OP-ED: Drones, dinghies and an army helicopter – why the state’s new toys won’t help South Africa’s response to Covid-19

This opinion piece was originally published by the Daily Maverick under the same title, along with the featured image, on 8 January 2021.

Written by Jo Vearey, Sally Gandar, Rebecca Walker and Francois Venter. Image by Shiraaz Mohamed. Caption: Hundreds of people gather at the gate of the Beitbridge border waiting to enter into South Africa following the announcement of the Zimbabwe lockdown.

The government’s decision to focus on tracking, detaining and deporting migrants as they cross into South Africa ensures that their ‘illegal’ status and/or failure to secure the bona fide negative Covid-19 test certificates, currently required to enter into South Africa, is focused on at the expense of the many systemic challenges faced in accessing documentation – including Covid certificates.

Whilst it was colonial cartographers who initially penned the painful lines that broke up communities across the region, it is the South African state that is now thickening them.

The images of large crowds of Zimbabweans gathering at the Beitbridge border, accompanied by speculation that this could lead to a “humanitarian crisis”, not only help cement the idea of migrant bodies as a threat but also provide a much-needed distraction from the state’s astounding lack of preparedness in securing and rolling out a Covid-19 vaccine.

Long associated with anti-foreigner, xenophobic and nationalistic sentiments, South Africa’s politics have – prior to and during the Covid-19 pandemic – driven uninformed, non-evidence-based and potentially dangerous international immigration/migration policy discussions and processes.

This is particularly the case for activities that claim to focus on national security, which may themselves pose a threat to the health of all in South Africa, as well as regionally and globally. This was evident in March 2020 when just over R40-million of taxpayers’ money was wasted on a 40km border fence that was erected – through questionable procurement – as a sensational “knee-jerk reaction” to halt the presumed spread of Covid-19 from Zimbabwe to South Africa.

As a medical doctor by training, the Minister of Home Affairs – Dr Aaron Motsoaledi – should know better. Whilst he has previously failed to ensure the safety of South African citizens who work in or access services at Department of Home Affairs (DHA) offices, through inadequate provision of PPE, Motsoaledi has invested in increasingly restrictive measures at our borders, including an array of new security toys: drones, dinghies and an army helicopter.

This is in spite of previous studies that have clearly demonstrated the wasted expenditure of state funds in its failed attempts to restrict movement across South Africa’s borders. As predicted, the 40km fence erected along South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe in March 2020 did nothing more than waste money, which could have been put towards South Africa’s dismal vaccine procurement approach. At the discounted rate of $20 — approximately R200 for two doses of Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine (that South Africa says is still too expensive), 200,000 healthcare workers could be vaccinated. The minister’s new toys are diverting resources, and diverting attention.

For an infectious disease containment strategy to succeed, everyone must be included. This applies to diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis, for which South Africa has some of the highest rates in the world, and now, most urgently, to Covid-19. Despite the fact that non-discriminatory inclusion is a basic public health and disease control principle, hard battles have had to be fought over many years to ensure that access to HIV and tuberculosis services is available to all in South Africa – including both citizens and non-citizens alike – and it looks like this is going to be the case once again in 2021 with Covid-19 testing, treatment and, ultimately, vaccination.

Non-citizens have predominantly been side-lined in South Africa’s Covid-19 interventions while the government falls back on those familiar (and unsubstantiated) claims that foreigners are to blame for state failures with its Covid-19 response and forward-planning. The spectacle of heightened security at the borders combined with dramatisation of the numbers returning to South Africa is a politically convenient distraction from the real challenges experienced by non-citizens – which are often the result of South Africa’s political and administrative processes.

Annually, migrants travel home to visit family and friends and return to South Africa for the start of the New Year. Yet this year, with a full lockdown imposed by the Zimbabwean state and the “amended” Level 3 lockdown in South Africa, it is unsurprising that many are desperate to return, fearful of being unable to resume work and education, and to get back to their lives, families and communities here. But the government’s decision to focus on tracking, detaining and deporting migrants as they cross into South Africa ensures that their “illegal” status and/or failure to secure the bona fide negative Covid-19 test certificates, currently required to enter into South Africa, is focused on at the expense of the many systemic challenges faced in accessing documentation – including Covid certificates.

