COVID-19 and Online Teaching and Learning: A Double Dilemma for Rural Students

COVID-19 and Online Teaching and Learning: A Double Dilemma for Rural Students
Dr Phumlani Myende and Ms Nokukhanya Ndlovu.

- By Dr Phumlani Myende and Ms Nokukhanya Ndlovu

The COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping every aspect of our lives. Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are among the entities that have been hit hard by the rapid changes that we are now confronted with. The first wave of responses saw HEIs evacuating students from residences, which, if we now reflect, was a critical decision in contributing to “flattening the curve”. The current agenda on the table is how HEIs continue to facilitate teaching and learning. A couple have already shared their plans to move teaching and learning onto virtual or online platforms and have called on academics to familiarise themselves with and transition to these virtual modes of teaching.

HEIs have been toying with online teaching and learning for years, but for many, this remained at the level of rhetoric. However, a few public institutions, among them UKZN and the University of Cape Town (UCT), have declared their intention to move their teaching and learning onto virtual platforms. For example, UCT has communicated to its students that they understand that this is an enormous undertaking and as such, they have put various measures in place to provide additional support. These include student orientation, increased support in the form of tutors and other academic conveners and reduced workloads, amongst others. UKZN has started training its staff to utilise platforms like Zoom for teaching and learning purposes and deliberations are underway on how students will be introduced to and supported to utilise virtual modes of learning. While this is inevitable, and will be the major driving force for generational change, from a human rights perspective, switching to online platforms could negatively impact access for some students, particularly those located in poor, rural environments.

Transitioning to online platforms will not only mean reskilling for both lecturers and students, it also has implications for access. If we operate from the premise that access to education is a basic human right, it must follow that in transitioning to online platforms, access must be ensured. For many rural and poor students, access to education in this new dispensation means access to infrastructure and resources, including electricity and the internet. We write this piece in a space of privilege. We have internet access, electricity to charge our devices and provide lighting, a desk and a chair, and a quiet space where we can listen to our thoughts and engage with them. These privileges are not enjoyed by the majority of students living in rural communities. This is not to suggest that students in these communities are not capable and resilient enough to adapt to virtual ways of learning. What we do believe, and what research has proven, is that the environment in which they find themselves presents multiple social injustices. The challenges confronting rural students are deep and structural.

That being said, we must not be despondent. Now more than ever we need to think out of the box and find creative and sustainable ways to ensure that we do not further alienate those who are already vulnerable to multiple adversities. However, we caution against a one-size-fits-all approach that will result in further marginalisation. As a collective, we need to find responsive, innovative and inclusive strategies that consider rural students whose communities still experience social and digital divides. We thus recommend approaches that are responsive to the context of rurality that many students find themselves in. For example, we believe that paper-based or PDF materials that are pre-recorded can be sent to students on memory sticks. Working with government, universities may also need to explore the possibility of relaxing the lockdown rules in order for students to be able to obtain these learning resources.

While students are important, we also need to be critical about our institutional level of preparedness and capacity to switch to virtual platforms with the click of a finger. Have our institutions invested in the kind of institutional capacity and reform that will be responsive to COVID-19 and to what extent has rurality been considered? Sober realism is called for as well as a sense of urgency. 

Phumlani Myende is a senior lecturer and Nokukhanya Ndlovu a lecturer at UKZN’s School of Education.


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The Cruel and Crude Effect of Lockdown on Families: Interprovincial Travel

The Cruel and Crude Effect of Lockdown on Families: Interprovincial Travel
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Cruel and crude was how the court described the effect of the lockdown on Karel Van Heerden and his family.

On Friday, 27 March 2020 at 16:02, Karel Van Heerden approached the High Court on an urgent basis for a temporary exemption from certain of the lockdown regulations.

The court said that the circumstances of his application were extremely upsetting, and that it showed in the cruelest manner the crude effects of the lock down regulations upon a family.

Karel Van Heerden lived in Mbombela in the Mpumalanga Province. Early in the morning of 27 March 2020, he received a telephone call from his mother. She told him that his grandfather had tragically passed away in a fire at his home earlier that morning. The applicant’s grandfather lived in Hofmeyr, Eastern Cape. Van Heerden desperately wanted to travel to Hofmeyr in order to support his mother and to assist with his grandfather’s funeral.

Van Heerden approached the court on an urgent basis because he did not want to contravene the lockdown regulations, which prohibited travel between the provinces. He sought an order that he be temporarily exempted from the traveling restrictions and allowed to travel to Hofmeyr for the funeral.

Van Heerden told the court that there would be no risk of him contaminating anyone with the virus during his trip to Hofmeyr. He explained that he had not been in contact with any person from abroad or a person which has contracted the virus and that he did not display any of the known symptoms of the virus. He said he intended to comply with all the remaining provisions of the regulations and that he would apply all the necessary precautions to prevent contamination and/or the spread of the virus.

Van Heerden argued that the regulations had been drawn up on an urgent basis and that the drafters had not considered every possible scenario, including one such as his where he needed to attend a funeral in another province. He said that the regulations were unfair in this regard.

The High Court expressed extreme sympathy with Van Heerden but said that in terms of the Constitution it was obliged to apply the law. If the court had authorised Van Heerden to travel to Hofmeyr, it would have been authorising Van Heerden to break the law, under judicial decree. No court has the power to do that. In addition, the court held, no matter how careful and diligent Van Heerden was, he would be exposing himself and possibly many others to unnecessary risk, even death. Van Heerden’s application was thus dismissed.

The only time that a court may set aside a law, or set of regulations, is where that law or regulation has been declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. Van Heerden didn’t seek to set aside the regulation as unconstitutional, he sought a temporary exemption from it, which the court could not grant.

The government responded to the obvious injustice in this case by amending the regulations relating to travel to funerals. The new regulations came into effect on 2 and 16 April 2020. Now, certain people are allowed to travel between provinces to attend a funeral, provided they obtain the necessary permit. The permit may be obtained from a Magistrate or a station commander of a police station on production of the death certificate and proof of their relationship to the deceased.

The only people allowed to travel inter provincially to a funeral are:

•    spouse or partner of the deceased;

•    children of the deceased, whether biological, adopted or stepchildren;

•    children-in-law of the deceased;

•    parents of the deceased - whether biological, adopted or stepparents;

•    siblings, whether biological, adopted or stepbrother or sister of the deceased;

•    grandparents of the deceased; and

•    persons closely affiliated to the deceased.

