Mark Heywood is a South African human rights and social justice activist based in Johannesburg. He was one of the founders of the Treatment Action Campaign that led the successful fight for access to medicines for people living with HIV/AIDS in South Africa between 1998 and 2008. In 2010 he co-founded SECTION 27, a public interest law centre that aims to influence and use the law to protect, promote and advance human rights, in particular access to healthcare and basic education. The organisation’s name is a reference to Section 27 of the South African constitution that enshrines the right to health care, food, water and social security. Since 2019 he is the co-editor of a new section of the South African online newspaper the Daily Maverick, with a focus on social justice and civil society. The interview was done in June 2020.

What is your assessment of how the pandemic has been dealt with in South Africa ?

The COVID-19 epidemic took off later in Africa than in Europe or the US. However, the fact that we have a relatively low number of infections and deaths at this point is not an indicator that we will be any less severely affected than other parts of the world. In South Africa we are now seeing a very rapid increase in infections, some 2 500 cases a day. But the real figure will be much higher because our ability to test is severely constrained. So I think that in the coming months we will be experiencing what happened in the UK, Italy, Spain, Brazil and the US. The epidemic is moving at a different pace in different parts of the country; the Western Cape has had the most deaths and infections, while figures in Johannesburg are lower but are expected to increase.

The performance of the Government is mixed. On the one hand it can be commended for taking early and decisive action by implementing a state of disaster and a lockdown on 27 March at a stage when we only had a handful of confirmed cases. However, no consideration was given to the devastating impact that it would have on the poor. The economy was literally shut down and people who were already deprived were left for at least one month to fend for themselves. It was not until late April that a relief package was introduced, but because of corruption and administrative inefficiency very few people benefitted.  Now many people are literally starving in cities across the country; even in one relatively comfortable middle-class suburb of Johannesburg where I live at least 1 000 families are completely dependent on food parcels provided by a Community Action Network (CAN) set up in response to COVID.

So while everyone agrees that the measures were necessary, civil society is increasingly critical of the fact that initially nothing was done to protect poor people. For me, there was no excuse for the delay. At a meeting I attended just a few days before the lockdown started, over 50 of the country’s most experienced scientists had insisted on the need for such mitigation measures, a demand that was echoed by progressive economists and CSOs.

The lockdown probably slowed the epidemic slightly over a few weeks, particularly amongst the middle classes, who were able to stock up on food, but I don’t think it achieved what it was meant to in the poor areas, and of course most of our country is made up of poor people.

From your perspective, what has COVID-19 brought to light with regard to human rights in South Africa and globally?

In the developing countries, and to some extent in the developed countries also, the pandemic has been used to justify disproportionate limitations on fundamental human rights. Everybody accepts that in an epidemic there may be a need for some rational limitation on rights, but where it leads to attacks on activists, to police or army brutality, to surveillance and unjustified intrusion into people’s privacy it is inacceptable.

I believe that people the world over are realizing that we are at a moment of danger with regard to people’s political and civil rights, particularly where you have governments that are not intrinsically democratic. In South African we have a strong civil society, trade union movement and media and a judiciary that is independent for the most part, so we have been able to largely hold the line, working through the courts, the media and demonstrations. But in our neighbouring countries such as Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, there have been some very brutal attacks on activists. Even before COVID-19 people everywhere had been talking about shrinking civic space and the epidemic has intensified the trend. In South Africa more than 230 000 arrests for the violations of regulations have been reported, most of these merely for minor violations. There have been at least 12 documented cases of police and army killings and many more undocumented instances cases of police and army violence and brutality.

With regard to social and economic rights, there had already been gross inequality in terms of access to health care and education before the pandemic. Those inequalities have widened and as I mentioned earlier we are facing widespread hunger. The closure of the schools had a devastating impact on poor children’s access to food, because for 9 million children the school meal they receive is their only stable source of daily food. This nutrition programme was stopped ten weeks ago and has not been resumed despite the fact that schools are going back now. SECTION27, a South African public interest law centre working for equality and social justice and Equal Education, a movement of school students, have launched a court action against the Education Ministry for having dropped the National School Nutrition Programme while the schools were closed.

The human rights approach should be the standard for all health issues. It was specifically pioneered in relation to HIV as people living with HIV had to fight for their rights to life-saving anti-retroviral medicines, which were patented and unaffordable; life or death depended on your income. It was also necessary to respond to the high level of discrimination and human rights violations against people living with HIV. COVID-19 is obviously a very different virus, but the same questions will apply such as “who gets access to vaccines when and if they are developed, will treatments be priced at a level that is affordable in developing countries?”

