People from other countries may be reluctant to present for testing or to report contacts that hold an irregular documentation status for fear of arrest. We need a blanket amnesty to ensure that all in South Africa feel safe to participate in testing and for effective contact tracing.
To successfully address COVID-19, our public health programming must engage with everyone in South Africa, including refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants from elsewhere on the continent and beyond. We must use inclusive language in our messaging, and avoid the tendency of the state to refer to South African “citizens”—rather than to “all in South Africa”—in their COVID-19 communication. We must work collectively and without discrimination if we are to have any chance of slowing down the virus’s spread. This isn’t negotiable: it is a must in the context of COVID-19 if we are to support, as best we can, our already struggling public healthcare system (which, by the way, is not struggling due to the presence of foreign migrants in the country, in spite of popular opinion to the contrary).
Urgent measures are required to ensure we include all foreign migrants – not only tourists and international travellers from high- and medium-risk countries – in our response to Covid-19. There needs to be assurance that, regardless of their current documentation status, no foreign migrant will face any sanctions when engaging with state authorities, including when seeking healthcare or being included in contact tracing. Without this, our efforts to reduce the spread of Covid-19 will fail.
Whether the apparent lack of consideration of foreign migrants is a result of their continued exclusion in public health planning, or due to the initial cases of Covid-19 identified in South Africa being imported from outside of the African continent, is irrelevant. Perhaps the tables have turned and recognition of the ways in which international tourist travel can be associated with the spread of infectious diseases has been brought to light, challenging and perhaps even silencing, at least for now, the pervasive blaming of foreign migrants for the health challenges faced in South Africa.
An effective response to South Africa’s coronavirus outbreak is an inclusive response. This keeps migrants safe and it keeps everyone in South Africa healthy. It reduces the need for people to cross the border through irregular routes that may not only be dangerous but do not have the healthcare workers needed to screen people for the new virus. Effective management of this public health crisis will involve all of us. This would truly be a case of, what Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi recently called, “international solidarity”.