A medic treats a patient infected with coronavirus, at a hospital in Tehran, Iran. In South Africa we will soon see this clash of causes - and the grand championing of individual rights in the face of socialistic efforts to contain the epidemic, says the writer.  Picture: Ali Shirband/Mizan News Agency via AP
A medic treats a patient infected with coronavirus, at a hospital in Tehran, Iran. In South Africa we will soon see this clash of causes - and the grand championing of individual rights in the face of socialistic efforts to contain the epidemic, says the writer. Picture: Ali Shirband/Mizan News Agency via AP

No place for human rights in fight against deadly coronavirus

By Chuck Stephens Time of article published Mar 3, 2020

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THE Covid-19 epidemic has been politically illuminating. China seems to have slowed down the spread of the virus by using draconian measures that could never be imposed by democratic governments.

The first major surge of the epidemic beyond China’s borders was into South Korea. It seems to have spread there in the midst of a religious group whose members congregated for funerals or worship.

Now, the mayor of that city is suing the church’s leader for refusing to share intelligence about his church members. This is what happens when Covid-19 meets liberal democracy, as opposed to socialism.

In fact, both socialism and liberalism are strands of humanism. The difference is that socialism champions the rights of the collective, whereas liberalism champions the rights of the individual.

In terms of disease control, one of the ways public health is protected is to track down those who have come into contact with infected people, so they can be warned - for their own protection.

A high incidence of people in this church denomination had tested positive to Covid-19, so for the common good, the city government asked for its lists of members. The pastor suddenly decided to become an HRD (human rights defender) and invoked their individual right to privacy.

Constitutional democracies entrench such rights among their civil liberties. Unlike China - where government has not worried so much about individual rights, but put the common good first.

This reminded me, in retrospect, of why the HIV spread so fast in Africa. Like Covid-19, you could be infected by it without knowing. So you could also serve as a carrier - unwittingly.

But eventually, without treatment, the symptoms would manifest, making you and others realise you were infected. Long after you could have infected others.

There are recorded cases of people intentionally using their sero-positivity to harm others. That is called “harmful HIV transmission”.

There are also cases of people knowing that they were positive, and knowing how the virus is transmitted yet they did not warn their sexual partners or take the expected precautions. This is called “reckless HIV transmission”.

Maybe they weren’t using their infection as a weapon? But like the Korean church leader, they were putting their individual rights ahead of the common good. This is rabid entitlement.

When rape is committed, the perpetrator can also infect the victim with the HIV virus. This aggravates the charge of rape and stiffens the sentencing. Rape is a crime in itself, distinct from intentional or reckless HIV transmission. In the law of South Africa, that is a crime too, and should be prosecuted as well. It is called “HIV-endangerment”.

Reckless transmission is a risk - even in the current Covid-19 epidemic. The Black Death was unleashed on Europe when the Mongol soldiers of Jani Beg lobbed infected bodies over the walls of the port city of Kaffa.

People started dying and fled on boats which sailed to ports in Europe, transporting the bubonic plague. It was a weapon of mass destruction.

It turned out that the transmission was not directly from people-to-people like HIV or the coronavirus. It involved rats on board the ships. And even the rats were not to blame. It was the fleas on the rats that infected humans when the rats died.

In South Africa we will soon see this clash of causes - and the grand championing of individual rights in the face of socialistic efforts to contain the epidemic. In fact, we have seen it already. Because the law of South Africa - like most countries in Africa - criminalises “HIV endangerment”. Not HIV-transmission, that is not a crime.

The law criminalises those who endanger others by their silence and/or stealth. Call it indecent exposure.

But NPA prosecutors do nothing, because of the roar that arises from the HRDs, should they try to champion the rights of victims. For some reason, the rights of the perpetrators prevail. Just like this church leader in Korea, refusing to divulge intelligence about his flock to the city authorities trying to contain the spread of an epidemic.

The rights of many victims have been denied. Prosecutors cower at having to prosecute the crime of “HIV endangerment”. Because they are champions of another cause - justice.

They somehow forget that the justice system also has defence attorneys. It is the duty of a defence attorney to do his or her utmost to defend people.

The problem in South Africa is that State prosecutors suffer from a debilitating overdose of liberal humanism.

They usurp the role of the judges by only prosecuting one out of three cases presented by the police. They are more concerned about their batting average than about victims’ rights.

In the light of the fact that prosecutors basically ignore the criminalisation of HIV endangerment, my sense is that citizens of South Africa are sitting ducks when it comes to Covid-19.

* Stephens works for the Unembeza Desk at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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