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Silence on illegal immigrants negates gallant war on Covid-19

Zimbabweans cross the border into SA illegally. Most refugees don't want to be tested for Covid-19 for fear of deportation. /JAMES OATWAY
Zimbabweans cross the border into SA illegally. Most refugees don't want to be tested for Covid-19 for fear of deportation. /JAMES OATWAY

A week ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa stood before the nation and announced a 21-day lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19 that is devastating the world .

This move has seen the closing down of airports and effectively, all businesses and activities not deemed essential. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for the president to take these drastic measures.

Our country is in a recession. The economy has been stagnant for a long time, the implications of which are growing levels of unemployment and inequalities.

Making an already bad situation worse is the fact that just hours into the lockdown, we were hit with the news that ratings agency Moody's has downgraded the country's long-term foreign currency and local currency issuer ratings to Ba1 from Baa3. The outlook remains negative.

A Ba1 rating is judged to have speculative elements and a significant credit risk. In layman's terms, we are in junk status.

Despite these devastating realities, there is no doubt that the government has handled the Covid-19 pandemic in the best possible way. The low number of fatalities might be, to some degree, attributed to the swift actions of the government in declaring a state of disaster and locking the country down. Such containment measures have borne fruit in countries such as China.

But while the government must be applauded for its foresight and progressive response, including availing resources for SMMEs that would otherwise be devastated by the lockdown, there is much to be desired about the silence around the migrant question which I am worried will have tragic consequences for our country beyond Covid-19.

In all the announcements and discussions around how to deal with Covid-19, the government has not articulated a coherent strategy on how it will target the migrant question specifically.

And by this I am referring particularly to the question around undocumented migrants who are in the country illegally - men and women who reside in the shadows of our tenement cities, constantly hiding away from the prying eyes of the law that wants to deport them to their countries.

There is endless research that suggests that a lot of undocumented migrants reside in abandoned or hijacked buildings that are not fit for human habitat. They not only live in squalor but for economic reasons, live in great numbers, creating perfect conditions for the spread of the disease.

Additionally, in several studies, migrants have communicated their great distrust of authority, specifically the police and home affairs officials. This is not only as a result of how our system has treated them, but also of the fears emanating from the knowledge of their own precarious status in the country. The likelihood that they would approach government to seek medical attention should they be infected, is therefore slim.

But even long before the Covid-19 outbreak, undocumented migrants were already battling to access basic services including public healthcare. The implication of this is that in this period where our healthcare system is already strained, undocumented migrants will not be prioritised and thus, will be left behind.

But challenges confronted by undocumented migrants go beyond Covid-19. Post this crisis, the South African economy is undoubtedly going to suffer. By all indications, levels of economic activity will decline due to a decrease in employment as companies try to recover profits lost in the lockdown. Labour is the first thing that companies cut down when they want to bring down production costs.

Historically, migrants, particularly undocumented migrants, have been on the receiving end of the locals' frustrations with socio-economic challenges. They have been accused of "stealing" jobs and of being to blame for the stagnant economy - accusations that are not only simplistic but also very dangerous in a country where migrants have repeatedly been maimed and persecuted.

The government needs to start thinking about how to deal with the undocumented migrant question in times of Covid-19. This strategy must include ways to alleviate their fears of deportation. We can deal with the issue of their illegal status later, but right now we need to make them part of our Covid-19 fighting priority.

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