South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) is investigating allegations that South Africans working at the Libyan embassy in Pretoria were pressured to test and reveal their HIV status after asking to be tested for Covid-19.
Some of these employees have worked for the embassy for over a decade.
According to them, someone who visited the embassy had tested positive for Covid-19 and that at least one of the embassy’s workers had been exposed to the person who tested positive.
Since the possible exposure happened in the workplace and they could not pay the costs themselves, the workers asked the embassy to arrange and pay for Covid-19 tests.
The embassy allegedly to pay for the tests claiming refused employee contracts do not cover such medical expenses.
Later, the workers were given the option to be tested, if they agree to also test for other conditions, particularly HIV and hepatitis.
A worker who disagreed with the process eventually gave in to the idea because he was afraid of getting sick because he has a known comorbidity that added to his concern. “Because I was so scared of Covid-19 I said sir, please, let me go test, everything is fine”
The Libyan embassy said the matter would be raised with embassy leadership, but did not respond to the issues raised as at the time of this publication.
DIRCO stated that it could not comment on the situation until their investigations were finalised.
There are a variety of local laws and guidelines in South Africa that protect the confidentiality of certain medical results.
The National Health Act says that information relating to one’s health status may not be disclosed unless consented to in writing, ordered by a court or law, or if “non-disclosure of the information represents a serious threat to public health”.
Also, Section 7 of the Employment Equity Act restricts medical testing of an employee and prohibits HIV testing unless “determined to be justifiable by the Labour Court”.
Retired Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron, who is a long-time activist for HIV issues, says it is important for individuals to have control over the privacy of results because of stigma.
He says that while HIV is entirely medically manageable, there is still a long way to go in changing attitudes. “That is why HIV is still a disease of silence across the African continent – shame, rooted in sexual transmission, and stigma about it”.