More Can Be Done To Help The Most Vulnerable

Temporarily providing direct income, food and medical hygiene support during Covid-19 countrywide lockdown for the income-less mass poor, unemployed and those homeless or living in informal settings, will be crucial to slow down the rapid spread of the virus.

One way to provide financial support to effectively combat the rapid spread of Covid-19 in South Africa, is to give a cash grant to poorer people, who are the most vulnerable, to carry them over the 21-day lockdown period or during a follow-on lockdown period. Such a grant could be distributed through the banks, Post Office or retail stores, in similar ways the social grants are being distributed.

The sad thing is, that for many poor South Africans, the coronavirus may appear to be just like another affliction, joining hunger, violence and financial survival. The reality is that it is very likely that the 21-day country wide lockdown may have to be extended to decisively slow down the virus rapid advance.

It is off course very important that the police and military enforce social distancing, for people to stay at home and that government spread the message of clean hygiene. However, enforcement on its own, in a developing country like South Africa with high levels of poverty, homelessness and high density settlements, and high levels of informal businesses, is a wholly ineffective strategy to combat Covid-19.

South Africa is in real danger of Covid-19 spreading rapidly because large numbers of people live in overcrowded insanitary settlements, eke out their living in overcrowded informal work settings, commute in overcrowded informal transport and buy their basic food in unhygienic overcrowded informal shops.  Furthermore, South Africa may have among the largest numbers of immune compromised people per capita, whether because of HIV/Aids, TB or malnutrition. Health, water and sanitation public services, infrastructure are in many cases non-existent or poorly functioning.

Covid-19 does not discriminate against colour, religion or class. Such is the nature the nature of the spread of the virus, that if it explodes in poor areas, the rich will also get infected.

As a part of a new type of social pact to deal with Covid-19, government, business and well-off individuals will have to contribute to provide cash, food and medical hygiene supplies, such as masks, to the poor. Large corporates, professional organisations and well-off individuals could contribute to such a dedicated temporary social grant for the poor to help with the costs of the coronavirus.

So far, most of the financial support to alleviate the social, economic and infrastructure impact of the coronavirus so far, are aimed at the formal economy: those who have formally registered businesses, jobs and assets. Yet, the overwhelming majority of South Africans operate in the informal sector: they have informal businesses, jobs and homes. The current financial support package by government and the private sector will not reach them.

As a case in point, at least 5 million people lack access to water in South Africa. This figure is doubled if shared communal taps, broken municipal water infrastructure and unreliable supply are included. More than 10 million people have little access to proper sanitation, either they used shared communal facilities, bucket toilets or relief themselves in open spaces. Washing hands, surfaces and products are crucial to combat the coronavirus.

This means that large numbers of South Africans do not have access to the basic tools to combat the virus.

Government, the private sector and well-off individuals will have to provide water to poor people without it – otherwise they will not be able to wash their hands or clean domestic surfaces, crucial to combat Covid-19. Large corporates, professional organisations and well-off individuals could also contribute food, basic cleaning, food products and water to the poor – even it means a mechanism be worked to recover some of the giving through tax breaks in similar ways donations to charities get be recovered through tax rebates. The army could distribute water, basic food and medical supplies to impoverished communities.

Similarly, just as some banks have offered mortgage payment holidays to ease the economic pain for hard-pressed homeowners, telecommunications companies could provide free minimum data for poor people to access basic information. Private sector telecommunication companies could send SMS and social media messages where testing areas are, about symptoms and how to seek help, through mobile phones to poor citizens.

Government, business and civil society can run SMS and social media-based hotlines where people can seek information, help and support during this coronavirus crisis. Direct financial income, food and medical hygiene support is the crucial missing link in the current national strategy to combat Covid-19.

*This article was originally published on the Sunday Times website. To view the article on their site click here

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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