The funeral cannot be bigger than 50 people, and the holding of night vigils is still prohibited. All safety measures must be strictly adhered to.

Certain people are also allowed to move between provinces for the purposes of transporting a body for burial purposes. 

In terms of the new regulations, Van Heerden would qualify for a permit that would enable him to travel to Hofmeyr. However, he would not have been able to obtain the permit in time for him to have attended his grandfather’s funeral.

Since Van Heerden’s case there have been at least three other cases of people applying for permission to travel inter-provincially in extreme, exceptional circumstances. One at the Pietermaritzburg High Court, where a 76-year-old father who was not coping with caring for his severely disabled son in lockdown conditions was granted permission to take him to a facility in Cape Town which could cater for his extreme condition. Another where a father was given permission to travel across provinces to collect his children from their grandparents home, and one where the parents of an adult child with autoimmune disease were granted permission to travel to her residence to care for her during the lockdown period. In all three of these cases, there was no express provision granting permission for the inter-provincial travel in the regulations. What we can learn from these cases is that even if the regulations do not expressly permit inter-provincial travel in the circumstances of the case, the High Courts will consider applications to allow it, and will grant permission where exceptional circumstances exist and the court is satisfied that it will be safe to undertake the travel. Each case will be decided on its own unique merits.

Ms Nicci Whitear-Nel is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Law at UKZN.


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HEARD Researchers Intensify Technical Support and Research in Africa on Health and Human Rights Challenges Arising from COVID-19

HEARD Researchers Intensify Technical Support and Research in Africa on Health and Human Rights Challenges Arising from COVID-19
Professor Kaymarlin Govender, Research Director at HEARD.Click here for isiZulu version

Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases continue to rise rapidly across the African continent. As at 22nd April, 2020, 15 394, COVID-19 cases had been confirmed with 716 deaths (case fatality ratio: 4,7%). While multilateral agencies and governments have had some time to prepare for the impact of the pandemic, this had not been sufficient. The pandemic has significantly impacted on ongoing health and human rights programming in Africa.

Research Director at the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division (HEARD) at UKZN, Professor Kaymarlin Govender said that, within the realm of ongoing HIV and sexual and reproductive health research on the continent, HEARD is intensifying technical support to multi-lateral agencies in terms of assessing policy and programme challenges arising from COVID-19 and re-aligning new research to focus on COVID-19.

In recent months, Govender has been supporting RIATT-ESA (Regional Inter-Agency Task Team on Children and HIV, Eastern and Southern Africa) on children, and HIV/TB programming, where HEARD is undertaking an analysis of implementation challenges in HIV/TB services for children living with HIV, especially children with low CD4 counts and unsuppressed viral loads. The review will be used to realign current programming to improve access to health services for children and support UNAIDS Fast Track commitments to ending AIDS by 2030. Russell Armstrong, a senior scientist at HEARD, is providing support to the Global Fund Community Rights Division to address the implications for human rights programming in the context of COVID-19. Technical support is being provided to develop risk mitigation strategies to prevent state authorities from using the special powers granted under emergency public health measures to interfere with key population programming.

HEARD is also partnering with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) HIV secretariat on research to reduce stigma and improve the effectiveness of interventions to increase ART uptake among key populations in Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe. This newly funded multi-country study will also focus on the impact of COVID-19 on marginalised populations accessing HIV and Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) services.

Govender noted that support to Africa to address the challenges arising from COVID-19 is crucial at this time. The pandemic has highlighted the extent to which countries are interconnected and the importance of behavioural science and policy analysis to strengthen regional and global health governance systems.

Words: Ndabaonline

Photograph: Supplied


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Humanities Academic Elected as President of the South African Education Research Association

Humanities Academic Elected as President of the South African Education Research Association
Professor Labby Ramrathan, President of the South African Education Research Association.Click here for isiZulu version

Education academic Professor Labby Ramrathan was recently elected as President of the South African Education Research Association (SAERA). The association contributes to the development and enhancement of education as a research field in South Africa by enhancing scholars’ capacity to conduct appropriate education research in various areas related to the country’s educational development and progress.

‘It is a privilege to serve in a national leadership role at a crucial point in the educational transformation journey,’ said Ramrathan. ‘I feel honoured firstly for the recognition of my contribution to education in South Africa and in the international context; and secondly, for the confidence placed in me by the membership of SAERA to lead such a strong and prolific, yet young and developing association.’

He was elected as President at SAERA’s annual general meeting last October and will serve for two years. Ramrathan will lead the association’s activities and shape its future course in responding to critical issues related to all levels of education within the country. He will also provide direction to future educational research agendas and support capacity development amongst early career scholars and researchers.

‘During my tenure as President, I aim to grow the membership of SAERA, create further opportunities to develop emerging scholars in education and to extend SAERA’s activities across the country through an inclusive, developmental and supportive process,’ said Ramrathan.

Ramrathan is a professor at the School of Education and a NRF-rated researcher who is globally recognised. He has served the School in various leadership positions including Head of School, Acting Deputy Dean and Acting Dean. He has been involved in teacher education for more than 20 years spanning academic teaching, researching Higher Education, teacher development and curriculum studies.

He has been involved in several institutional, national and international projects and has published widely. Ramrathan has been awarded several competitive research grants to research issues related to education. He has supervised more than 60 masters and 25 PhD students to completion and is currently leading the College of Humanities curriculum transformation process within the context of decolonisation.

Words: Melissa Mungroo

Photograph: Supplied


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UKZN hosts Webinar on Fake News, Lockdown and Unintended Consequences

UKZN hosts Webinar on Fake News, Lockdown and Unintended Consequences
Judge Zak Yacoob delivered a webinar on Fake News, Lockdown and Unintended Consequences.Click here for isiZulu version

UKZN alumnus and former Constitutional Court Judge Zakeria “Zak” Yacoob delivered a webinar entitled Fake News, Lockdown and Unintended Consequences to more than 250 participants on the Zoom platform.

In his presentation, Yacoob said the government should treat Ministers in the same way as poor people. ‘Let us punish our leaders more than we punish the ordinary people in the country. Let us punish the rich more than we punish the poor. Let us punish the educated because they should know better, more than we punish the uneducated,’ said Yacoob. ‘Our whole method of enforcement is in reverse. We punish poor and vulnerable people.’

