Former South African president, Jacob Zuma, during his days as head-of-state. Zuma highlights his country's efforts to increase women’s participation in all levels of the justice chain during the High-level Lunch Event on Strengthening Women's Access to Justice. Co-hosted by Finland, South Africa and UN Women on September 24, 2012. Photo Credit: UN/Catianne Tijerina Flickr

South African High Court revokes Jacob Zuma’s medical parole as Omicron numbers surge throughout Africa

Now an elderly man with reported medical issues, the public debate in South Africa surrounds the disgraced former president being given the same considerations as a normal civilian during the rise of another COVID variant. 

The High Court of South Africa Gauteng Division in Pretoria found it unlawful for the country’s former president, Jacob Zuma, to be released on medical parole. Also stated in the December 15 judgment is their refusal to count whatever time Zuma spent on parole as time served. 

Earlier this year, the South African Constitutional Court sentenced Zuma to 15 months in prison for contempt of court after he refused to testify at a corruption investigation on state looting. His bid began on July 8. Subsequently, protests ensued

In September – about two months into his sentence, the National Commissioner of Correctional Services, Arthur Fraser, granted Zuma medical parole. Quickly, the Democratic Alliances  questioned the decision. To explain, the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) tweeted that Zuma was allowed to visit an outside healthcare facility to undergo surgery after a routine checkup prompted in-person hospitalization. 

DCS wrote in a statement, “Medical parole placement for Mr. Zuma means that he will complete the remainder of the sentence in the system of community corrections, whereby he must comply with a specific set of conditions and will be subjected to supervision until his sentence expires.”  DCS based its decision on a medical report concerning the matter.

Purportedly, Zuma remained in the hospital with more operations planned. Notably, the former president of nearly ten years was also given special permissions to leave detention for his brother’s funeral two weeks into serving his sentence.  

Another COVID hotspot

Zuma’s case occurs as the World Health Organization (WHO) released its projections last Wednesday citing Africa as having the fastest growing number of COVID-19 cases this year. Reports indicate a 83 percent climb, thanks to both the Delta and Omicron variants. 

Inmates like Zuma have a chance at early release during pandemic-exacerbated criminal justice system vulnerabilities. That said, South Africa confirmed 20,000 new instances of coronavirus on December 8. 

In contrast to the globe’s 57 percent, Our World Data says 31 percent of South Africans are vaccinated, both fully and partially to date. Yet, Reuters reports that if two doses must be given, then only 23.4 percent of the population would be considered vaccinated. 

While Africa experienced relatively lower numbers in comparison to the rest of world during the first waves of COVID in 2020, one week after Europe’s first cases, the newest Omicron variant was introduced in South Africa on November 24. By December 1, the first U.S case of Omicron was reported after a California traveler returned with it from a November trip to South Africa, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although cases have increased, severity remains low

“What we don’t quite know is how transmissible [the Omicron variant] will be, will our vaccines work, will it lead to more severe diseases,” CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky expounded. On the other hand, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said  the mutation “is likely to spread quickly,” possibly faster than its Delta variant counterpart.

To date, WHO Africa reports the continent receiving approximately 372 million vaccines, administering 248 million or around three percent over eight billion doses globally dispersed. About eight percent of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated.

Amidst rumored lockdown measures for the U.S, the world’s largest superpower, where does that leave vulnerable populations–rich and famous, or not–everywhere else? 

Omicron in Africa

Omicron is now present in almost 60 countries. With the holiday season and increasing travel bans readily approaching, a spread of the virus throughout the continent appears inevitable as per WHO Africa’s Regional Director, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti. 

“What we do know is that uneven distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally is creating an ideal environment for COVID-19 variants to emerge and spread explosively and regions with the least access to vaccines seem likely to suffer the most,” elucidated Dr Moeti

To heighten concern, a miniscule number of African nations, six of 54, have met the international target population vaccination rate of 40 percent by 2021’s end. Often, this leaves millions in the region without virus protections per the assessment of Immunization and Vaccines Development Programme Coordinator at WHO Africa, Dr. Richard Mihigo. 

To add insult to injury, the aforementioned is causing local economies to dampen.

As a 79-year-old man, Zuma qualifies as an elderly citizen with an alleged pre-existing condition. Yet, his mystery illness still goes undisclosed. Since the leader has a spotty history, doubt has been cast on his requests. However, if Zuma’s claims have credence, then a “guilty” man may very well need special care not offered in incarceration facilities. 

“If a system is overburdened, then people will die…[t]he elderly, people who have underlying health conditions and the unvaccinated are still at risk of severe disease,” explained Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove.

Retributive actions or fair treatment?

During the last U.S. lock down, spikes in coronavirus numbers led to inadvertent criminal justice reform; including early release for qualifying inmates as issues like overcrowding and inadequate healthcare were prevalent. To add, almost 700,000 inmates around the globe have been released since the proliferation of the illness. 

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, the incarcerated were infected more than five times higher than the nation’s average because of the lack of resources in the facilities like space and ventilation, with deaths also toppling* the national rate.

As of April 2021, more than 661,000 prisoners and staff have been infected with almost 3,000 fatalities. In the past year, one in three people incarcerated in state prisons have had COVID-19, with a little more– at least 39 percent of those in federal detention. 

Should wealth or status matter when matters of healthcare and social responsibility are at risk in detention centers? On said factors, prisoners were not discriminated against. Hence, the question of whether a near octogenarian, regardless of Zuma’s political past, should be treated similarly. Ultimately, the issue is whether South Africa’s memory is short, or their restricted empathy for a former “people’s president” resonates too closely with his constituency.

Zuma has been reported to appeal the court’s decision.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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