Proposed measures consolidate unaccountable power in a single minister
The deadline for submitting comments on the draft health regulations ended at midnight on Sunday April 24, but grave concerns about their application and future implementation remain.
The DearSA online platform alone registered over 283 000 individual submissions with the Department of Health, which has also been exposed for deleting (unopened and unread) multiple additional submissions which were emailed directly to the address the Department provided. The vast majority of these submissions oppose the fundamentally anti-democratic principle that a single minister should be allowed to wield unaccountable power with the potential to impact the lives of every single person living in (or even visiting) South Africa.
The government clearly thinks otherwise. President Cyril Ramaphosa stated that “It is our intention, and my intention, to end the national state of disaster as soon as we have finalised other measures under the National Health Act and other legislation to manage and contain the [COVID-19] pandemic,” As the state of national disaster ended, Cogta minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma passed “transitional regulations”, valid until May 4, which a statement by the ANC declared to be “very critical to prevent or manage a further devastating wave of COVID-19”, and without which would “be catastrophic to the country and the health sector, both public and private”.
According to minister of health Joe Phaahla, the draft health regulations are the bare minimum required to keep the Covid-19 infection rate low and to allow the country to “migrate from a disaster-managed to a health-managed pandemic”.
“There is no desire to control people’s lives unnecessarily,” the minister said, rejecting the claim that the draft health regulations are an infringement of individual freedom and human rights. However, this viewpoint would seem to be contradicted by the regulations themselves, which provide that a court order can be obtained to force a person to take a medical examination or undergo mandatory isolation or quarantine when they are even “suspected” of being infected. They also deal with contact tracing, the wearing of face masks, social distancing, the control of funerals and restrictions on all public gatherings. Anyone failing to comply faces penal sanctions of up to 10 years in jail or an unlimited fine. The minister also refused to rule out the possibility of vaccination mandates.
Are the draft health regulations even necessary?
The government’s statements and position are also contradicted by the fact that the vast majority of nations now recognise that the Covid-19 virus is highly transmissible, cannot be “stopped” and that we must now learn to live with it. According to the South African government’s own experts, over 80% of the population already has acquired immunity through recovery from the disease or from the vaccination roll out. This means that almost no one will suffer severely or die from it. Logic and common sense would therefore lead to the inevitable conclusion that there is no longer a need for any government intervention.
So why the big push – and the big rush – by our government to secure additional, indefinite and sweeping powers under the guise of public health? Should the minister of health have the sole discretion to declare any disease, regardless of its severity, as a “notifiable medical condition” and then rule in exactly the same unaccountable way that we have experienced under the lockdown regulations? Why are the draft health regulations even necessary, given the existing and available option for government to declare another state of national disaster should a similar disease threaten in the future? Why have these draft health regulations received so little attention from the media or interest from the public?
One answer is because the implications of these draft health regulations have not been properly communicated, let alone analysed. Another is because the minister has given too little time for comment, which is the subject of the Action4Freedom case which will be heard in the Cape Town High Court on Tuesday April 26.
Perhaps another, more chilling, reason is because many people are so punch drunk with their lives being upended and tossed around at someone else’s will and whim, that they have lapsed into a state of docile complacency and unquestioning compliance.
The importance of freedom of religion as a foundation of democracy
For anyone who may wish for a glimpse of the possible outcome of centralising this level of power and control in the State, you need look no further than the current situation in China. Millions of people have been literally imprisoned in their own homes for five weeks, screaming their frustration into the night from their sealed-off high rise apartment blocks. China’s policy of “Zero Covid” is evidently bizarre, outdated and contrary to everything that is now known about the disease and its transmissibility, but it is backed by the full power of the state. The direction is clearly from the top of their government, with party vice premier Sun Chunian stating that there will be no exemptions, that all infected people will be treated and all close contacts will be isolated and transferred to government-run centralised quarantine facilities. The message is reinforced by their media, which doubles down on the government policy with the slogan “Persistence is victory”, a short, terse Orwellian statement to obfuscate the irrationality of their draconian actions.
In South Africa, the reality is that these draft health regulations – if adopted in their current form – will give government exactly this type and measure of authority over every aspect of our lives. We need to remember that freedom of religion is guaranteed by s15 of the South African Constitution, which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion”.
It is therefore far wider than the faith you may choose to embrace, speak about, celebrate, live out and pass on to your children. It is essentially your right to be able to discuss freely any issue or to challenge any prevailing narrative. It is at the heart of any democracy worthy of the name.
We therefore need to exercise this freedom because, if we do not, we run the real risk of losing it. The most dangerous monopoly is the monopoly on truth. When government (or anyone else for that matter) secures the power to decide what is truth and to enforce this upon an entire society, we are on very shaky ground. This is the antithesis of a free and democratic society, so we must continue to stand for faith and freedom or risk being caught in a nightmarish loop from which there may be no awakening.
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