Covid19, Pandemic, World Health Organization, Wuhan, Human rights, regulations… the list goes on and on. These are some terms that have been on repeat the last few months and for myself, as I’m sure for many of you too, can even hear this in our sleep at this point. What is this fuss about and what can we uncover about adherence to our Human rights in relation to new regulations put into place due to Covid19? A deeper look into these topics gives insight into what our Government is currently doing and what more they should be doing in South Africa with regard to the Right to Education.
So, first things first, just in case you haven’t done your research, what is Covid19? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by a new coronavirus first identified in December 2019. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses known to cause respiratory infections. There is no vaccine yet to prevent COVID-19, and no specific treatment for it, other than managing the symptoms”.
11 March 2020 was a day many of our lives changed, the day that the virus was declared a ‘pandemic‘ by the World Health Organisation, which we tend to discuss a lot (and will probably tell our grandchildren about in the future). This resulted in a call for governments to take strict and critical responses and measures, in order to slow down the spread (of the virus). Once this was done governments did act fast; many regulations, rules and disaster acts were put into place in countries across the world, such as China, Vietnam, South Africa and Singapore. Some regulations included containment measures, travel restrictions and bans from effected areas, government implemented spot health checks, airport closures and healthy clearance requirements. These restrictions prove to slow down the spread, or as it is now called; flatten the curve.
Some drastic restrictions and implications sure do raise suspicions, so I have taken a deeper look into such restrictions and laws; since International human rights guarantees every person to obtainable standards of health, which is under the responsibility of government to put measures in place and avoid dangerous threats to public health, some changes need to be put in place, but how far can they go? “Within these human rights laws it is identified that justifiable restrictions on some rights may occur”(watch 2020). Coronavirus is a justifiable cause for restrictions (such as quarantine or isolation limiting the freedom of movement) due to the threat it poses on public health. The Siracusa Principles, adopted by the UN Economic and Social Council in 1984, and UN Human Rights Committee general, discusses lawful guidance for governments during states of emergencies, particularly the freedom of movement, stating, “Any measures taken to protect the population that limit people’s rights and freedoms must be lawful, necessary, and proportionate. States of emergency need to be limited in duration and any curtailment of rights needs to take into consideration the disproportionate impact on specific populations or marginalized groups” (International Commission of Jurists, 1985).
The principles also go further to state that restrictions need to be in accordance to the law, direct towards a legitimate objective, as least intrusive as possible, based on scientific evidence and be of limited duration.
So how does this influence the right to education?
The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) , lists the right to basic education as a legal and development priority. The right to education is recognised in the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1989), as well as the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996). Article 1 of the World Declaration on Education for All defines basic education as an education which provides “essential learning tools (such as literacy, oral expression, numeracy, and problem solving) and the basic learning content (such as knowledge, skills, values and attitudes) required by human beings to be able to survive, to develop their full capacities, to live and work in dignity, to participate fully in development, to improve the quality of their lives, to make informed decision, and to continue learning” (UN CESCR. General Comment No. 13, 8 December 1999) (SAHRC, 2012). The republic of South Africa states in the SAHRC charter of 2012 under section 1.7- Providing sufficient teaching and learning support materials and equipment. This includes stationary, textbooks and other appropriate materials in a ‘timely fashion’ which the National and provincial Departments of basic education should take responsibility of. This concludes what is necessary with regards to basic education. The difficult part comes when implementing this during a pandemic with restricting laws.
South Africa has thus implemented laws and restrictions around the pandemic and the Government Gazette states restrictions, offences and penalties as follows;
Restriction on the movement of persons and goods 11 B. (1 )(a) For the period of lockdown- (i) every person is confined to his or her place of residence, unless strictly for the purpose of performing an essential service, obtaining an essential good or service, collecting a social grant, pension or seeking emergency, life-saving, or chronic medical attention;…
Offences and penalties 11 G. For purposes of this Chapter any person who contravenes— (a) regulation 11B(1)(a)… shall be guilty of an offence and, on conviction, liable to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months or to both such fine and imprisonment
It can be concluded that the new laws restrict the ability to attend schooling or any form of education as it is not mentioned in the above allowances of reasons for leaving one’s home.
Angie Mothseka, the minister of Basic Education in South Africa, shared with Businesstech (March 2020) her departments plan for schools. As president Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation on 15 March 2020, declaring a national disaster, Mothseka announced that all schools will close by 18 March 2020. “Schools, in particular, have been identified as one of the biggest threats in terms of the transmission,” the minister told Businesstech (2020). The minister stated that lost teaching time will be made up for, by cutting holidays short and that learners should continue studying at home whilst educators are advised to take responsibility upon themselves to assign tasks to learners preparing them for exams and studies when they return. Mothseka also urged parents to get involved in the education of their children. The department announced in April 2020, that they are still communicating with Umalusi (Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training) on a structural plan for education to continue (government, 2020) whilst asking students to prepare themselves for online studies
This is an insufficient and unstructured plan for delivering education to the children of the nation. It is currently the 2ndweek of April 2020 and government schooling/education is still on hold and awaiting communication from Umalusi. It has been almost a month since schools have closed, which has now created a great loss of valuable time. The solution and statement brought forward from the government also states ‘online teaching’ which excludes consideration for rural areas where many learners and some educators do not have access to any digital platform, never-mind the knowledge and ability to use it. Close to 363 million learners have been impacted worldwide, over 91% of the students population (UNESCO 2020). UNESCO has recommended states to ‘adopt a variety of hi-tech, low-tech and no tech solutions to ensure the continuity of learning” (Human rights watch, 2020).
Government should attempt to implement online teaching immediately in areas where it is possible and adopt migration strategies for students without internet or digital access. This can be done through working with teachers, school officials and teachers’ unions to attempt reaching all students and fair compensation. Some possible solutions include distribution of hard copy worksheets, releasing textbooks from schools; allowing students to use them at home, scheduling Q&A days in remote areas where parents can also attend (with limitations of only 10 people per time and strict sanitation) and getting involved in small communities to distribute efforts across all levels of society.
The government needs to implement and adopt immediate and timely measures to ensure that valuable teaching time as well as education rights are not jeopardized. It is understandable that longer lasting methods will take time to formulate and implement, especially to meet the needs of all corners of societies and communities, but the current valuable time should not be wasted. Children depend on education for a brighter future and it is a fundamental right. Government needs to adopt larger efforts, more responsibility and urgency to come up with a realistic solution.
As Martin Luther King Jr once said,
a right delayed is a right denied
Please take the time to watch this video on a thorough hand washing technique that could protect you from contracting Covid-19: