Covid-19 and the enduring legancies of systemic racism

By Published On: 29th September 2021

Covid-19 has exacerbated South Africa’s most pressing socioeconomic inequities. Worsening inequality, a rising cost of living, systemic corruption, high unemployment, and government austerity paints a picture of a country under severe strain. These dire socioeconomic realities continue to affect the poor and most vulnerable in our communities. While Covid-19 continues to be a challenge for all, research shows that poor black and coloured people remain disproportionately affected by the crisis, which is indicative of the legacies of our apartheid history

Late last year, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) stated that black and coloured people are more likely to succumb to Covid-19. According to the institute, race is associated with higher risk of death among black and coloured covid-19 patients. South Africa faces a number of critical challenges linked to its history of racial injustice and oppression. The legacies of Apartheid are best understood through the lived experiences of those who bear the brunt of intergenerational poverty and economic injustice. These findings in vulnerability to Covid-19 highlight the intersecting nature of injustice and is further upheld by inequities in access to employment and income, dignified housing, education, healthcare, and recourse to justice.

Unemployment rates continue to worsen across the country with unemployment, among black women especially, reaching 41% according to Stats SA.  South Africa ranks as the most unequal society in the world, with a widening gap between rich and poor. The richest 10% of the people in South Africa control over 70% of the country’s wealth, while majority of black people remain economically disenfranchised.

Wealth and income inequalities feed off racial and gender disparities, influencing access to key resources. Inequities in education, workplace conditions, and housing have shown to directly impact health outcomes, and this is especially true in times of Covid-19.

One researcher at the Socio-Economic Research Institute stated that we “haven’t dismantled the apartheid city” in response to Khayelitsha and Mitchell’s Plain emerging as coronavirus hotspots in Cape Town last year. His words further add that “during Apartheid, black people had to live in sub-standard and crowded unsanitary conditions, far from economic opportunity. Not much has changed.”

Edward Molopi’s words ring deep in a city where Apartheid spatial planning remains firmly intact, with black and coloured communities on the margins with limited access to much-needed resources.  Systemic racism and perpetual exclusion have created material conditions that are unjust and have exacerbated vulnerability to the virus.

A human rights worker based in Brazil shared that racial and patriarchal oppression forms the ‘foundations of capitalism’, which historically and currently exploits and claims lives. This is true – the world over and in a context like the United States for example, systemic racism and white supremacy continues to claim the lives of black, Hispanic, and low-income communities who are also more likely to die from Covid-19.

There are clear divisions in access to good versus poor healthcare. Studies show that postponement of care seeking is commonly experienced amongst economically disadvantaged groups due to healthcare costs. This offers further insight into poor health outcomes amongst disenfranchised communities.

These norms and realities require that we urgently transform our current socioeconomic and political systems that continue to entrench marginalisation. The pandemic has compounded extreme inequality, poverty and injustice and the poor are disproportionately affected by crisis and economic hardship.

The challenges require urgent resources, investment in dignified free healthcare, access to water and sanitation and investment in future social protection of vulnerable groups, especially in times of crisis. Furthermore, the need to deliberately and boldly address the underlying and systemic causes of these inequities in South Africa is growing each day. The pandemic has taken much from our communities – in some communities, the sound of grief and loss is loud and compounded by perpetual systems of violence and marginalisation that hinder our collective ability to build resilience in times of crisis.

Jodi Williams, Project leader for Sustained Dialogues Programme at IJR

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