The coronavirus has everybody talking and on the edge of their seats. And while that can be a good thing to raise awareness and stay up to date with developments; it also means there’s a lot of misinformation making the rounds causing unnecessary panic. Yes, general anxiety about issues of public health is understandable, so you might be sitting at your workspace with many questions, wondering what would happen if you or one of your colleagues falls ill. So, as your caring friend in the law, we’re highlighting the facts and kicking fiction to the curb. Let’s take a closer look at coronavirus and employee rights in South Africa. Knowledge, as they say, is power! 

First things first: what exactly is the coronavirus?

Well, let’s start by clarifying that what we are dealing with at the moment isn’t the coronavirus: it’s a coronavirus.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO): “ Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which may cause illness in animals or humans. In humans, several coronaviruses are known to cause respiratory infections ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). 

So, what kind of coronavirus are we hearing about at the moment, and where does it come from?

This particular coronavirus is called COVID-19, and it was discovered in December 2019. The first person infected by it lived in Wuhan, China. Because it is a highly infectious virus, it has quickly spread to other parts of the world. WHO has officially labelled it a “pandemic”, which means that new disease for which people don’t have immunity yet, is spreading across the globe.


What is the situation like in South Africa?

As of 15 March 2020, there are 61 confirmed cases of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in South Africa. So far, there has also one been one case of local transmission – meaning a South African has tested positive for COVID-19 but didn’t travel abroad. The Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, has reassured the public that our hospitals and healthcare facilities are equipped and ready to deal with cases of COVID-19. 

When should I be concerned – what are the COVID-19 symptoms?

With COVID-19, different people (depending on age, underlying medical issues or a low immune system strength) will display various symptoms. However, the most common symptoms are high fever, fatigue and a dry cough. Other indicators include bodily aches and pains, a blocked or runny nose, sore throat and diarrhoea. As WHO points out, in most cases, the symptoms are generally mild, and most people recover within a week. Approximately 80% of people affected by COVID-19 recover without needing special or specific medical attention. However, this doesn’t mean they cannot infect others.

I have some of these symptoms, should I be panicking?

Of course, because South Africa is heading into flu season, and office environments and other public spaces are known for being places where germs can spread quickly, you or your colleague might display some of the common flu symptoms, so do not panic. Getting infected with COVID-19 is a scary thought, but there is no need to panic over symptoms that could be a regular cold or flu. That said, if you are experiencing the combination of fever, heavy cough and shortness of breath, and you have either travelled to or come into to contact with someone who has travelled to any of the high-risk areas recently, you should call your doctor. The high risks areas at the moment, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, are China, many European countries, South Korea and Iran.

If you think you might have contracted the virus, then you need to call the National Institute of Communicable Diseases’ (NICD) helpline on 0800 029 999.

They will advise you on which public or a private healthcare facility is nearest to you, and how to access it. Be sure to follow that procedure because if you are positive, you are infectious and don’t want to make other people sick.

What happens if I test positive for COVID-19?

Should you test positive for coronavirus, you will be either be required to self-quarantine at home or you will be quarantined at one of the local hospitals that have been assigned to respond to the outbreak. This is necessary because the virus needs to be contained. The NICD will also get in touch with anyone you have come into close contact within the week before you starting showing symptoms. These people will be advised to self-quarantine at their home for 14 days. This means you won’t be able to leave your house, go to work and come into contact with anyone.  

What do I do about my job if I am put in isolation or required to self-quarantine because of COVID-19?

“As an employee in South Africa, The Basic Conditions of Employment Act protects your right to take sick leave. This means that if you get a medical certificate confirming the diagnosis and stating that you have to be in isolation, you will be entitled to take sick leave,” says Adv. Jackie Nagtegaal, LAW FOR ALL’s Managing Director. Keep in mind, you will only be able to return to work once you receive a medical certificate stating you are in the clear. If for some reason, you are not issued with a certificate, your employer may require you get tested by a medical practitioner and to get a certificate clearing you to return to work

What if my employer recommends that all employees self-quarantine?

If your boss decides to close the office or premises as a precautionary measure, and suggest employees work from home, then those days will not come out of your sick leave (unless you get a medical certificate confirming that you must be in quarantine). It’s also possible for an employer to ask an employee to self-quarantine if they recently travelled to a high-risk area or start showing symptoms in the office. In this case, the employee will likely be put on special paid leave, depending on the nature of their work.

Sidenote: If you have already put in annual leave for an international holiday, and decide to go through with it, your boss cannot tell you to cancel your plans. But, they might require you to self-isolate for at least 14 days before returning to the office. 

Of course, not every employee can carry out their duties from home, so the employer will have to consider some kind of special paid leave, as the employee still needs to make a living. “It’s important to remember that if you under self-quarantine at your employer’s request and cannot do your work from home, it’s not legal for them to deduct those days as sick leave or annual leave,” clarifies Nagtegaal.

However, should an employer want to avoid placing an employee on any form of leave and requires the employee to work from home, they must do their best to help make that possible for the employee. This could involve implementing specific measures or processes to help. 

What if I want to take precautionary measures? Would sick leave apply for voluntary quarantine?

In this case, sick leave would not apply, since you are not ill and haven’t been issued a medical certificate. If you do, for whatever reason, insist on voluntary quarantine, and you cannot complete your duties at home, unpaid or annual leave days might be deducted.

More points on the workplace: the legal duties of employers

Employers are required to adhere to the Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993, which calls for them to create and maintain a safe and healthy workplace for employees. This means they are obligated to implement, where possible, measures to minimise the risk of viruses or illnesses spreading in the workplace,” states Nagtegaal. For example, the office must be cleaned regularly, and employees must be encouraged to form healthy habits.

Speaking of, here are…

Five things you should do in the office (and in general!) to reduce the risk of getting infected by or spreading COVID-19

Yes, there are so many uncertainties surrounding this coronavirus outbreak, but we do know that it is highly infectious. All the more reason for individuals to do their bit to minimise the risk of spreading COVID-19 or reduces their chances of getting infected: WHO recommends the following:

  • Wash your hands regularly and properly. It’s advisable to use soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Avoid touching your face, particularly your nose, eyes and mouth. The virus can spread very quickly from those areas to the rest of your body after coming into contact with contaminated hands
  • Maintain reasonable “social distance”. For example, stay at least 1 metre away from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • If you do have to cough or sneeze, do so into your bent elbow (avoid your hands!) or into a tissue, which must be properly disposed of immediately.
  • Stay up to date with the latest COVID-19 developments locally and internationally. You want to stay informed about high-risk areas so that you can avoid them.

Stay in the know and don’t just go with the flow:

Remember, not only do you want to stay safe, but you also want to be part of the solution and foster healthy habits in the office and everyday life. This means following the facts and taking precautionary measures where possible.

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