see saw with earth as fulcrum and a pile of vaccines weighing down one side with nothing on the other side.

The Case for Procurement Transparency

By Tara Davis and Nicola Soekoe

In January 2021, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) observed that the world was on the brink of a “catastrophic moral failure” if wealthier nations did not ensure the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Global health activists and civil society organizations who worked transnationally to curtail what came to be referred to as “vaccine apartheid” faced a pharmaceutical industry that globally relied on secrecy, capital-friendly trade laws, and brute economic force to shirk considerations of human rights. In many ways, pharmaceutical companies and the states that protected them, including by failing to achieve consensus at the World Trade Organization (WTO) for a waiver of intellectual property rights with respect to vaccines, seemed impenetrable.

Unsurprisingly, given the extreme position of power from which pharmaceutical companies were negotiating contracts, there were widespread reports and allegations of inequitable contractual terms and a culture of bullying in the development of contracts. This was an issue of global concern for a long period during the pandemic. In South Africa, the Health Justice Initiative (HJI), a local advocacy organization, joined the global calls for greater procurement transparency.

However, when the South African Department of Health refused to disclose even the names of the entities with which it had entered into vaccine-related agreements, the HJI was forced to turn to the courts for relief.

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3D illustration of a Renaissance marble statue of Zeus, king of the gods, who was also the god of the sky and thunder. Zeus in Greek mythology is known as Jupiter in Roman mythology.

Data Pseudonymization and POPIA

By Donrich Thaldar

Just as Zeus, the King of the Gods in Greek mythology, assumed various forms to conceal his true identity, so does modern data often undergo transformations to mask its origins. Zeus could become a swan, a bull, or even golden rain to achieve his purposes — all while maintaining his essence. Similarly, pseudonymization techniques aim to alter data enough to protect individual privacy without losing the core information necessary for research or analysis. This entails replacing data subjects’ identifying information in a dataset with unique codes, while keeping another dataset that links these data subjects’ identifying information with their allocated codes. Therefore, just as Zeus’ transformations were sometimes seen through by keen eyes, pseudonymized data can be re-identified by those having access to the linking dataset.

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open door to the sky.

Open Science and Its Enemies: Policy Initiatives in South Africa 

By Donrich Thaldar

Within South Africa’s science policy landscape, two recent proposals, the Draft National Open Science Policy and the Draft National Policy on Data and Cloud, highlight an ideological struggle between individual freedom and central control by the state.

This article discusses both of these proposals, the strengths and weaknesses of their approaches, and their concordance with broader social and political goals in South Africa.

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Red and White Lines of barrier tape.

Access to Reproductive Technology May Be Impeded by Workplace Law and Policy in South Africa

By Sheetal Soni

In this post, I will consider the position of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) under South African law, as well as the challenges posed by legislation and policy.

Broadly speaking, ARTs have made it possible for people to create and expand their families where this was previously not possible. Obstacles to reproducing include natural barriers such as infertility, or being single or in a same-sex relationship. Options such as gamete donation, surrogacy, intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection and other technologies have allowed infertile individuals to better the odds of reproducing. However, as beneficial as these ART options may be, there are other barriers to creating that family; in South Africa, these barriers include unequal access to treatment, as well as workplace laws and policies that dissuade and discourage people from seeking treatment.

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rendering of luminous DNA with gene being removed with forceps.

Bioethics Experts vs Ordinary South Africans on the Governance of Human Genome Editing

By Donrich Thaldar

On the issue of human genome editing (HGE), attitudes between bioethics scholars and the general public diverge, as highlighted by my team’s findings from a recent deliberative public engagement study.

In the study, which assessed views on heritable HGE among South Africans, participants adopted a pragmatic risk-benefit approach to specific applications of heritable HGE. This rational pragmatism of the study participants was informed by values such as improving quality of life, equality and (universal) access to healthcare, moral autonomy, and innovation. By contrast, we might characterize bioethics experts as raising principled objections to heritable HGE as a technology, such as Jürgen Habermas’s articulation of the “right” of the prospective child to an “unaltered genome.” (Not one study participant relied on this objection during the more than 20 hours of deliberations.)

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red and green silhouette illustration of women having a conversation.

The Not-So-Sacred Human Genome: What South Africans Think About Heritable Human Genome Editing

By Donrich Thaldar

South Africans have issued a clarion call for research to move ahead on health-related applications of heritable human genome editing (HHGE), finds my research group’s new public engagement study — the first of its kind in Africa.

The study engaged a diverse group of 30 South Africans in three evenings of deliberations on the governance of HHGE. The methodology entailed (a) facilitated deliberation between the participants with the aim of finding consensus, although consensus was not forced; and (b) ensuring well-informed deliberations by providing participants with balanced, internationally peer-reviewed information about HHGE and the ethical arguments relating to it. The results of these deliberations are summarized briefly below.

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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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