Covid-19 and South Africa’s invisible citizens
PRETORIA – In one of many discussions I pointed to someone the fact that Covid-19 testing is available free of charge at state hospitals, that doesn't remove the old problems found in Prince Mshiyeni, Baragwanath, Natalspruit or Estcourt hospitals. People either share beds or sleep on the floor. There are no medical supplies, equipment and specialists. Unfortunately, the prevalence of the deadly flu-like Covid-19 won't change any of that.
The same applies to the state of poverty and hunger in South Africa. The reality that many people live on less than a dollar a day and also go to bed hungry all their life won't go away because there is this virus. Indeed, the concerns about panic buying that everyone is talking about accentuates the old argument about the solid line that divides the rich and the poor.
South Africa has to, therefore, confront the biggest elephant in the room – economic inequality. Our country is a nation of two economies that former President Thabo Mbeki spoke about many years ago. Mbeki in 2001 said that South Africa was “operating within two economies with no connecting staircase linking them…” The absent staircase will, therefore, determine how the country succeeds in fighting Covid-19 and also how it deals with other many problems it faces. So far, nothing appears to work or there isn’t enough energy put to build a bridge to connect the two worlds.
It is for this reason that experts suggest the introduction of a universal income cover to assist anyone who stands to lose earnings and or who won’t have any form of income in these times of hardship. This is a group that neither qualifies for a social grant nor UIF benefits like the youth (that is the missing middle, which is part of the invisible class). Such a scheme will lay a good foundation for a basic income grant for missing middle. The Employment Tax Incentive (ETI) focuses on employed youth and doesn’t necessarily contribute to lowering high unemployment in South Africa.
Nevertheless, New Zealand leads the way with a comprehensive $5.1 billion wage subsidy scheme to respond to the harrowing impact of the Covid-19 on jobs. This large sum supports the employment of most-affected firms and this will ensure that businesses will be able to pay fulltime workers $585 a week. Even with such an impressive intervention, it doesn’t go far enough as it makes no reference to having no income at all. Of course, the South Pacific nation has a low unemployment rate of around 4 percent and negligible poverty levels but with the exception of the Maori people. University of Auckland lecturer Rhys Jones comments, “Maori have fared worst in every pandemic New Zealand has seen.”
Generally speaking, the narcissistic rich, not just in South Africa and New Zealand but in other countries too, have never been bothered about sharing as the notion of trickle-down economics gets disproven on a daily basis. The emergence of the Covid-19 virus merely deepens most of the old problems characterising the haves and have-nots. Reports in the global media show that food and other goods are running out in shops as people rush to secure supplies amid the growing fears that coronavirus may disrupt life. SA is no exception. This is notwithstanding assurances by the government that household items like food and essentials will always be guaranteed.
Coronavirus-linked stockpiling continues nonetheless as those who afford to do what they know best, that is disregarding that there are millions of fellow countrymen who would also need to buy. But at worst, there is an even larger percentage of the South African population who do not have any means to buy bread, milk, mealies and eggs. Concerns for such things as price gouging and stockpiling talk to those who live in the upper economy, and those in poverty-stricken areas are forgotten. So, any other economic intervention to respond to the Covid-19 that fails to deal with the needs of the poorest South Africans will be stillborn.
The rich have the luxury to hide from the crowds (mostly the poor and black) behind high walls and cars. That is an advanced form of social distancing than what health professionals recommend. But there's little appreciation that poor families in squatter camps and other underprivileged locations across South Africa have no such privilege. Up to eight people easily share a shack and hundreds more live in adjacent poorly constructed structures. As cases of local transmission climb, the worry is that strategies of self-quarantine and social distancing will be soon exposed as unreal. People are also asked to wash hands but taps are dry or do not exist. Many share water with livestock in rural areas.
There are suggestions that people need to improve hygiene but all this needs money. Sanitisers, soap and multivitamins don’t come cheap. Even buying a mask is a daunting ask for a family in Lindelani or KwaMagxaki – they simply cannot afford them. Food is a daily struggle but money for this essential has to be misdirected to products for preventing Covid-19 infections. It is more like we are saying die from hunger and be saved from the virus. How is that possible? One intervention could be to give supplies free of charge to avoid serious problems as people trade hygiene essentials for things like food.
Concerns about advice and recommendations generated in and for developed countries refuse to go away. Almost all what the World Health Organization (WHO), even under the stewardship of Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recommends to contain the spread of the disease appears to fail to take into cognizance the realities of poor areas in SA and the rest of the developing world. Hope is that the disease doesn’t relocate to poorer areas and countries because the hypocrisy of the world will once again be laid bare.
The poor have been drawn to a circus that they do not need. What is outrageous is that they cannot even go to Italy or China on holiday but now they have to contend with vices of the rich that brought them a dreadful gift of the coronavirus. At the end of the day, the privileged 16 percent of the population will be cured of the disease because they have access to superior healthcare, and continue with their lives. The remaining 84 percent are likely to be decimated by the disease for obvious reasons. The scars of the Covid-19 will be too visible for many to ignore.
It is this same group that cannot afford to stockpile food and basic essentials, social distance and wash hands frequently. Accessing testing sites will be like trying to climb across the Drakensburg from KZN to Lesotho. Already challenges with roping in taxis in the campaign prove that poverty has a home in the majority black population in South Africa. Covid-19 will drastically move away from the rich to become a disease of the poor like tuberculosis, malaria, et al.
It is also likely that whatever grand plan to cushion the country from the foreseen devastation from Covid-19 will exclude the poor. For example, a drop in the repo rate or a huge financial package to reinvigorate the economy will never reach the country's 'invisible citizens'. The poor are invisible in the eyes of many, including policymakers, trade unions and business.
The proposal by both Busa and Cosatu that the funds under the control of the UIF should be given to companies and employees that will be impacted by the Covid-19 tells a bigger story of self-importance at the expense of the poor who are always forgotten. The frenzy about falling markets and economic recession is looked at from the purview of the haves because have-nots are in a permanent state of economic depression and deprivation that nobody really cares about except for acts of lip-syncing.
Based on empirical evidence, the effects of Covid-19 in South Africa will align themselves with economic inequality. Writing for the New York Times, Max Fisher and Emma Bubola argue: “Those in lower economic strata are likelier to catch the disease.” Research suggests that the poor are at a higher risk of dying from it. What is worrisome is that even healthier individuals are likely to suffer a loss of income or healthcare as a result of quarantines and other measures. This particularly holds true in the event of tighter measures to contain the disease, as seen in Italy and elsewhere.
The rush emanating from Covid-19 is meaningless. If everyone was really concerned about the lives of the poor there wouldn’t be so much panic – the present scramble indicates how much a large section of society has generally been forgotten. The problem gets even more complicated by the presence of many (equally poor) illegal immigrants who have joined this rapidly increasing class of indigents and forgotten citizens, particularly across urban South Africa. Health minister Zwelini Mkhize’s prediction that between 60 percent and 70 percent of South Africans will likely get the virus makes the future very scary.
Invisible citizens and others within South Africa's borders will continue to perish as they have done before, with or without the coronavirus. They exist far away not only from our thoughts but also in terms of geography and policy interventions. Disease, crime and drugs are normalised in places where the invisibles reside. What is likely to change now with Covid-19 or any other disaster? Honestly, there’s absolutely nothing that will change.
Siya yi banga le economy.
Based in Pretoria, Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economics, politics and global matters.