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COVID-19 thrives on Inequality

​It was inevitable that in the declaration of the Covid-19 national lockdown regulations, some social and economic rights would be sacrificed. And there is nothing irrational about South Africa’s regulations.

This was the view of Professor Steven Friedman, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), during the fourth episode of UJ’s weekly webinar series that reimagines the world after the pandemic. This week’s event was held under the theme Inequality after COVID-19. “The human rights-based approach which I will recommend is that whether people live in poverty or wealth, they should protect themselves as they are not irrational beings. We need to understand that knowledge is not restricted to formal education or affluent people,” said Prof Friedman.

He was among the panelists that consisted of Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Law (UJ); Professor Sridhar Venkatapuram, Senior Lecturer in Global Health and Philosophy at the King’s College Global Health Institute, United Kingdom.

Prof Friedman focused on human rights and socio-economic rights. “What strikes me is the palpable fear which people in the townships and informal settlements in getting into (minibus) taxis. If they don’t get in the taxis, they will lose their jobs. So, for me, the South African experience illustrates that for a human rights approach, (the government) need to the one that will protect its citizens as autonomous beings who are capable of making choices and capable of rational choices”.

He added: “We need to understand health in the global north. It has been understood as curative health, very effective and technologically advanced but in contrast this shows us that rich countries are good at somethings and poor countries are probably better at other things.”

Prof Mpedi said while policymakers try to strike a balance to guarantee human rights, this is not an easy task. “There are two court cases involving policymakers that came up and what is already circulating is that policymakers have to make sure that they are rational in their approaches when they are making these decisions and regulations.”

“All I ask is for a rational approach with balance and without unnecessary discrepancies between sectors. Currently all I see is a haphazard approach that is troubling and at the same time people’s livelihoods are affected”.

In his presentation, Prof Venkatapuram focused on the need for global health public ethics. He said there had been an absolute lack of declaration of ethics in the way the policies were implemented worldwide. “The kind of ethics that are now proliferating have been very confused and haphazard largely on clinical ethics,” he said, drawing on an ethical framework that can be adopted. “Since the government policies are lacking the imagination of stating the primary unit of our concern, is it a sector or is it a person? South Africa is a profoundly important model for this because it has a history were laws did not acknowledge certain kinds of people, so we need to reimagine different kinds of social and economic groups.

Prof Venkatapuram added: “On the health perspective, health is global and when it comes to health policy, it has always been a political endeavor, it’s never been medical or scientific. The way international relations works is a reflection of domestic politics. We need to focus on our empathy across all countries. We can see that even the richest countries are doing the worst.”

prof steve friedman
Prof Steven Friedman
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