Covid-19 hitting the poor the hardest

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, there has been a spike in food prices, affecting the poor most severely. Henk Kruger African News Agency (ANA)

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, there has been a spike in food prices, affecting the poor most severely. Henk Kruger African News Agency (ANA)

Published Apr 4, 2020


Johannesburg - For many South Africans, the first week of national lockdown was spent in long queues, sourcing cheap food and living in fear.

Low-income households are not only facing economic hardship and uncertainty, say experts, they are also more vulnerable to the virus than other South Africans.

Over the last couple of weeks, the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group (PMBEJD) has tracked food prices and buying habits in supermarkets that target the low income market in Pietermaritzburg.

What they noticed as the lockdown loomed was a change in buying habits at a time when prices suddenly spiked.

The PMBEJD discovered that typical foodstuffs bought by the poor increased by 3,3% between March 2, and March 26. This meant an increase of R107. However, the PMBEJD believe that this price spike was arrested with the introduction of the Department of Trade and Industry Regulations for Consumer and Customer Protection for the period of the Covid-19 outbreak.

To understand how the pandemic will affect the poor, the PMBEJD has had a fieldworker observe and interview women shopping in supermarkets.

“They are quite scared,” says Mervyn Abrahams, PMBEJD’s programme co-ordinator. “Firstly, they are worried about the amount of time they are spending in a store, then there is fear about using the taxi.

"So, instead of going to three or four stores looking for bargains, they are just going to one.”

The fieldworker found that soap was being bought to wash hands, and more Jik was also being purchased to sanitise surfaces.

But it is not a case of these woman spending more money on these hygiene products, instead, they have had to buy these goods while sacrificing on other purchases.

What it means, says Abrahams, is that diets are becoming less nutritious as they are buying less meat, vegetables and dairy products.

“The concern is that particularly the poor, will need access to good nutrition, in a time when they will be facing this pandemic,” says Abrahams.

Both the PMBEJD and the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) have called for the spazas and informal traders to be allowed to open during the lock down. This would allow low income families to have access to cheap vegetables, and goods in stores where they don't have to spend money on transport.

On Thursday night, the Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma did, however, announce that informal traders could again start trading. They, however, need to register.

While this might help, NGOs are warning that the government might need to step in to assist, as already social grants are insufficient in supporting households where the adults don't have an income.

To help these already struggling households, PLAAS, in a recent article, suggested a cash top up. They suggest that this would be better than using food vouchers as these are often sold at a discounted price.

“It is far better to protect and build up the buying power of poor people to survive,” the article reads.

And while there is concern over how the poor will cope over the next weeks and months, for some NGOs across the country, there has been an urgent need to house and feed the nation's homeless.

Leona Pienaar, the CEO of the non profit organisation Mould Empower Serve (MES), believes that in Johannesburg alone, there are 10 000 homeless people. For the last week, her organisation has been working to find shelter for the homeless. They have been doing this with the Cities of Joburg and Ekurhuleni.

It is an enormous challenge, especially as many organisations that help the homeless have been instructed to close their doors.

“The soup kitchens and the churches have been told to shut down their feeding schemes, and now there are massive gaps, in terms of people who are hungry,” explains Pienaar. “I drove through Windsor this morning, and there were people walking around, and I stopped them, and I asked, 'do you have a place to stay' and they said they do, but they have no food at home. They said they normally go to the feeding scheme, but it is closed down and were hungry.”

Another challenge is setting up isolation facilities, to cater for people who might become infected with the virus.

“We are doing the rounds in our shelters, making sure we screen daily and keeping an eye on symptoms,” says Pienaar.

As the lockdown is only in its first week, organisations are still working out how best to assist the disadvantaged.

But what they do agree on is the need of all South Africans to pull together.

“We would say the state can provide some of this, but so can churches, NGOs, sports clubs and individuals. So that we can create bonds of solidarity, amid this crisis, that can also help us going forward,” explains Abrahams.

Saturday Star

Related Topics: