” he said.

“We are aware of the impact some of these measures have had on basic education.”

Thipanyane said Covid-19 also highlighted the gaps as far as the enjoyment of human rights was concerned.

“One of the major blunders in responding to Covid-19 was not to consult us widely - especially those of us in the human rights space - on how best we can deal with our responses to Covid-19. We were never invited when the regulations were made. We had to invite ourselves.”

He said there was a need for more consultation with government.

“We have to insist that this is a human rights matter and it should involve everyone.”

The SAHRC, Thipinyane said, was concerned about people who got criminal records for not wearing a mask during the lockdown.

“Are we going to have a policy where after period of time those criminal records will be expunged?”

Covid-19 had exposed the country’s shortcomings to advance democracy and human rights, he said.

“I hope we will learn from this and do better. Combating Covid-19 does not require the suspension of all rights and freedoms.”

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