He condemned some of the “uncivilised and horrible” statements by the current Minister of Police, Bheki Cele which may have unintended consequences. ‘What better way to encourage non-compliance with the rules than by forcing compliance in the way in which he is doing?’ said Yacoob.

The former UKZN Ombudsman said police need training on how to exercise their duties ‘without killing anybody and without doing undue harm,’ and cited police training during apartheid times which centred on “how to treat the people as badly as you possibly can” and the Marikana tragedy as indicators that universities and other organisations need to step in and provide training manuals for the police force.

He added that citizen buy-in for the lockdown is crucial. ‘Ultimately, if the lockdowns are simply strict for the sake of strictness itself … if the government goes too far, it’s an absolute recipe for not obeying.’ Going too far with restrictions ‘creates a kind of discontent which opens up the minds of the people to fake news and therefore over-action by the government fertilises the soil for fake news.’

Referring to the sale of cigarettes and hot, cooked food, Yacoob said that the freedom entrenched in the Constitution is not a “licence to do what you want.” He said that South Africans have the right to go to court to fight the limitations, but that we have to comply with the court ruling. ‘We are not as each individual the source of our own authority.’

Speaking about fake news which is circulating on social media platforms, Yacoob emphasised that South Africans need to abide by the “majority opinion” – in other words the “dominant medical view”. He said that if you receive information that garlic combats the coronavirus, by all means take garlic – but ensure that all other protocols recommended by government are in place including social distancing, sanitising and wearing masks.

Yacoob, who has been blind since he was an infant, said that national and provincial government could combat fake news by providing scheduled, daily updates on the pandemic and that information issued by government should be monitored and transparent as government could also be the purveyor of fake information. ‘We are an awkward nation as we are either completely critical of government and say how miserable they are, or on the other hand, like now, we start hero-worshipping particular people and we begin to think that there could never be a better government than this in the world.’

Acting Executive Director of Corporate Relations, Ms Normah Zondo thanked Judge Yacoob for ‘sharing his wisdom with us’ and encouraged South Africans to avoid using their excess energy to spread fake news.

The webinar was facilitated by Pro Vice-Chancellor of Big Data and Informatics and South African Research Chair in Quantum Information Processing and Communication at the University, Professor Francesco Petruccione, and the School of Law’s Ms Janine Hicks.

To watch the webinar which was viewed by participants in countries ranging from the United Kingdom to Zimbabwe, visit: https://youtu.be/KonmaQl31fE

Words: Raylene Captain-Hasthibeer

Photograph: Supplied


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Leading Self in a Time of Crisis

Leading Self in a Time of Crisis
Professor Kriben Pillay, Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Business and Leadership at UKZN.

- By Professor Kriben Pillay

In the Graduate School of Business and Leadership at UKZN, I specialise in teaching and researching an awareness-based experiential model of personal and collective transformation called Theory U. An internet search will yield much by way of reading and visual materials.

However, this sharing is not meant to be an academic, scholarly exploration, but rather a self-reflection in the spirit of the journey that one takes in Theory U. It’s a simple journey; be mindful of our limiting and distorting stories (called mental models in Theory U) of self and the world – stories that are largely the result of our socio-cultural conditioning, including our education – through a process of being both mindfully aware and engaging in rigorous critical thinking. This facilitates entering into a field of spaciousness, both outwardly and inwardly, through letting go and arriving at Presence. Presence is simply the state of being both present and sensing with all one’s faculties, not just thinking, so that we are open to the unfolding of new possibilities without the hindrance of fear and anxiety

The intent in this self-reflective piece is to show you how mindful self-inquiry can lead to a place of deep peace amidst an unprecedented crisis.

However, this is not about magical thinking; that all one’s practical problems are resolved, or that feelings like grief or deep concern for a loved one’s well-being will not arise. Rather it is about something that most of humanity has avoided through incessant mindless activity, that is, engaging fully with the present – dealing with what needs to be done now (sweep the floors, wash the dishes, attend to emails, etc) – rather than being lost in thoughts of the past or future. If you pay close, mindful, attention to your experience, you will see that worry, anxiety, fear and stress always arise from the thoughts of the past or our projections about the future. In the present, without the habitual patterns of thinking, there is just full engagement with what’s arising now. This is a very different quality; it is that of Presence.

What I’ve described above is a journey that begins when we are willing to suspend our mental models of past and future (this does not mean not planning the practical details for the future – what to cook, when to schedule an appointment, etc).

In my journey with COVID-19, I was initially overwhelmed by anxiety and confusion brought about by all the narratives and counter-narratives surrounding the pandemic. For those of you who have not been exposed to them, here is a short, generalised list:

•    The Coronavirus is a natural mutation arising within bats. From a bat it spread to animals that were sold for human consumption in a wet market in Wuhan, and then to humans (this is still the dominant scientific narrative)

•    The virus was biologically engineered by the Chinese government to promote its imperialistic agenda. A current version in the news is that the virus accidentally escaped from a biomedical research laboratory in Wuhan, but this was covered up by the Chinese government and made to look like the first scenario

•    The virus was created by a Bill Gates company so that his financial interests in pharmaceutical companies will rise astronomically. In particular, he wants to test a vaccine in Africa first because it is a lucrative market for the sale of vaccines

•    The pandemic is a ploy by the world’s wealthy elites to enslave the masses through fear and eventual control (through severe restriction of movement, and extreme surveillance as in China, the UK, the US, etc)

•    The virus is of extra-terrestrial origin (there are numerous permutations of this story)

•    Humanity is being taught a lesson by God/Mother Earth to right the wrongs of the past

•    The earth is an interconnected system, and the system is simply pushing back as a natural result of its sub-systems reaching tipping points

I am sure that I am leaving out other theories, but I think you get the point. Of course, some of these perspectives may also support others eg, the virus did originate in a wet market in Wuhan, but its spread is the result of systemic factors, ie. population density, unabated travel, etc. The difficulty in taking in all these perspectives, each with their own show of evidence (some dubious and some quite plausible), is that you can either be overwhelmed by total confusion and fear, or, in taking the journey from suspending mental models to mindful and critical seeing, you are turned inward. And you realise, at least for the time being, that you have to honestly acknowledge the following from what is observed: that you do not know what is absolutely true. Again, this unknowing is emphasised in the Theory U process; letting go of old mental models in order to bring in the new through fearless Presencing.

