Covid-19: A Plague for the Poor

Members of the South African National Defence Force, the Police Gang Unit and Metro Police patrol the streets of Lavender Hill and Hillview in Cape Town to enforce the national lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Brenton Geach / Gallo Images via Getty Images)

African people know how to crack a good joke, even in tough times. But the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted that, in an African context, the disease is anything but a joke.

In its attempt to curb the spread of Covid-19, South Africa has adopted similar measures to countries in Europe, North America and Asia by closing schools, putting curfews on restaurants, abandoning shopping malls and encouraging people to work from home.

We tend to forget, however, that global precedents are not always applicable to Africa, simply because the contexts we live in are entirely different.

Most Western countries have enjoyed democracy for centuries. As it stands currently, there are still African countries such as Zimbabwe that don’t enjoy democracy in its truest form. How then could the two continents ever compare or collaborate or mirror the actions of the other, even in what is a global pandemic?

We coined the term “African solutions for African problems” and allowed it to become something that was never put into practice in terms of legislation and policy.

According to the OECD, people in South Africa are more vulnerable to the virus because of the poor air quality. The country also performs below the OECD average in terms of water quality, with only 67% of people satisfied with the quality of their water — compared to the OECD average of 81%.

Political leaders have been telling us about social distancing and regularly using disinfectant to avoid spreading the Covid-19 disease. Is that truly enough though? Will being on lockdown for 21 days decrease the impact of the pandemic on our society?

The actions of the South African government, in particular, echo those of leadership in Germany, which decided to completely ban leaving the home for anything but absolute necessities in Bavaria. Police Minister Bheki Cele even issued what were essentially threats to arrest any individual or establishment found to be breaking the rules, as many other states have done.

Videos circulate of our army violently enforcing lockdown restrictions. Some 26 years after the end of apartheid we find ourselves in a situation reminiscent of when South Africa was a police state.

The intrinsic difference between Bavaria, Germany, and, for instance, a place like Yeoville in Johannesburg is that the German population is not suffering from an epidemic of HIV/AIDS with a significant number of people immuno-compromised. They are also not dealing with overpopulation which means people are 10 times more likely to catch disease because of poor sanitation.

The issue is so much more nuanced in the context of our townships and villages. The reality is that if the coronavirus hits the townships the damages will be exponential. 

The government is already struggling to provide and distribute ARVs. Considering that we’re going into winter and people’s immune systems are naturally weakening, will it be able to handle the task of distributing ARVs and treatments for Covid-19?

The virus could spread like a bushfire, fueled by a lack of information, poor education and poor sanitation, for which the government must take responsibility.

In Soweto, there are 1.27 million people living in 200km2. How do you practice social distancing and self-isolation when more than seven people live in a single household, often with less than three rooms?

How do we increase sanitation in Eastern Cape towns such as Ugie and Barkley East which already had poor sanitation due to water scarcity and government neglect?

Without being facetious, the worst implication of corona for our middle-class lifestyles is that we’ll have less money in our medical aid funds after seeking treatment.

Naturally, solutions proposed by the government to curb Covid-19 are scientifically proven and thoroughly researched. But, ask yourselves, are these measures really enough? 

I am 16 years old and to me, it is evident our solutions would work perfectly well for a state with reliable healthcare facilities, a population that was not crippled by lawlessness and a state that was more than willing to use the necessary funds to target the virus without abusing them. Is South Africa a country to which one can ascribe those characteristics?

My message is simple: Covid-19 is possibly the biggest socio-economic threat our society has had to face since the dawn of democracy.

When the government set curfews on restaurants and began encouraging social distancing they endangered the livelihoods of millions of people.

For instance, the shopping malls we’ve abandoned have car guards whose financial security is dependent on people actually utilising the shopping malls. These guards now have no income. They will be able to feed their families or buy the basic necessities they need to survive. More importantly, they will not have money to buy the items the government has labelled as necessary to fight the virus, such as sanitary products, gloves, masks and vitamin supplements. What then will these measures have done to stop the spread of the virus? 

The British government has said it is capable of providing people who cannot work due to Covid-19 with at least £2,500 a month.

Listening to international news I mostly hear about Italy, China, Spain and the US. There is little mention of South Africa and an infection rate that potentially could skyrocket overnight? There’s not even a headline at the bottom of the screen about how our population stands to be affected the most by Covid-19 because a large part of our population is immuno-compromised. 

We have bent to the solutions and suggestions of a Western leadership that does not even care enough to report our news.

It is now near impossible to listen to the news and not hear about the coronavirus. If it manifests in South Africa in the way it has in China and Italy we will reach a point of no return.

The rich may be safe, but the poor will once again be subject to unending suffering. DM/MC

Danai Pachedu (not her real name) is a Grade 11 learner at Sacred Heart College. 


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