The declaration of the COVID-19 virus as a national disaster has created some anxiety. Unfortunately, this also led to the spreading of rumours relating to either decisions made by the State or the status of the virus. There were also some scams that made the rounds where the public were misinformed on certain procedures that must be followed.
On 18 March 2020, the President enacted a specific set of Regulations under the Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002 that provides for certain criminal offences regarding the National State of Disaster, such as the following:
- A person is guilty of a criminal offence if s/he fail to comply with any of the bans/prohibitions, such as to not have more than 100 people gather or to not have more than 50 people at a premises where alcohol is sold and consumer.
- A person is also guilty of a criminal offence if s/he publishes a statement in any form (including social media) with the intention to mislead others regarding the COVID-19 virus, the infection status of a person or any measures taken by the State.
- It is important to note that if a person knows that s/he has contracted the COVID-19 virus and intentionally exposes someone else to the virus, might be criminally charged for assault, attempted murder or even murder.
There are also certain bans/prohibitions on business hours of places that serve and sell alcohol, such as restaurants, taverns and so on. Apart from restricting the number of people gathering at the premises, all premises that serve alcohol for consumption must close at 18h00 during the week (including Saturdays) and 13h00 on Sundays and public holidays. The Minister of Police informed the public that those found to be in breach of these bans/prohibitions, will be criminally prosecuted.
If anyone is found to be guilty of committing these criminal offences, s/he will be liable to fine or imprisonment not exceeding six months or both.
Seeing as it is a criminal offence to mislead others regarding the COVID-19 virus, some major institutions have come forward to warn and provide clarity to the public about certain scams doing the rounds under their names:
- Netcare, one of the big medical institutions in the county, informed the public that people are claiming to represent the institution in conducting door to door screening for COVID-19. Netcare warned the public that these are means to gain entry to private and business premises and they should not let these scammers onto their properties. Netcare further advised that the police be contacted if confronted with this scenario.
- The South African Banking Risk Information Centre (“SABRIC”) warned clients that scammers are sending fake e-mails that offers products, such as masks and vaccines as part of panic buying. Once a user clicks on the link in the e-mail, the websites will prompt the user to provide their personal information will allow the scammers to impersonate the user and gain access to their bank accounts. SABRIC warns clients not to click on these unsolicited e-mails.
- The South African Reserve Bank (“SARB”) also issued a statement warning the public of people going to their houses to collecting physical money that are contaminated with the COVID-19 virus. The scammers falsely identify themselves as representatives of SARB and they provide fake receipts for the collected money and inform the victims that the same amount can be collected from any bank. SARB has warned that there has been no proof that COIVD-19 can be transmitted through the exchange of money and warned the public not to hand over any money to these scammers.
In light of the above, the public must refrain from spreading false news and ensure that they comply with the prohibitions/bans set in place to avoid being liable for a criminal offence. It is also important that the public remains vigilant of scammers who will try to take advantage of anxiety around the COVID-19 virus.