OP-ED: Foreign migrants must be included in Covid-19 response

Written by Associate Professor Jo Vearey and Sally Gandar (Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town)

It is a well-established fact that for infectious disease control measures to stand any chance of success, they need to reach everyone. This is no different in the case of Covid-19 in South Africa, yet our response to controlling the spread of the virus, and protecting those most vulnerable to infection, continues to exclude marginalised foreign migrants.

Our response to more privileged international tourists and visitors, and those in South Africa for the purposes of work and study, has, however, been far more proactive. Covid-19, as with any other communicable disease, knows no borders and its spread within South and southern Africa is inevitable. We need to slow down the spread of infection so that our region’s already over-burdened and struggling health systems have a chance to respond.

International travel restrictions
On Sunday 15 March 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the National State of Disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act, outlining a number of drastic steps to try and curb the spread of Covid-19. On Wednesday 18 March 2020, some of these actions came into effect, one being a range of inward travel restrictions implemented by the South African Department of Home Affairs (DHA).

These restrictions – designed to reduce the spread of Covid-19 by supporting its containment – are applicable to inbound travel from countries that DHA has defined as “high-risk” – those where there is ongoing, the community-level transmission of Covid-19 as per the daily situation reports published by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Under the International Health Regulations (IHR), the decision to implement any restrictions on inbound travel is a sovereign one, meaning that any given country can choose which countries to include – or not – within their respective travel restrictions. Travel restrictions are, themselves, matters of “health diplomacy” and states must balance the need for an effective public health response to the control of infectious disease with the negative impacts of restricting travel, which can include detrimental effects on the movement of goods and disruptions to social structures.

While there is evidence to suggest that travel restrictions can be effective at the start of an infectious disease outbreak by delaying the spread of disease and – importantly – allowing for the implementation of national preparedness plans, once community-level infections become more established the positive impact of travel restrictions lessens. An example of the negative consequences of travel bans includes a report from the Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, who indicated on Thursday evening (20 March) that Covid-19 test kits on their way to South Africa had not yet arrived due to the cancellation of international flights.

The current travel restrictions are applicable to air, land and seaports of entry, and interventions implemented include closing 35 of South Africa’s 53 land borders, reducing the number of seaports where crew and passengers can disembark from ships, and restricting entry to individuals travelling from or through countries deemed “high risk” by the DHA.

In fact, the DHA has now prohibited entry of all foreign travellers coming from, or via, high-risk countries, regardless of pre-existing visa or visa waiver agreements. Visa waiver agreements with medium-risk countries are also suspended. This applies to persons holding passports who would usually be exempt from requiring a visa to enter South Africa, or who would usually obtain a visa upon arrival.

A selective right to remain
Citizens of countries the DHA has deemed high or medium risk – which corresponds to many European countries and the US – who hold a valid visa, and who wish to remain in South Africa, can extend their visas, as per Immigration Directive 7 of 2020, dated 17 March 2020. Such persons “will be allowed to re-apply for such visa” subject to certain requirements, and visas valid to 31 July 2020 may be issued. If these foreign nationals do not meet all the requirements, they may be able to apply for a waiver subject to further requirements.

In addition, the directive allows for people from these high-risk countries whose visa has expired since 1 December 2019, to “re-apply for such visa”; they will be exempt from the usual conditions associated with “over-staying” on an expired visa. How the bureaucratic processes regarding these applications will be managed remains to be seen but it is going to place further pressures on an already struggling DHA.

While these efforts by the DHA are welcomed as part of a national and international solidarity in response to Covid-19, we have serious concerns about who we are leaving behind and the resultant risk for the health of all who live in South and southern Africa.

Key here is to ask what these special measures – particularly in relation to visa extensions and “the right to remain” – mean for foreign migrants currently in South Africa who have travelled from neighbouring countries that are not (yet) considered high-risk. Presently, citizens of European countries and the US currently in South Africa are protected by the new Immigration Directive, but it is silent on foreign nationals from the region whose visas may have expired. This group of migrants are likely to be afraid to test or report to others that they are unwell for fear of arrest, detention and deportation, with particularly worrying implications for contact-tracing.

Solidarity or securitisation?
In Monday’s (23 March) media conference, the Minister of Home Affairs, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, spoke of the importance of “international solidarity”, acknowledging that South Africa has more cases of Covid-19 than neighbouring countries and, as a result, has a responsibility to protect countries elsewhere in the SADC region.

The minister also indicated that the choice of the 35 ports of entry that will be closed, was motivated by the aim to “stop the virus from moving through our borders”. Motsoaledi stated that they would be “putting up a lot of higher walls in this war” (presumably against Covid-19) and this was clearly no metaphor as we now see a R37.2-million wall being built along the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe. To date, Zimbabwe has not reported any cases.

On Thursday evening, during a Q&A session about Covid-19 with the South African Medical Association, the minister of health stated that South Africans must recognise that neighbouring countries do not pose any risk to South Africa. Rather, it is our infection rates that pose a risk to them.

Regardless of the seemingly contradictory positions of the two medical doctors currently steering our response to Covid-19, R37.2-million is being spent on a border wall. Is this the most appropriate use of taxpayers’ money? How many test kits could be purchased for the same amount? Intensive care beds? Respirators? Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for frontline healthcare workers?

Each Covid-19 test done by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) costs the state R300. That means that the amount spent on the fence would fund 124,000 testing kits. The private pathology labs are charging between R900 and R1,400 for the test. The amount spent on the fence would thus fund between 41,333 and 39,333 testing kits at private laboratory rates.

Similarly, if one looks at wages, the living wage calculator indicates that a living wage in South Africa is R6,570/month. The amount being spent on the fence would equate to assisting 5,662 persons with a living wage for one month to try and ameliorate the impacts that the Covid-19 pandemic may have. A further comparator that we can use is the SASSA Older Persons Grant, which many people across South Africa rely on to survive. This grant amounts to just over R1,780 per month. The R37.2-million to be spent on a fence, would provide for the equivalent of 20,898 old age pension grants, or if made available to persons for a three-month period to try and ameliorate the impacts of Covid-19 on the economy, it would assist over 7,000 people for that period. These may seem like small numbers when we think of the numbers of the South African population that will be impacted by Covid-19, not necessarily by being infected but by losing their income, but one thing is certain, building walls – or a fence – will help no one.

It is not the time to implement such securitisation measures (many of us would argue that there is never such a time); the spread of Covid-19 will not be stopped by a border fence. The effects of such a response are likely to cause further harm to all in South Africa and the region by forcing individuals – particularly those currently holding an irregular status – to cross the border through other means, resulting in migrants being further distanced from any public health intervention.

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.

This opinion piece was originally published by the Daily Maverick, under the same title, on 20 March 2020. Featured image sourced from BusinessTech.

About Jo Vearey

Jo Vearey is a 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.

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