This focus also diverts attention from the catastrophic (and for some, fatal) situation witnessed in Musina in December, and from the need for appropriate border management of Covid-19 we require at all our ports of entry and exit. Collectively, these processes risk producing challenges that will further stall progress towards effective management of the Covid-19 pandemic by undermining attempts to develop coordinated, cross-border, migration-aware and mobility-competent health programmes. They risk pushing migrants into irregular routes and/or deterring both regular and irregular cross-border migrants from accessing Covid-19 interventions once in South Africa. And, yet again, political opportunism is able to ignore the realities on the ground and instead continue to claim that being undocumented is a chosen act of criminality rather than the result of political and systemic failures which plague the immigration processes.

This chimes well with the latest false claims and hate speech of the #PutSouthAfricansFirst movement on social media, which drive xenophobia and the incitement of violence and indicate an incredibly dangerous and often life-threatening symptom of South Africa’s unhealthy social and political environment. Whilst by no means unique to South Africa, it is this increasingly nationalistic context that the necessarily inclusive programming needed to control the Covid-19 pandemic must contend with. A consequence of South Africa’s growing nationalism is its “investment” in an increasingly restrictive and security-focused approach to the management of international migration (whilst simultaneously claiming it cannot afford the necessary vaccination plan urgently required to control Covid-19).

The metaphor of a border – of keeping “them” away from “us” – often creeps into popular thinking about infectious disease control. Whilst there is some truth in this, it is not as straightforward as many would like. These borderlines, however thickly drawn and secured, don’t prevent the spread of communicable diseases, including diseases endemic to the highly mobile southern African region – HIV, tuberculosis and malaria – and, as of 2020, Covid-19. As political tools, they do not reflect the realities of an economy built on migrant labour and a region shaped by the movement of people.

Damaging government processes include the development of the White Paper on International Migration (July 2017), amendments to the Refugee Act and Regulations (effected in January 2020) and worrying clauses in the National Health Insurance White Paper; collectively, the rights of non-citizens to preventative and curative healthcare have been increasingly eroded. This does not make public health sense. It seems that the Covid-19 pandemic is being used by the DHA and others to justify the implementation of increased security measures along borders, with a focus on the Beitbridge/Musina land crossing.

The latest DHA policy documents were published for public consultation on 31 December 2020. The Draft One-Stop Border Post Policy, and the Draft Official Identity Management Policy, both illustrate significant focus on national security and the protection of South Africa’s sovereignty. Such issues and functions are not usually associated with a government department tasked with governance and administration roles in terms of the civic registration of citizens, and the management of international migration.

Increased security measures at borders, as well as the intensified focus on national security by the DHA and the current Covid-19 context, open up opportunities for health status (or perceived health risk) to be applied as an additional securitisation measure through which to further restrict movement across national borders and to justify the arrest, detention and deportation of non-nationals. At present, this takes the form of the requirement for a negative (costly) Covid-19 PCR test and compulsory health screening at borders.

For those without a valid Covid-19 negative test certificate, rapid antigen testing (at a cost of R170, to be borne by the traveller) is now offered.  Whilst the management of any pandemic requires appropriate disease management strategies – including in relation to the movement of people – they can all too easily become counterproductive. Given that South Africans moving extensively across the country aren’t required to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 status, why should we be demanding this from those crossing land borders?

Current work in South Africa, including efforts led by the Health Justice Initiative, to overcome vaccine nationalism and hold the state to account presents a critical moment for ensuring that all in South Africa are included in the vaccination plan and that strategies for a regional approach to vaccination are actively considered. Whilst questions around the adequacy of Covax are being asked, and realisation of the limited action taken by the state to date, there is a need to consider collective, multicountry negotiations with pharmaceutical companies.

