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Adapting, living through and surviving COVID-19

Published May 19, 2020



Dr Tebogo Ngoma

CAPE TOWN - Seven weeks ago, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the lockdown, the South African economy was performing poorly, and households were experiencing ever-increasing levels of financial distress. This is not surprising, given South Africa’s persisting high levels of unemployment, based on the official unemployment definition, 6.7 million South Africans were unemployed (29%) in the fourth quarter (October – December) of 2019.

Forecasts made by South Africa’s National Treasury in its budget allocations, had expected the economy to grow by 1.5% in 2019/2020 financial year. However, in the October to December months, our economy contracted by 1.4% resulting in a recession; thus, prompting the Finance

Minister Tito Mboweni to revise SA’s growth forecast to 0.9% for 2020.

But South Africa is not alone in this challenge. Increasing unemployment, inequality and poverty have become intractable development challenges for the Southern African region as a whole. Now, we are bracing ourselves for another global recession. How significant will the decline in economic output be and how long will it last? Will it be closer in nature to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) or the 1930’s Great Depression? There are no definitive answers and it is still anybody’s guess – but governments must be ready to clutch their citizens from deep distress.

South Africa was not cushioned against the 2008 GFC, we lost a whopping one million jobs the following year, and it’s been difficult to recover from that. Right now, the country’s 2020 outlook is a harbinger for dire straits and widespread devastation. While the COVID-19 pandemic is not only widening but deepening vulnerability in ways that we are yet to fully understand, we know that more people are going hungry in the country.

The World Food Programme (WFP) estimated that by the end of 2020 more than a quarter of a billion people globally could experience severe undernourishment and starvation. These results are backed by some of the country’s foremost research institutions. A survey conducted in the early days of the lockdown by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and University of Johannesburg (UJ) showed that 28% of those surveyed went to bed hungry during the lockdown. Statistics South Africa also showed that almost all of those surveyed: 93,2% were concerned about South Africa’s risk of economic collapse rather than how COVID-19’s might affect their health (60,1%).

Looking around middle-class suburbs, we have seen livelihoods being compromised and even decimated. The young woman who lives in Diepsloot and cleans homes in the surrounding suburbs has had to rely on the generosity of each of her employers to get by. The handymen who line the

gates of the local Builder’s warehouse, who ordinarily could get one or two piece-jobs on a good day, have had nothing for the last seven weeks.

South Africa has built a robust social protection system with mechanisms to support those that have lost livelihoods, and those that will face extreme hunger. Despite this, initial reports about food distribution challenges reveal that South Africa did not have accurate data to guide decisions about who to reach. The problem is in the coordination of food distributions.

South Africa must minimise errors in its food distribution system.

Targeting; knowing who needs food, when, where and how much, is crucial to the effectiveness and transparency of food aid. This means South Africa must get its targeting right, it must know who needs food when, where and by how much. It must even be able to predict new entrants into the food aid system. Fast exchange of knowledge on what works and the strategies of minimising errors in food aid is therefore imperative. South Africa can and must learn from the World Food Programme, and regional experts from countries such as Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia. This learning is about tweaking and refining knowledge in the region.

We need to learn how to more effectively reach those in need now and we also need to be able to better predict who might need food in the future. The latter is a strategic requirement given the economic fallout of COVID-19. Our neighbours have accumulated experience in conducting

comprehensive vulnerability assessments using the livelihoods framework. Knowing who needs food, how long they need it for, why they need it and what they will need in the future is critical for foreseeing longer-term COVID-19 produced vulnerabilities, and therefore to plan for these.

South Africa has formulated the Food and Nutrition Security Plan (2017-2022), its implementation must be accelerated. Building on the Stats SA General Household Survey, the country will have to routinely assess the vulnerability of South Africans to better understand the nature, depth and scope of the food crisis in each province and district. Moving forward, this data will be critical for understanding the economic fallout produced by COVID-19 and providing feedback on the impact of COVID-19 relief and management interventions.

We want to give food to the women, children and men that need it. We want to make sure that our programmes are fit for purpose and support more households to be resilient and to cope better with shocks like COVID -19. Strengthening programming through evidence generation and use systems is key. These capacities must be cascaded to our provinces and municipalities and animate the district model that is being touted. Learning must be the touchstone for programming. Our government is proving to learn by doing.

But we need to develop competencies for adaptive management and coordination across the three spheres of government. The private sector, our government and civil society and donor agencies

must be faster, smarter, and far more agile than the spread of COVID-19 Getting food aid right, the ability of multiple stakeholders to work and learn from each other is going part of the medicine for COVID-19; and its detrimental effects.

Given that, in the absence of a vaccine, COVID-19 may not be going away any time soon. Instead, we face possibilities of second and third waves of COVID-19 infections. This means that many more people will be facing deepened hunger and destitution. This is why learning quickly and minimising errors when scaling up and expanding safety nets is so utterly important.

Tebogo Ngoma, PhD. Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, People’s Republic of


Dr Tebogo Ngoma is a monitoring, evaluation and learning expert working in the Southern Africa

region. She writes in her personal capacity.


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