This unknowing is part of deeper inward seeing, of finding the stillness beyond words, where we don’t necessarily know the facts, but we find ourselves acting more holistically. Not being driven by fear still means heeding the best medical advice about hygiene and social distancing, etc. In the language of Theory U, this is Performing.

In the spirit of dialogue, I also engaged with other travellers on this path. My American friend, author Steven Harrison, who has dedicated his life to self-inquiry and exploring mindful awareness, wrote the following:

The narrative of fear is the primary story being told, with a counter narrative that this is all a hoax or at least overblown. The point of origin narrative is always the other, not the self. I wonder if there could be a deep looking into the anxiety around death, the fear of not enough (breath, food, toilet paper), and the response to isolation not as a restriction, but rather as contact with an arising of change.

Steven talks about engaging with our fear; not analysing it, but mindfully not resisting it. This is again a movement of unknowing, of being in full contact with Life as it is felt in the body (when we feel unpleasant sensations like anxiety or fear, don’t we quickly move to distract ourselves with entertainment, food, addictions, excessive thinking, work, etc?). Non-resistance, it is suggested is a portal to something new in the moment. Later, it may become the old, but because we have activated our adaptive intelligence, we are fully open to the next journey of discovery. In this way we live a deeply creative life; which is not a life of denial, but one that is moving from fact to fact, rather than from story to story. Again, referring to the exploration of Theory U, this Presencing – not feeling separate from the field of Life – begins to initiate the emergence of change. But this change may not be the mind’s idea of change. Like the present crisis, it may be very disruptive.

That’s why Theory U also warns us of:

•    The Voice of Judgement

•    The Voice of Cynicism

•    The Voice of Fear

To allow oneself to take this journey – again and again if need be – one has to be mindful of these three voices. Their job is to keep us stuck in the old known (and thereby in fear), and this is why those who have engaged with Theory U or processes like this, may take to it at an intellectual level, but never really engage fully with the experiential dimensions of the process. Our current crisis, in its positive aspect, offers this opportunity. We can’t argue with Life anymore or run away (although we will instinctively try as a conditioned, reflex action); we have to embrace it. And in that embrace we may discover something profound.

Professor Kriben Pillay is the former Dean of Teaching and Learning in the College of Law and Management Studies and an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Business and Leadership at UKZN where his conducts research on the brain, illusion and consciousness in leadership. He is a writer across many genres; his poems and short stories appear in many South African anthologies and he recently contributed a chapter on leadership in the book, Large Scale Systemic Change, and a chapter titled The Illusion of Solid and Separate Things: Troublesome Knowledge and the Curriculum to the book Disrupting Higher Education: Undoing Cognitive Damage. His most recent book is The Survivalists: Visionary leadership for South Africa’s marginalised entrepreneurs – The Story of IBEC. He is currently writing a self-study on awakening.

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UKZN Academics Create Video to Deal with Fear and Anxiety during COVID-19

UKZN Academics Create Video to Deal with Fear and Anxiety during COVID-19
From left: Ms Gugu Gigaba, Dr Ruwayda Petrus, Ms Ntokozo Mntambo and Ms Gill Faris.

A video that deals with fear and anxiety during COVID-19 and can be viewed on YouTube is the product of a collaboration between UKZN’s Department of Psychology, an adult education specialist, and the Centre for Rural Health.

The project was commissioned by Professor Inge Petersen, and led by Ms Gugu Gigaba who together with Dr Ruwayda Petrus, Ms Ntokozo Mntambo and Ms Gill Faris was responsible for developing the content of the video.

The short video is about someone responding to the lockdown and helping that person to put words to what they are thinking, feeling and how it affects their behaviour.

‘We provide the audience with an explanation of what is going on in their minds to help them to understand how anxiety works, how they can cope with it, and where they can get help if the techniques in the video don’t work for them,’ explained Petrus. ‘The message is about recognising the deep fear and anxiety that we are all currently experiencing. Using simple and accessible information, we show how to manage these feelings. We can all make use of this method.’

The text is in English while the voice over is in isiZulu making it accessible to a wider audience. The team intentionally used a male voice to convey the message that men can also experience mental health issues and can contribute to comforting communities during difficult times.

‘This was a deliberate attempt to broadcast a positive message about men and masculinity and change the narrative that only women can speak to mental health matters. The message we have compiled is not just talking to women and children. This is why the characters in the video are gender neutral to emphasise that anyone can experience anxiety, regardless of gender or ethnicity. As such we hope this message resonates with any South African who encounters it,’ explained Gigaba.

The team observed that there is an immense sense of helplessness amongst the public and as mental health professionals and researchers, they felt obligated to do something.

‘We wanted to create something that was helpful and would add value and give insight to what people were experiencing. We set out to develop something that was practical, tangible and accessible. Often, we are unaware of just how much we internalise the information we absorb on a daily basis. This can manifest in physical symptoms that can make someone think they have the virus,’ explained Faris.

Mntambo added, ‘The messages around COVID-19 seemed to focus on the biomedical aspect of the virus and how to take care of yourself and limit its spread, with nothing obvious that dealt with recognising and containing your emotions. For us a contextually relevant mental health aspect was missing from the information on COVID-19. The four of us were individually feeling disturbed and were thinking about how we could support the mental health of communities in a practical, meaningful and tangible way. What followed was an incredibly powerful synchronous moment when we somehow found ourselves working together on what you see today.’

The message contained in this video has been positively received by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health Mental Health Directorate, which praised it for providing an opportunity for individuals to self-identify feelings of fear of the “unknown” future whilst also providing tools to manage these feelings.

This video also highlights the ongoing collaboration between UKZN’s Psychology Clinic and the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), which provides mental health services to the community at no cost.

‘Our hope is for the video to be widely distributed on all media platforms as well as sent as an MMS video by all major cell phone networks,’ said Petrus. ‘We also hope that the video makes an impact and that it reaches someone who needs help. We are constantly exploring ways in which we can make a practical and positive contribution to the mental health of communities.’

The video can be viewed on YouTube via https://youtu.be/knRwfr2JK_k

Words: Melissa Mungroo

Photograph: Supplied


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Master’s Students Offer Counselling at UKZN Psychology Clinic during COVID-19

Master’s Students Offer Counselling at UKZN Psychology Clinic during COVID-19
Masters’ students in Psychology.

Master’s students in Psychology at UKZN are offering free online support for three sessions over the Zoom platform that cover individual counselling, group support and support for healthcare workers, to deal with the stresses of lockdown and the traumatic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis.