Services at points of entry, and mobile healthcare services in border areas, involve well-trained, immigration-sensitive and capable healthcare workers/community-based workers who should be involved in all mobilisation campaigns and in the roll-out of the vaccination programme.  Civil society networks that involve migrant populations – such as Migrant Health Forums, including those that function across borders – need to engage with work surrounding the vaccination plan.

Whilst the Covid-19 vaccine fiasco plays out in South Africa, we highlight three key considerations related to migration. Firstly, the movement of people within the country – how will planning and roll-out approaches engage with the high levels of mobility nationally? Will people have to attend the initial facility for their second dose? What if someone has since crossed a border into or out of South Africa? Secondly, how will inclusive access for all in South Africa be assured (via a “one country one plan” approach)? And finally, given our position within a region of high population mobility, how will we support regional vaccination planning and programming? The International Health Regulations (IHR) recommends that states sharing borders enter bilateral/multilateral agreements for the development of a common response to a health crisis. Not only should this mean that more appropriate interventions are in place in border areas, but a regional strategy for vaccination must be considered.

A key question that must be engaged with relates to vaccine passports; will these be required for Southern African Development Community (SADC) nationals and what will this mean in both the short and longer term? Concerns have already been raised about the potential for a black market in vaccinations (in addition to the black market developing in the provision of negative Covid-19 PCR test certificates), including the need to ramp up security when transporting the vaccine.

Without a transparent roll-out plan that appears reasonable, rational and accessible to all, then there may well be a security risk for the vaccine doses themselves (including a potential black market in vaccinations and threats to the transportation of the vaccine), but it’s unlikely to come from migrants or migration.

Basic public health sense states that everyone everywhere must be included in all responses to Covid-19. This is especially critical when thinking about vaccines, including rethinking the ways in which states finance health interventions and urgent action to address the ways in which non-citizens are treated by the state and all in South Africa.

Southern Africa is already behind in vaccination plans, and South Africa has the opportunity to lead the way for the region, ensuring all within the SADC are protected, not just those fortunate enough to be born south of the Limpopo River. We need all hands on deck and all inhabitants included in the solution. Only then will we stand a chance of gaining control of this pandemic.

Jo Vearey is with the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS), Wits University. Sally Ganda is with the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town. Rebecca Walker is a post-doctoral research fellow at the African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand. Francois Venter is the head of Ezintsha at the University of the Witwatersrand.

About Jo Vearey

Jo Vearey is an Associate Professor and the Director of the African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand. She holds an Honorary Fellowship with the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh, and a Senior Fellowship at the Centre for Peace, Development and Democracy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. In 2015, Jo was awarded a Humanities and Social Science Wellcome Trust Investigator Award. Jo holds a MSc in the Control of Infectious Diseases (LSHTM, 2003), a PhD in Public Health (Wits, 2010), and has been rated by the National Research Foundation as a Young Researcher. In 2014 and 2015, Jo received a Friedel Sellschop Award from the University of the Witwatersrand for outstanding young researchers. She was a Marie Curie Research Fellow in 2013, at the UNESCO Chair on Social and Spatial Inclusion of Migrants, University of Venice (SSIM-IUAV), Venice, Italy.

With a commitment to social justice and the development of pro-poor policy responses, Jo’s research explores international, regional, national and local responses to migration, health, and urban vulnerabilities. Her research interests focus on urban health, public health, migration and health, the social determinants of health, HIV, informal settlements and sex work. Jo is particularly interested in knowledge production, dissemination and utilisation including the use of visual and arts-based methodologies.

Jo has a range of international collaborations, including an ESRC-NRF funded project with the University of Edinburgh, a WOTRO funded project with the VU University, Amsterdam on migration and sex work, and partnerships with the University of Massachusetts Boston and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine‘s Faculty of Public Health and Policy and Gender, Violence and Health Unit.

CV | Publications