We must not prioritise some health crises and marginalize others. In the midst of this massive focus on COVID-19, we should not forget that the HIV epidemic is still there. In 2018, 770 000 people died from HIV and there were 1.7 million new infections worldwide. One year from now, COVID-19 may well be under control in the developed countries, either due to vaccines or effective social distancing, but could remain an epidemic or even have become endemic in developing countries that lack the necessary health services and the living conditions that allow people to protect themselves. There is a real danger that COVID-19 could become an epidemic that divides the world in the same way as tuberculosis. In 2018 1.5 million people died of TB, a curable disease, but the world is unconcerned as nobody dies of it in the US or Europe.

If a vaccine or a medication is found for COVID-19, what can civil society and activists do in order to ensure a fair access to them? Are any actions already taking place in that direction?

As no treatments or vaccines are available as yet, no civil society action or litigation is taking place, but civil society is discussing how we create a common front internationally to ensure that a vaccine would be a universal public good and there is no question of patents or pricing obstructing access to it. But of course there will be issues to be addressed because many countries will not have the technology or capacity to produce their own vaccines or medication for the local population and will once again be dependent on big western-based pharmaceutical companies.

The issues are very much the same as with HIV. The main difference is that initially there was no treatment for HIV, so activists had to fight for investment in research and development. When treatments emerged we had to fight against profiteering and how to get them off-patent. The great achievement of the HIV struggle was that we were able to show how a global mobilization could win against the pharmaceutical companies and get the price of HIV medicines reduced considerably.  That struggle will have to be waged again, but I do think that today there is greater global understanding and sympathy – at least on paper – among certain governments. This is reflected in the resolution adopted in May by the World Health Assembly calling for equitable access to and fair distribution of all essential health technologies and products to combat the virus.

It is widely believed that many of the major viral infections that have emerged over recent years occurred as a result of zoonose, which in turn is thought to be linked to industrial-scale farming, globalised industry, the displacement of small farmers into new areas through the expansion of industrial activities etc.? What is your perspective on that?

I agree completely. COVID-19 originated as a social injustice issue. Scientists have been warning about this risk for fifty years. The American writer, Laurie Garrett, described a scenario of this kind in her book “The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance” back in 1994. And the fact that it has happened now does not mean that it won’t happen again. Another viral pandemic could occur at any time because of the conditions that have been created for it.

This is why you cannot separate the response to COVID-19 from the need to address the social, economic and political, ecological and climate crisis in the world. Civil society across the globe must ensure that lessons are learned from this pandemic and that neoliberal deregulation and lack of investment in public services is overturned, that states are forced to behave differently, business is better regulated and taxes are increased again to enable governments to run effective public services.

Despite COVID-19, people and organisations are mobilising in different places around the world for human rights, justice and the environment. From your perspective, what should civil society’s efforts focus on? Is there a larger picture that should be addressed?

Today all the struggles are converging. The latest surge of anger of Black Lives Matter was partly triggered by the impact of COVID-19 on black people in America, which is linked to nutritional inequality, unequal housing conditions and jobs where there is a high risk of exposure. Black Lives Matter, which seems to have pushed back effectively for the time being against racism and racists, has shown that the only thing that works is protest that refuses to abide by rules. I think civil society has become too “rule accepting”. This does not mean that it should turn to wanton destruction, but it does mean that it should not accept being told to abide by a curfew, where it may or not demonstrate or what it may or may not say. But protest is not enough – we have to propose viable alternatives. And there are some viable alternatives on the table. The Green New Deal may not be perfect but it charts a society that has a different set of priorities to the current ones.

Civil society also needs to look at how it uses its power effectively. We have the numbers across the world to dominate the streets when we need to, but in between surges of protest and anger civil society falls back and loses strength. We should be aware that the other side organises against us all the time and are actually better at organising than we have been. We tend to think of Trump as if he were just an aberration, a fool, but his election was actually the result of 25 years of consistent work by activists from the Right. Anne Nelson explains this in her book “Shadow Network”. In the meantime, we on the left have been engaged in unproductive ideological fights, each one wanting to be more politically pure than the other, getting obsessed with identity. There are of course serious issues of identity and vital issues to be addressed around race, gender and sexuality, but we have lost track of our main objectives of social and economic justice and in some cases been neutralized or even coopted. We don’t have to be intransigent and opposed to everything, but we must build the power of poor and oppressed people and when we, as civil society, cooperate it should be on our terms.