All interventions take place online.

The Psychology Clinic has received many requests for assistance, mainly for individual consultations. Most people are seeking coping strategies to deal with the impact of changes to their way of life.

Professor Duncan Cartwright, who heads the Clinic, said, ‘The COVID-19 crisis has impacted negatively on the students’ ordinary skills training. However, it has offered them an opportunity to fast-track their training in online counselling, a skill that is here to stay in the future.’

Cartwright added, ‘Given that virtually everything has changed since the crisis, many of us are struggling with adjustment difficulties, leading to an elevated general stress response. Although we can’t do much about the realities related to lockdown etc we can address how we respond and its impact on our mental health. Our responses may not always be negative, however; crises such as this often force us to reflect on our lives and clarify what is really important to us.’

To connect with the Clinic, email hattinghd@ukzn.ac.za or WhatsApp 078 512 1959.

Words: Melissa Mungroo

Photograph: Supplied


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Saving Livelihoods While Saving Lives: Rural Livelihoods Post COVID-19

Saving Livelihoods While Saving Lives: Rural Livelihoods Post COVID-19
Professor Betty C Mubangizi, NRF/SARChI Chair in Sustainable Local (Rural) Livelihoods.

- By Professor Betty C Mubangizi

The livelihoods framework offers a useful lens through which to analyse the fragility and sustainability of livelihoods. The framework identifies a set of livelihood resources (natural, social, human, physical and financial) that are necessary for livelihood activities that produce ideal livelihood outcomes. It further suggests that, for this to happen, effective and efficient structures and processes should operate within an ideal policy and legislative framework. Finally, the framework reminds us of “shocks” – unexpected phenomena that disrupt an otherwise stable livelihood, one with a clear set of livelihood activities operating within an ideal institutional, policy and legislative framework to produce desired livelihood outcomes. Livelihoods are affected by shocks such as floods, drought, global financial crises, political turmoil and diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic is one such “shock” to livelihoods across the globe. Livelihoods are said to be sustainable when they can cope with and recover from shocks, maintain resources and capabilities to engage in livelihood activities and do so without undermining the natural resource base. This is a tall order for many communities, but more so for rural ones.

Rural livelihoods have always been fragile. In rural communities, problems rooted in colonialism and apartheid continue to manifest themselves in the form of spatial inequalities, inadequate transport, poorly resourced municipalities and a host of other socio-economic realities. Most recently, global warming has contributed significantly to the already fragile livelihoods in many rural areas of Africa, and South Africa is no exception. Prolonged dry seasons that destroy pasture and crops, coupled with heavy rains that wash away bridges and tornados that blow off rooftops damaging the infrastructure of homes, schools and clinics are not uncommon.

Since the early 1990s South Africa has placed much emphasis on disaster management, particularly on disaster risk reduction, the management of natural hazards and associated risks and vulnerabilities. The Disaster Management Act No. 57 of 2002 (The Act) is particularly instructive in its provision for an integrated and co-ordinated disaster management policy that focuses on preventing or reducing the risk of disasters, mitigating their severity, and ensuring emergency preparedness, rapid and effective responses to disasters and post-disaster recovery. Furthermore, the Act provides for the establishment of national, provincial and municipal disaster management centres. Together with the National Disaster Management Policy Framework of 2005, the Act places South Africa at the international forefront in integrating disaster risk reduction into all spheres of government through a decentralised approach. For the first time, and in an unprecedented way, the COVID-19 pandemic has put both the Disaster Management Act No. 57 of 2002 and the National Disaster Management Policy Framework of 2005 to the test. This occurred when the Minister of Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs declared a “National State of Disaster” in terms of Section 27. Following this declaration, government, through public institutions, has had to adjust and adapt operations and mitigation strategies as a response to the pandemic.

It is too early to tell how successful the response has been, not only in saving lives but also in managing the delivery of government operations and procedures. What we do know is that a massive and long-lasting impact is expected, that livelihood strategies have been disrupted, and that livelihoods are severely shaken. It is also clear that less privileged populations in peri-urban and rural areas are likely to be the most affected and less likely to recover quickly from the “shock” of this COVID-19 pandemic.

We are a people of hope and we hope that the pandemic will pass… but what happens beyond this? How do we restore livelihood activities? How well is the state, particularly local government equipped to ensure continuity of government, continuity of operations and a return to normality? As noted previously, livelihoods are said to be sustainable when they can cope with and recover from shocks, maintain resources and capabilities to engage in livelihood activities and do so without undermining the natural resource base. The ability to bounce back largely depends on the ability of individuals, communities and local government to muster resources before, during and after COVID-19. Having operations in place that allow for the continuation of critical daily functions will determine how quickly communities recover, bounce back and return to normality.

Rural municipalities, already battling with resource issues are likely to feel the pinch and have less capacity to “bounce back”. In the short term, support measures from higher levels of government are critical as prescribed in the Disaster Management Act. Sections 56 and 57 provide for funding of post-disaster recovery and rehabilitation. The widespread nature of the disaster, however, means that these funds will be thinly spread across the country’s municipalities and are unlikely to have any effective impact.

Municipalities will have to find local solutions by drawing on their partnerships. There is tremendous value in creating and sustaining partnerships during and after the COVID-19 disaster. There is no doubt that partnerships between organisations and institutions strengthen government’s capacity to increase the reach of limited resources and encourage rural communities’ resilience to the disaster.

Municipalities rely heavily on national financial transfers to support their constitutionally mandated responsibilities to deliver services such as water, transport and local economic development. Many rural-based municipalities lack sufficient funds to do so, largely due to a weak revenue base and the inequitable distribution of resources from the central treasury. Long-term measures to secure rural livelihoods beyond COVID-19 will require a re-think on how the national budget is calculated and distributed so that the allocation to rural-based municipalities is more equitable.

Professor Betty C Mubangizi is full Professor of Public Governance and holds the NRF/SARChI Chair in Sustainable Local (Rural) Livelihoods.


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Brain Matters: UKZN Researchers Review Evidence on Quantum Effects in the Brain

Brain Matters: UKZN Researchers Review Evidence on Quantum Effects in the Brain
Professor Francesco Petruccione and Ms Betony Adams reviewed evidence for quantum effects in the brain’s neural processes.

