We have to ramp up safeguards for the most vulnerable if we are to overcome pandemics like Covid-19

By Published On: 27th March 2020

As South Africa braces itself for a lockdown due to the Covid-19 or coronavirus, President Cyril Ramaphosa assured South Africans that the country is prepared for the pandemic and that it has been for some time. Whilst the affluent retreat into the comfort of their homes, to self-isolate, work from home, and stock up on various supplies, the less affluent are left exposed. Already in a recession, Covid-19 represents another major blow for South Africa’s most vulnerable that daily battle for financial survival.

This “Black Swan” event begs the question about the buffers that can be created to soften the impact of this dreaded pandemic on the country’s most at-risk groups. In what may become one of the most defining moments of his presidency, Ramaphosa outlined a comprehensive action plan, with a set of measures to be implemented nationally, provincially and within communities.

While it inevitably had to touch on many bases, his plan did lack detail on interventions that respond to the real health and economic threats to the poor and those living near the poverty line. Informal settlements are frequently characterised by high population density, poor infrastructure and sub-par hygiene standards. Under conditions of poverty and limited public and private resources, higher levels of interdependence exist, which make neighbours and community members more reliant on each other. Self-isolation in this context amounts to extraction from a crucial support network. All these factors combine to make informal settlements particularly vulnerable to the rapid transmission of a virus such as Covid-19.

Millions of South Africans are confined to such settlements (according to Statistics South Africa, 13.6% of South Africans live in informal housing) and as a result, the country’s most economically vulnerable may not find refuge in working from home. But even if this was an option, precarious, low-skilled, manual labour, which many in these areas perform, demand workers to be physically present in their working environments. Unpaid sick leave will force many to dip into savings that they can’t afford to exhaust in pressing economic times like these.  Although a mammoth task, measures to contain the virus’ spread to informal settlements need to be a central focus of the state’s prevention and management strategy.

While Covid-19 hits the country’s major cities, millions of South Africans do not have the luxury of self-isolation. In a crowded living environment, it may be unrealistic to expect of poor South Africans to practice social distancing effectively, and alternate solutions may need to be put in place.

Transport presents another critical challenge. Apartheid’s geography largely remains intact, which means that large numbers of low-paid South African workers have to spend a disproportionate percentage of their wages on an inefficient and dysfunctional public transport systems to reach their places of employment or obtain critical services. In addition, it may be that each member of a household could go to work or school in a different area, use a different mode of transport, each with its distinct risks in terms of exposure. Since many South Africans cannot work from home or afford unpaid sick leave, their commute on public transport leaves them highly exposed to carrying the virus back into their extremely populated communities. Informal settlements, moreover, suffer inconsistent water supply, further increasing the risk a spreading virus.

The South African Reconciliation Barometer, a public opinion survey by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, finds that 27% of informal settlement residents report having gone without water in their household several times in the year, and 18% having gone without water often or always. Unreliable running water, prevents residents of high-density settlements from following the President’s recommended hygiene measures. To manage the spread of Covid-19 in areas characterised with high-density and high mobility it is imperative that certain proactive measures are taken in consultation with leaders residing in the most vulnerable communities.

Beyond the recommended hygiene precautions, policymakers must now begin to ask how we will adapt these and future high-density living areas to reduce risk of exposure to disease. Existing informal settlements, heavily populated by the poor who are dependent on both public transport and community integration, must become the focus for policymakers who need to understand how strategic thinking around infrastructure can alter current patterns and habits that are conducive to contagion. One consideration relates to the digitisation of governance and service delivery. When we talk about the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it should not only relate to its benefits for commerce, but also for the communities that sustain commercial entities. In this regard the mass roll-out of infrastructure for connectivity will be pivotal.

Digitisation will increase access to education and awareness for poor South Africans who have, in the past, fallen prey to misinformation about diseases such as HIV. Limiting the spread of diseases, such as Covid-19, begins with an informed population who are equipped to act appropriately in times of uncertainty. Moreover, affordable fibre at home, which connects citizens to state of the art government and commercial websites, allowing them to register for services or obtain critical documents, eliminates the necessity to use unreliable, overcrowded and often dangerous public transport. It also cuts out long queues and hours away from family or work.

A second important policy area relates to housing. Currently, policy promoting high-density mixed income housing in urban areas, is correctly aimed at undoing settlement geography created by inhumane apartheid policies. The current crisis presents us with the question of how we can continue to pursue such policies favouring integration in ways that reduce rather than expose our vulnerability.

All the answers may not yet be clear, but it is pertinent that we ask the questions so that we can anticipate and resolve future threats to our population. We can only truly overcome a pandemic by increasing the safeguards of our most vulnerable areas.

Jaynisha Patel is a Project Officer leading the Inclusive Economies Project at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation

Article first published on News24

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