Nica Richards
Deputy online news editor
4 minute read
30 Dec 2020
10:47 am

Intentional exposure of others to Covid can see you charged with attempted murder in Joburg

Nica Richards

"Anyone who carries the risk of exposing someone else would be classified as intentional exposure, even if they are wearing masks,” says public health lawyer, Safura Abdool Karim.

A bolt crosses the Johannesburg skyline during a storm on 27 November 2020. Picture: Marco Longari/AFP

As of Wednesday morning, Johannesburg, Tshwane, West Rand and Ekurhuleni residents now know what fines and arrest risks they face should they be found not wearing a mask, and if they find themselves intentionally infecting others with Covid-19 by failing to self-isolate.  

The City of Johannesburg has issued admission of guilt fines in terms of the Disaster Management Act under lockdown Level 3. 

The following penalties have been laid out: 

  • Not wearing a face mask in a public place means a fine of R1 500, six months imprisonment, or both;
  • Misrepresenting that a person is infected with Covid-19 means a R3 000 fine;
  • Anyone deliberately spreading misinformation on the virus will be issued a R3 500 fine;
  • Deliberate exposure to the virus will result in arrest, and the potential charge of assault, attempted murder or murder;
  • Anyone who fails to comply with lockdown Level 3 regulations will be fined R3 500; 
  • And those failing to abide by the 9pm to 6am curfew will be hit with a R3 000 fine, or up to six months in jail, or both.

Posted by City of Joburg on Tuesday, December 29, 2020

ALSO READ: NCCC briefs SA on adjusted level 3 regulations

Public health lawyer, Safura Abdool Karim explained that these fines are not to be taken lightly. 

Unlike a traffic fine, the fines imposed due to Covid-19 are admission of guilt fines that carry the weight of a criminal conviction.

Transgressors risk getting a criminal record for serious offences, such as murder and attempted murder, even after fines are paid and matters are settled in court. 

Intentional exposure 

“If you took precautions like wearing a mask, you could argue you haven’t intentionally exposed people to the virus. But if people do not isolate, that could be intentional exposure.

“Anyone who carries the risk of exposing someone else would be classified as intentional exposure, even if they are wearing masks,” Karim said. 

Charging someone for assault, attempted murder or murder for intentionally exposing someone else is not new. Government implemented this transgression when the Disaster Management Act was first implemented and revised for Covid-19 in March. 

What is new, however, is risking a fine or imprisonment or both for not wearing a mask. 

So far, Karim is not aware if anyone has been convicted under the intentional exposure law, only those that have been charged.

Intentional exposure is especially relevant for people who have come into contact with the virus in some way, and are awaiting their test results. Karim emphasised it was paramount for those people to isolate. 

As much as the clamping down on Covid-19 transgressions is seen as a sincere effort to enforce responsible public interactions and quell the second wave by any means necessary, Karim said there was a risk of criminalisation undermining public health efforts. 

Stigma and Covid-19 

In a paper written by Karim in June, she explained that due to attempted murder charges using existing criminal laws, cases could continue even after the state announces the end of the country’s state of disaster. 

Karim adds that attempted murder sentence are often lengthly, and would exceed the minimum penalties set out in the Disaster Management Act regulations. 

HIV transmission is already criminalised in South Africa, and should there be convictions for those deliberately exposing others to the virus, we would be one of the first to criminalise transmission of Covid-19. 

Although the hope is that stringent penalties would scare and motivate all citizens to comply with regulations, Karim said in June that this could have a negative impact on public health efforts to control the outbreak. 

There are concerns that like HIV, people could avoid being tested purely to remain ignorant to their status. 

Warnings were issued by the World Health Organisation relating to this, with it discouraging the use of “dehumanising terminology” creating the impression that those infected with SARS-CoV-2 are somehow less human that those who are not infected. 

However, it is the country’s dire socio-economic conditions that could prove the most harmful to public health efforts to reduce the disease. 

Karim explained that the criminalisation of Covid-19 transmission is likely to target the most vulnerable populations – the poor. 

She said that wealthier homes have access to sanitising and medical expertise, whereas those living in informal settlements often do not have access to basic needs such as running water and social distancing. 

This further exposes poor people to the virus, and by proxy, deliberately exposing others simply because of the living circumstances. 

Many questions regarding the effectiveness of the severe fines and prison sentences awaiting transgressors remain. However, one sentiment remains: self-isolation, whether due to testing positive or being exposed to someone that is infected, is the safest and most legal option for citizens.

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