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‘I Think of It in Terms of Years’: The Future of the COVID-19 Pandemic in South Africa

By Chloe Reichel

“No One Is Safe Until Everyone Is Safe” goes the rallying cry for global vaccine equity.

We would think that the COVID-19 pandemic already has made this point clear enough.

And yet, pundits are heralding the “end” of the pandemic in the U.S., all while viral variants that may be capable of evading the protection of vaccines continue to crop up both domestically and internationally.

In this Q&A, South African journalist and human rights activist Mark Heywood offers a look at the national COVID-19 epidemic in South Africa. The sobering reality there, in terms of morbidity and mortality, and in terms of expectations for the future, underscores the urgency for globally coordinated leadership and action to address the pandemic.

Our conversation from late March 2021, which has been edited and condensed, follows.

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Cape Town, South Africa - 6 April 2020 : Empty streets and stay home sign in Cape Town during the Coronavirus lockdown.

One Year Later: COVID-19, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law in South Africa

By Chloe Reichel

South Africa has faced a devastating national COVID-19 epidemic, with over 1.5 million confirmed cases, and over 50,000 confirmed deaths.

The true toll, in terms of cases and deaths, is likely much higher. Research shows the country has recorded 150,000 excess deaths since May 2020.

The pandemic has also profoundly affected South Africans’ constitutionally recognized rights.

Since the start of the pandemic, the country has experienced varying degrees of lockdown, which, at different points, included a curfew, bans on the sale of alcohol and tobacco, and the closure of most businesses. The lockdown has been enforced strictly, resulting in hundreds of thousands of arrests for violations.

Mark Heywood highlighted some of these rights concerns last June in “Human Rights, the Rule of Law, and COVID-19 in South Africa,” a contribution to Bill of Health‘s digital symposium on global responses to COVID-19.

I spoke with Heywood in late March 2021 to get an update on the state of human rights and the rule of law in South Africa one year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, follows.

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June Medical Services and Access to Abortion: Comparative Lessons for the African Region

By Charles Ngwena

Drawing lessons from June Medical Services provides the African human rights system with an opportunity not to affirm what it has in common with the U.S., but rather to uphold its own approach and articulate the jurisprudence that sets it apart.

The U.S. regulates abortion primarily through its Supreme Court using jurisprudence which frames abortion as a right implied in the constitutional right to privacy.

On the other side of the comparison, the African human rights system frames abortion as a human right that transcends national borders in the African region. By “human rights system,” I am referring to the regional system founded under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter) and its supplementary treaties, especially the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol).

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Cape Town, South Africa.

Human Rights, the Rule of Law, and COVID-19 in South Africa

Read an update to this post published April 13, 2021: “One Year Later: COVID-19, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law in South Africa”

By Mark Heywood

South Africa’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on March 5th, 2020. Ten days later, on March 15th, 2020, the government utilized the Disaster Management Act (2002) to declare a State of National Disaster. Under this Act, the government set up a National Command Council (NCC) made up of Cabinet Ministers and restricted certain rights necessary to prevent SARS-Cov-2 transmission and “flatten the curve.”

A national lockdown started on March 27th. It was relaxed slightly (to level 4) on May 1st, and was further relaxed (to level 3) on June 1st. The lockdown severely restricted freedom of movement, closed all but essential companies and schools, banned the sale of alcohol and tobacco, and introduced a night-time curfew between 8pm and 5am. By May 22nd, the Minister of Police reported that 230,000 people had been arrested for violating lock-down regulations.

The most affected constitutionally recognized rights are freedom of movement, assembly, and trade. However, on paper at least, care has been taken to ensure that political rights and rights to freedom of expression and association are not limited, and the President has couched the country’s response in terms of the Constitution, particularly the rights to life, dignity and access to health care services. He has also frequently referred to the right to equality and promised that in the post COVID-19 period South Africa will do much more to tackle the inequalities that have been exposed by the coronavirus.

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