President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu employ the former’s recommended form of greeting - the elbow bump - in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)
President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu employ the former’s recommended form of greeting - the elbow bump - in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

Covid-19 teaches us that human rights should be beyond shaking hands

By Ryland Fisher - Thinking Allowed Time of article published Mar 21, 2020

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Cape Town - They say a week is a long time in politics. It is even longer in a country dealing with Covid-19.

Since President Cyril Ramaphosa last Sunday announced stringent measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, life in South Africa has changed. The challenge is going to be how much of what we have learned in this period will stay with us after the pandemic.

It seems like it will be the simple things that will keep us safe. I was once fortunate to work with South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim on promoting a locally assembled jazz orchestra and some concerts, and I thought it was strange he refused to shake anyone’s hands.

When Ibrahim announced he was cancelling his appearance in this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival - weeks before the festival was called off - because of concerns around Covid-19, I thought back to my interactions with him and realised he was ahead of his time.

We have been living dangerously for too long, shaking hands without considering what the other person might have been doing with theirs, and touching everything without thinking.

One of the things we should continue doing after the virus is to refuse to shake hands and find other, healthier ways of greeting.

We should be diligent about washing our hands, even when we think it is not necessary. This is not only about the virus; it is about basic hygiene.

We should also learn that, ultimately, we are all people and that skin colour matters very little when you are faced with a deadly virus.

Covid-19 has been indiscriminate about who it attacks, but you still find people wanting to blame certain demographics for initiating and spreading it. Our focus should be on containment and healing, not looking to blame anyone based on where they come from or what they look like.

I am glad most political parties seem to be in agreement on the measures we need to tackle the virus. We are stronger together than when we are fighting each other.

Over the past week, we have seen examples of human kindness from a few people who have plenty and many others who have little. Hopefully we will realise we can all make a difference in the lives of those who might not have as much as we do.

But we have also seen how people have used their privilege to protect themselves at the expense of others.

I am thinking of those who bought excessive amounts of items such as toilet paper, and the companies who exploited people’s fears for profit. Also, the Gauteng family who tried to escape isolation after they tested positive. The government had to go to court to force them into quarantine.

As we mark the 60th anniversary of the police shootings at Sharpeville and Langa on March, 21, 1960, which is now commemorated as Human Rights Day, it is only proper that we reflect on how a virus has affected our most basic human right: the right to life.

We can also reflect on how we sometimes do not pay enough attention to the rights of all humans. We do not need a virus to teach us this.

* Ryland Fisher is the chief executive of Ikusasa Lethu Media. Follow him on Twitter: @rylandfisher

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