'We are starving': Lockdown hunger is driving vulnerable people to desperation
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Johannesburg - The calls to the Gift of the Givers emergency and counselling toll-free lines are flooded with virtually one request: “Where can we get food? We are starving. We are hungry.”
The callers are from every corner of South Africa, Africa’s largest disaster response NGO said on Friday, and the pleading is incessant.
“They have to feed a hungry child, a baby or someone ill. They don’t have income, won’t be getting paid, are not collecting UIF and probably don’t have a job to go back to.”
For Gift of the Givers staffers at the other end of the line, “the desperation, the deep sobbing cry, the insurmountable grief, is heart-rendering and so is the dignified silent acceptance that everyone cannot be assisted.
“The reality stares you in the eye. You can’t assist everyone, just as in any major disaster.”
But each person in South Africa, “richly-endowed or even with moderate means”, can do something to help. “This is a time to give till it ‘hurts’ for a fellow compatriot caught up in the harsh reality of Covid-19.”
Hunger in South Africa, it warned, is a greater challenge than the Covid-19 pandemic. Its ongoing food roll-out through feeding centres and food delivery accelerated on Friday as it began preparations for the distribution of 100 000 food parcels nationwide, made possible through the generous contributions of selected corporates and the public.
Merwyn Abrahams, the programme co-ordinator of Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity, said poor people are increasingly getting hungry with many are becoming desperate.
“What is happening is that women have been shopping for extra soap and cleaning products and this has been competing with the amount of food they can buy. Also they have children at home and this is causing food to run out earlier than normal.”
Before the lockdown, Abrahams said, his research had found food in poor households lasted for three weeks. Now it was only two weeks.
This week, in Port Elizabeth, in Timothy Valley, a hungry community raided spaza shops in the area. Police had to fire rubber bullets and tear gas.
Food needs to be distributed quickly using international best practice, Abrahams urged. This uses criteria determined on the wholesale value of property in a particular area instead of being determined on an individual basis.
South Africa’s already high levels of food inequality and hunger have been worsened by the lockdown, said the SA Food Sovereignty Campaign (SAFSC).
“Social grants are not sufficient to address the food needs of households. Unemployment has also increased with many in the informal economy losing their jobs. Millions that lived from hand to mouth are facing starvation. Food riots have begun to erupt.
“Poor households in Mitchells Plain have declared they face death by starvation rather than Covid-19. The lockdown makes the situation more desperate as it makes it difficult to get food to communities in need.”
Many South Africans cannot afford to shop in supermarkets, deemed essential services, which are “making large profits”.
“Most supermarkets have a reach across the country, including urban and rural areas. Police services and the defence force are at the direct interface with communities. Sustaining a peaceful situation is proving to be difficult in many poor communities.”
Police and soldiers can “keep the peace” by playing a central role in distributing solidarity goods, said the SAFSC. Local faith-based and community leaders can play a monitoring role.
The hunger crisis is not new, said gender, food and environmental justice activist Dorah Marema, speaking via a webinar hosted by the SAFSC on Friday. “This virus is just exposing the inequalities, the desperation, the dire situation that our people live in.
“We have been working with small producers who have produce. Why would we wait for a truckload of food to come, when there are small-scale farmers who can feed the community? But our small producers are being shut down.”
Resources pooled in the Solidarity Fund “are not reaching the people”, she said. “What you see us doing is from ourselves, from the pockets of the people, from the very communities giving their own time, labour and resources to feeding others who are vulnerable in their communities.
“Very little is coming from the government... If the government was thinking of localised decentralised solutions to this, I don’t think you would be seeing the riots that are there.”
“Our efforts to stave off a health crisis has led us to an incredibly deep and long lasting economic crisis,” remarked Tatjana von Bormann, the programmes and innovation lead at WWF South Africa, via the webinar. “There is no dimension of society that is untouched by this ... In our food work, we’ve seen just how significant the vulnerability in the informal market is.”
Wits University academic Vishwas Satgar, of the SAFSC, argued the lockdown had been approached with a “lack of understanding of alternative food economies, food practices and food systems” central to communities.
“The food crisis has been in this society. This is one of the most unequal societies in the world... All these faultlines, all these dynamics, are really coming together and feeding into the food crisis at the moment.”
He said 30 million people in the country “require food right now” and are in a state of desperation. The Solidarity Fund, he said, particularly its work around food, should involve communities and community-based networks to enable the rapid flow of food into vulnerable communities.
“It should be working with the military, the police... who have command structures, they have capabilities and logistics capacities, to be moving food across this country wherever it’s needed but that hasn’t even clicked into place...
“The (food) parcel-based approach to handling this problem is an immediate relief measure and is absolutely necessary but it has to be complemented with opening the food commons again.
“It has to be about getting small-scale gardeners, micro farmers, fisher folk etc back into everyday life. If that’s not going to happen, the crisis is going to continue.”