Between a rock and a hard place : COVID-19 and South Africa’s response

Staunton, Ciara ; Swanepoel, Carmen ; Labuschagine, Melodie (2020)

CITATION: Staunton, C., Swanepoel, C. & Labushagine, M. 2020. Between a rock and a hard place : COVID-19 and South Africa’s response. Journal of Law and the Biosciences, lsaa052, doi:10.1093/jlb/lsaa052.

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The spread of COVID-19 across China, Asia, Europe and the United States of America was met with public health responses that initially encouraged hand washing and social distancing. They quickly turned to restrictions on the freedom of movement and assembly in the form of forced isolation, mandatory quarantines and lockdowns. Africa’s first confirmed case was not until 14 February in Egypt and March saw a steady spread of the virus throughout the African continent. Concern began to rise about the impact that the virus would have on a continent that is currently facing HIV and TB epidemics and sporadic outbreaks of Ebola and Lassa Fever. There were fears that the already weakened health systems in many African jurisdictions may be unable to cope with another pandemic and quick and decisive action to stop the spread of the virus was considered to be essential. On 15 March 2020, nine days after the first recorded case in South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a State of Disaster. Over the following weeks, a series of regulations were promulgated that limited the freedom of movement and assembly, limited the sale of certain items, specifically prohibited the sale and transportation of alcohol and cigarettes and criminalised the spread of disinformation on COVID-19. Together they represent the greatest limits on the Bill of Rights in post-apartheid South Africa. However, public health strategies such as social distancing and regular hand washing are a privilege many in South Africa cannot afford, especially for thosein crowded informal settlements and who use mass public transport systems. In this paper, we consider these regulations and argue that two major issues are a lack of a community informed response and an over-reliance on the criminal law to this major public health crisis.

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