A review undertaken by researchers at UKZN’s Centre for Quantum Technology, published in the AVS Quantum Science journal as an editor’s pick, examines evidence on the role of quantum effects in neural processes in the brain, noting that this knowledge could be useful in determining how we think about our own consciousness.

PhD candidate in the Centre, Ms Betony Adams, who is a recipient of a scholarship from the National Institute for Theoretical Physics (NITheP), and South African Research Chair for Quantum Information Processing and Communication Professor Francesco Petruccione - interim director of the NITheP’s successor, the National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Science - delved into research behind theories that quantum physics could help explain some mysteries of the brain.

Much of the brain’s physiological activity is currently understood as being performed through the firing of neurons to transmit information, send instructions and interpret stimuli through the senses. All of these phenomena are central to the functioning of the vast neural network that we identify as our self, our consciousness.

In reviewing quantum research that might add to the discussion of what creates consciousness, Adams and Petruccione speak about theories that appear to indicate the role of quantum effects in the brain’s structural mechanisms. They clarify the biological sites of these proposed quantum effects and how progress made in the wider field of quantum biology might be relevant to the specific case of the brain.

Drawing on reams of research suggesting that quantum effects in protein filaments known as microtubules, found in neurons, play a role in the nature of consciousness, Adams and Petruccione investigate the state of growing research on whether quantum effects contribute to neural processing and describe existing experimental evidence to support the theories.

Adams and Petruccione highlight that, in quantum biology, quantum effects have already been potentially implicated in photosynthesis, a process fundamental to life on earth, and explain theories that outline how quantum effects could be at play in the migration of birds as they orient themselves to earth’s magnetic field.

They explain that the biological system of the brain was long thought to be incompatible with quantum processes; the brain is a warm and wet environment where multiple interactions occur all the time, making it subject to the loss of quantum information that is known as decoherence, whereas quantum processes typically operate in low temperature systems where there are few environmental interactions.

However, the growing research they detail suggests that quantum effects could be operating in, for example, the mechanism by which general anaesthetic “switches off” consciousness, measured by changes in electron spin, while another hypothesis involves electron tunnelling in olfaction, or the sense of smell, that has been applied to the action of neurotransmitters. Another theory outlines how quantum entanglement between phosphorus nuclei, bound into ions that form part of the molecules providing energy for living organisms, might influence the functioning of neurons.

While the research they review remains largely theoretical, Adams and Petruccione point out that much of it has already been investigated with respect to other biological systems like photosynthesis and avian migration, and may illuminate how quantum physics is involved in the emergence of cognition from neural activity. If supported experimentally, this knowledge could, they say, shape thinking about how we think. The duo also suggests that, as these fields of research grow, quantum computing and quantum neurobiology might also inform each other in ever-increasing ways.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied


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Is Absolute Free Speech a Plague in the Time of Coronavirus?

Is Absolute Free Speech a Plague in the Time of Coronavirus?
Dr Heidi Matisonn, lecturer in Philosophy and Academic Leader for Teaching and Learning in UKZN’s School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics.

- By Dr Heidi Matisonn

As I write this, the US has recorded its 40 565th COVID-19 death (and 764 265th infection), and South Africa (SA) its 54th death (and 3 158th infection) (www.worldometers.info/coronavirus). Given their populations (as of January 2020), of 331 million and 57 million respectively, the US’s mortality rate is 129 times that of SA’s.

The two countries are vastly different in many ways – and I’m no epidemiologist so I can’t pretend to know why the virus spreads (or affects) the way it does. I’m also no economist so I won’t weigh in on whether lockdowns are the right way for countries to respond. But I am a philosopher who has long been interested in freedom of expression, particularly in the different approaches to this very important democratic right taken by the US and SA.

On 5 March, South Africa announced its first case of coronavirus and introduced “social distancing measures”. Less than two weeks later, just before the three-weeks (extended to five weeks) lockdown began, the government announced regulations in terms of Section 27 (2) of the Disaster Management Act: ‘Any person who publishes any statement, through any medium, including social media, with the intention to deceive any other person about — (a) Covid-19; (b) Covid-19 infection status of any person; or (c) any measure taken by the Government to address Covid-19, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months, or both such fine and imprisonment.’ (https://www.gov.za/documents/disaster-management-act-regulations-english-afrikaans-18-mar-2020-0000)

What was happening in the US around the same time?

9 March was a red letter day: the US reached 717 cases (an increase of 153 from the previous day) and 26 deaths (an increase of five) (www.worldometers.info/coronavirus). This was the same day that Fox News’ Sean Hannity referred to the virus as a “new hoax” and the broadcaster’s Trish Regan described the pandemic as the “Coronavirus Impeachment Scam”, calling it an ‘attempt to demonise and destroy the president, despite the virus originating halfway around the world.’ (www.berkshireeagle.com/stories/letter-free-speech-and-fox-news,601768)

To be fair, Regan was taken off air soon after and Hannity is now denying that he ever used the word “hoax” in the face of criticism of the news channel. In an open letter to Fox, Corporation Chair Rupert Murdoch and Fox Corporation CEO Lachlan Murdoch, concerned journalists and professors of journalism wrote that the ‘misinformation that reaches the Fox News audience is a danger to public health. Indeed, it is not an overstatement to say that your misreporting endangers your own viewers — and not only them, for in a pandemic, individual behaviour affects significant numbers of other people as well.’ (https://medium.com/@journalismprofs/open-letter-to-the-murdochs-9334e775a992)

Unfortunately, it seems that the damage was already done: a Pew Research Center poll conducted from 10-15 March found that 56% of Fox News viewers agreed that the media had “greatly exaggerated” the risks of the coronavirus outbreak compared with 24% of CNN viewers and 12% of MSNBC viewers. The poll also found that just 27% of Fox viewers thought the coronavirus was a “major threat” to US public health. (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/04/08/five-facts-about-fox-news/)

But whereas Fox is apparently coming out guns blazing (of course they are) at those bringing lawsuits against them (such as WASHLITE’s one which accuses Fox of acting ‘in bad faith to willfully and maliciously disseminate false information denying and minimising the danger posed by the spread of the novel Coronavirus).’ Geraint Crwys-Williams, chief business officer, Primedia Group and acting CEO, Primedia Broadcasting recognises the importance of ‘accountable and credible media…to circulate correct information on Covid-19.’ WhatsApp and Instagram are also trying to limit the spread of “fake news”, taking responsibility for their role in helping to fight the pandemic. And as of 9 April 2020, seven people had been arrested in South Africa for contravening the “fake news” regulations. (https://www.bizcommunity.com/Article/196/15/198757.html)

Like most liberal democracies, SA and the US have constitutional provisions dealing with – and protecting – freedom of expression. Section 16 of the South African Constitution in Chapter 2 of the Bill of Rights states that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.’ What is significant is that the clause on freedom of expression is immediately followed by certain limitations: ‘The right in subsection (1) does not extend to propaganda for war; incitement of imminent violence; or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.’

