Coronavirus & Eswatini

Hunger mounts as kingdom’s economy is destroyed

By Daniel Steyn 5 May 2020

Children have started walking door to door selling wares to provide for their families, while ‘thugs break car windows during the night. It’s terrible,’ says an eMaswati woman. (Photo: Stuart Fox / Gallo Images)

The Kingdom of Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) has been under full lockdown for more than a week. Many eMaswati who relied on the informal economy for their livelihoods are now destitute. As promised food packages are yet to arrive, activists are calling on the international community to assist.

In a press statement on 22 April, the prime minister of Eswatini announced that the government would provide food parcels to 300,000 eMaswati. An estimated 63% of Swaziland’s population, about 715,000 people, live under the poverty line. 

Zona Henwood-Mkhabela is running a campaign to create and distribute food packages to those in need. She usually works in community-driven early childhood development programmes, but has now shifted her attention to supporting vulnerable communities during the lockdown. 

Henwood-Mkhabela says that she is concerned about the effects the lockdown will have on children and early childhood development. The trauma of the Covid-19 crisis, combined with malnutrition, leaves children incredibly vulnerable, she says. 

Speaking more broadly, Henwood-Mkhabela is concerned that there is little action being taken to support vulnerable communities during the lockdown. 

“I get phone calls all hours of the day from communities asking for help for children,” Henwood-Mkhabela says. “The more privileged have gone into their houses and closed their doors, not concerned about the people out there who are less privileged.” 

Since introducing a full lockdown starting on 24 April the country’s informal economy has been decimated. Those who rely on markets and stalls to sell their crafts, food and other goods, are now unable to do so. 

The voices of eMaswati who are affected by the lockdown regulations are rarely heard in the local media. Afraid of repercussions, those who have spoken to Daily Maverick have asked to remain anonymous.

“In Manzini North, Mbelekweni and Ludzeludze we are starving,” says one eMaswati, “Government has not done a thing… they are saying we still have some food.” 

Another citizen from Mbabane tells Daily Maverick, “What is painful is we aren’t given the opportunity to voice our pains. Now we won’t die of this Covid, we will die of hunger.”

One community member says children have started walking door to door selling wares to provide for their families, while “thugs break car windows during the night. It’s terrible.” 

A preschool teacher tells Daily Maverick: “The only source of income was my job, [but] now it’s ‘no work, no pay’. I’m in the house with two of my kids and my brother’s late son’s kid. This lockdown is going to kill me.” 

One citizen has told Daily Maverick they have heard of hand sanitisers being distributed, but no food. Many citizens have not been informed when, where and how they will receive these food packages. 

Many who have lost their income due to the lockdown feel that the government will not help them because they are not seen as “vulnerable” as those who had no income before the lockdown. The government has confirmed that those living in cities will not be receiving food packages. 

“Government… I don’t know what to really say,” one preschool teacher tells Daily Maverick. “I hear that food parcels are being given out, but I have not received and nobody has come around. Someone says they help the more vulnerable people, but at this point, we are all vulnerable with a salary of R2,000 that I got at the end of March… where does this leave me?” 

Aid organisations working in the country are focusing mainly on the provision of PPE and tests, rather than hunger alleviation, says Henwood-Mkhabela. She is calling on South Africans, especially those with ties to Swaziland, to donate so that food parcels can reach those who need it. She would also like to provide masks, soap and educational material. 

She says that donations will be audited centrally and will be distributed through community leaders, NGOs and church initiatives that have databases of those who are most vulnerable. She requests that interested donors contact her at [email protected] 

The government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis has been limited. With only around 160 tests done a day, there are likely far more positive cases than the 112 confirmed by the Department of Health. The amount of daily new cases continues to increase. With a high prevalence of HIV and TB in the country, the spread of Covid-19 will have a devastating effect on a vulnerable health system. DM/MC

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