It could be argued that the South African government has overreached in criminalising the act of spreading fake news. After all, claiming that we shouldn’t participate in COVID-19 testing because the “swabs were contaminated” or that COVID-19 “only affects rich people” isn’t a) propaganda for war, b) incitement of imminent violence, or c) advocacy of hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion, and that constitutes incitement to harm. While these FALSE claims could indeed cause harm (people could refuse testing, poorer people could ignore symptoms), the harm is not related to the protected categories.

To justify the decision, the South African government could appeal to the general limitation clause (section 36) that states that rights may be limited by a law of general application that is ‘reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on dignity, freedom, and equality.’ Given the threat that COVID-19 poses to South Africa, the limitation on the right to disseminate false information about it that may increase people’s risk of contracting or spreading the virus, seems reasonable.

Things appear more complicated in the US. The First Amendment of the US Constitution states that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.’ 

The First Amendment is believed to prevent the government from restricting expression no matter its ‘message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content’ (Thurgood 1972). It has been said that it ‘operates to protect the inviolability of a marketplace of ideas’ (Harlan II 1971). (https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1028/viewpoint-discrimination)

Unfortunately, while the marketplace of ideas ‘holds that the truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in free, transparent public discourse’ (https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/999/marketplace-of-ideas), this hasn’t necessarily happened in the US. The nineties and noughties brought us the Jerry Springer ShowJudge Judy, and Dr Phil – shows that were outrageous but accepted as entertainment. Now we have Fox News – but outrageous is so normalised that some people just accept it as truth. Part of the problem is that the rise of TV-on-demand, the internet, and social media means that the “marketplace of ideas” is open to manipulation: algorithms curate the information and ideas we are exposed to, so instead of challenging our beliefs, they entrench them – regardless of their quality. And it is quality that should determine the take-up and life-span of an idea: not politicians or media moguls.

However, not only is it possible to limit the First Amendment right, there is precedent to do so. In Schenck v United States 249 US. 47 1919 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favour of an abridgement of free speech on the basis that ‘the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.’ (https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/249/47)

It could be argued that the answer is not to curtail free speech, but conversely, to expand it. One might say that limits could lead to politicians’ subjective decisions on what constitutes “truth” prevailing, and being used to criminalise dissidents. My response would be that this is why we have a separation of powers – it should be up to the members of the judiciary to decide whether constitutional limitations are necessary – not politicians who may be guided by whether a decision is popular rather than prudent. 

Fox News presenters’ failure to provide truthful coverage of the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic could be considered as constituting “a clear and present danger” to its viewers, to Americans, and to people around the world. It remains to be seen how costly their loose lips will prove to be. Let us hope that South Africans take care not to be infected by the same scourge that plagues the land of the (dangerously) free.

Dr Heidi Matisonn is a lecturer in Philosophy and Academic Leader for Teaching and Learning in UKZN’s School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics. She specialises in moral, political, and legal philosophy as well as bioethics and is particularly interested in the subject of taboo.

Photograph: Supplied


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Re-visiting the Purposes of Higher Education in the Time of COVID-19

Re-visiting the Purposes of Higher Education in the Time of COVID-19
Professor Carol Bertram and Dr Mlamuli Nkosingphile Hlatshwayo.

- By Dr Mlamuli Nkosingphile Hlatshwayo and Professor Carol Bertram

The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting life as we knew it. For academics, this means they need to start teaching remotely and engage in online teaching. In a bid to save as much of the semester as possible, University management is requiring academics to put their content on-line. Our argument in this short piece is that the pressure on academics to teach online with minimal training and preparation will further marginalise the vital thinking work that we need to engage in to transform curriculum and pedagogy in Higher Education (HE). We argue that, while academics should really be thinking deeply about the purposes of HE, and interrogating our curriculum and pedagogy, the urgency to go online will consume our energy and focus our work on measurable outputs.

Dutch education philosopher Gert Biesta argues that there are at least three overlapping purposes of education. The one we are most familiar with is “qualification” which means providing young people with knowledge, skills and dispositions to “do something”. This function of education is strongly linked to the economic purposes of education, which is preparing young people to join the workforce. The second purpose of education is socialisation, which entails the ways in which, through education, we become members of particular social, cultural and political “orders”. Either implicitly or explicitly, we learn the norms and values that we need to thrive in our society, beyond our family and religious community. Biesta argues that the third purpose of education is what he calls “subjectification” which is about young people becoming autonomous and independent in their thinking and acting. In many ways, subjectification works in tension with socialisation. Socialisation is about learning to become a “good” citizen while subjectification is learning how to constructively critique and question taken-for-granted ways of doing things.

While we should ideally keep all these purposes of education in mind, this is unlikely to happen as we try and teach in this time of disruption. Since we are responding to an unprecedented crisis, academics will largely be focusing on how to save the qualification aspect of education, and will have little time to focus on its socialisation and subjectification aspects.

The other key issues we need to interrogate in HE are curriculum design and pedagogy. However, this is unlikely to happen during a time of crisis and reaction. Curricula was at the heart of the 2015-2016 student protests with movements such as the #RhodesMustFall, Black Student Movements and others bringing to our attention the alienating and colonising nature of curricula and the need to re-centre African epistemic traditions and knowledges from the global South. Ideally academics should be reflecting on the kinds of readings, scholars and thinkers that we are legitimating and valuing in our curricula, and those scholars that continue to be marginalised and pushed to the periphery of contemporary thought.

Simply put, is it still necessary for those of us who teach the Philosophy of Education to continue to privilege Plato and the allegory of the cave as a central tenet of education, or can we begin to re-centre and include other African philosophical traditions such Ethnophilosophy, Sage Philosophy, Nationalist-ideological Philosophy and Ubuntu in an effort to reclaim them in curricula as valid and legitimate modes of being, seeing, thinking, and critical inquiry? We need to think seriously about the continuing epistemic injustice that occurs in curricula across the global South, with those who occupy Black bodies still not being recognised as (legitimate) knowers and holders of knowledge in the academy.

While a time of crisis could be the push that makes academics and the academy in general do this deliberative and reflective kind of curriculum work, it is unlikely that the COVID-19 crisis will have this effect. This is simply because our immediate pressure is to put our teaching and learning material online in an attempt to save the semester and pretend that it is still “business as usual” at the different universities. This simplistic and reductionist understanding of pedagogy tends to assume a number of things.

Firstly, it assumes that online learning mediums can replace the often critical debates and discussions that happen in contact classrooms and that facilitate understanding and access to curricula. Secondly, it assumes that students are on a fairly level playing field, with access to a safe shelter, computer, data, conducive environment, food and other critical factors that support their learning. Thirdly, it tends to focus purely on transmitting knowledge rather than foregrounding the importance of deeply engaging and critiquing knowledge. Our concern is that with the increasing push towards “coping”, “grappling” and “negotiating” with our new normal, we may be uncritically adopting pedagogies that may not be properly suited to our context and may potentially exclude Black working class students. 

It is worth remembering that the completion rate after four years of Unisa students doing a three-year degree is 11%, while the completion rate after four years in contact universities is 39%. Distance education is likely to deepen education inequality if not done thoughtfully, critically and with the necessary curriculum and pedagogical expertise.

Carol Bertram is an Associate Professor in Teacher Development Studies and Dr Mlamuli Nkosingphile Hlatshwayo is a lecturer in Curriculum and Education Studies at the School of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Photographs: Supplied


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Caution, Compensation and COVID-19: Facilities on the Frontline

Caution, Compensation and COVID-19: Facilities on the Frontline
Ms Nicci Whitear-Nel (left) and Dr Sheetal Soni.

- By Ms Nicci Whitear-Nel and Dr Sheetal Soni

The COVID-19 Regulations provide that every person (with a few limited exceptions) must be confined to their place of residence for the duration of the lockdown. Healthcare workers, such as doctors, nurses, and paramedics, are categorised as essential workers and are exempted from this restriction. There are penalties for non-compliance. For instance, any person who intentionally exposes another person to the novel coronavirus can be prosecuted for an offence, which could include assault, attempted murder, or even murder. The Regulations also allow for a warrant to be issued to enforce a period of quarantine or self- isolation where a person is reasonably suspected of having contracted COVID-19, or who has been in contact with a person who is a carrier or infected with COVID-19.

In light of these provisions, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers have a legal obligation to protect healthcare employees from potential infection while they are carrying out their duties. This would include providing them with personal protective equipment, and sanitisers. Healthcare workers who are not provided with the necessary means to protect themselves from infection may lawfully refuse to work. The South African Medical Association (SAMA) has advised members not to work without the requisite protective gear. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that frontline health workers run a very high risk of contracting the disease, especially if they were involved in aerosol generating procedures with a COVID-19 patient, such as intubation, cough induction procedures and bronchoscopies. Healthcare workers at the front desk who simply take the patient’s details would also be classified as being at high risk.

The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) practitioner guidelines state that if a healthcare worker is exposed to a confirmed case, they should be allowed to return to work, but should self-quarantine after hours. They should be actively monitored for symptoms and rapidly isolated and tested should they develop any. Active monitoring would involve a third party checking the healthcare worker’s temperature and vitals at least twice a day for a period of 14 days. Healthcare workers who have been exposed to the virus cannot be tested immediately because it takes time for the levels of the virus in the body to rise to the point where laboratory tests can identify them. The National Institute of Communicative Diseases (NICD) has said that the testing of healthcare workers should be prioritised and that they should receive their results within 24 hours. Ideally, they should be tested on day 8 following exposure.

Asymptomatic people, during the window where they may receive a false negative test result, are still infectious. Expecting healthcare workers to work as usual after exposure to a COVID-19 case may be the reason for the crises in the St Augustine’s, Kingsway and Morningside hospitals, resulting in their full or partial closure. While compelling every healthcare worker who has been exposed to the virus to stay at home would cause catastrophic staff shortages, the alternative is just as frightening.

If healthcare workers believe that they are being asked to work in a way that is placing themselves or patients at risk, they should raise their concerns by following the workplace grievance policy and the HPCSA’s guidelines. They should also notify the HPCSA, and/or the Office of Health Standards and Compliance.

If a healthcare worker contracts COVID-19 in the course and scope of their employment, they may claim compensation from the Compensation Fund in terms of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA). Compensation may be for temporary or permanent disablement, or death benefits for their dependents should they die. Compensation for temporary disablement may not exceed 30 days’ pay. Compensation for permanent disablement will be calculated on a case by case basis. It has been reported that some people coming off ventilators used during the treatment of COVID-19 suffer significant, permanent damage to their lungs. COIDA does not provide for compensation for any period that the healthcare worker has been required to quarantine or self-isolate at home. The Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) covers this.

In terms of civil law, employees covered by COIDA may not sue their employer for compensation or damages. This is not the case with patients who contract COVID-19 due to a hospital’s negligence. Since they are not employees of the hospital, COIDA does not apply. Any patient visiting a healthcare facility, such as a hospital or clinic, has the right to receive reasonable medical care. In this context, this would mean that the doctors and nurses should take the necessary precautions when treating the patient so that they are not exposed to COVID-19. Any deviation from the reasonably expected standard of care could result in a potential negligence claim against the healthcare facility or against the Department of Health, if the facility is a public one.

Healthcare workers who suspect they may have been infected with COVID-19 but are forced to continue working, place their patients at risk. If a doctor working in such a situation spreads the infection to their patient, not only has there been failure to adhere to the acceptable standard of care, but the infected patient may have a claim against the Minister of Health. This is because the Minister is vicariously responsible for the conduct of public healthcare workers who expose patients to COVID-19 in the course and scope of their employment.

Dr Sheetal Soni is a lecturer in the field of Bioethics, International Law, Security and Insolvency and Intellectual Property Law at UKZN’s School of Law. She has done consultancy work for the HIV/AIDS Vaccines Ethics Group (HAVEG), the AIDS and Rights Alliance of South Africa (ARASA), and the National Department of Health.

Ms Nicci Whitear-Nel is a senior lecturer in the fields of Evidence and Labour Law at UKZN’s School of Law. Her research interests are in evidence, labour law, legal ethics and legal education.


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