Covid-19's Impact

The day the bottom fell out of South Africa – a triple pandemic has hit us

By Ferial Haffajee 15 July 2020
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Image by Frantisek Krejci from Pixabay

Covid-19’s devastation has seen three million people lose their incomes. And almost half of all households report going hungry in the past three months, a heart-stopping new survey reveals.

On 27 March, the hard lockdown was declared to try to hold off the spread of the Covid-19 virus – and almost immediately the bottom fell out of South Africa.

In less than a month, three million South Africans had lost their incomes and jobs, turning hunger from a problem to a crisis.

A household survey out on 15 July reveals that there was an almost immediate net loss of three million jobs between February and April and women accounted for two million of the people who lost their livelihoods as the economy was shut down. 

“Forty-seven percent of respondents reported that their household ran out of money to buy food in April 2020. Prior to the lockdown, 21% of households reported that they ran out of money to buy food in the previous year (according to StatsSA’s General Household Survey of 2018). 

A survey published on 15 July has for the first time revealed the triple pandemic that has blown South Africa down with viral force. Led by principal investigator Dr Nic Spaull, this National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey is the first authoritative measure of the impact of Covid-19 on jobs, hunger and poverty. 

“The impact is colossal and it shocked us,” said Spaull in an interview with Daily Maverick. Spaull has worked with the country’s top-rated researchers and economists including Haroon Bhorat, Reza Daniels, Murray Leibbrandt,  and Servaas van der Berg.

“All of us were numbed.  It is devastating and upsetting,” said Spaull.   

The big picture – majority of South Africans out of work

The researchers undertook work of enormous thought leadership to explore the impacts – there are 11 papers out.

“The 11 papers revealed that there is a high degree of agreement between researchers on what the key findings are: that employment has declined substantially and that the effects of this are largest for the most disadvantaged. Inequalities along traditional lines of race, gender, occupation, earnings, location and education have all grown significantly.  An already unequal national situation has been made much worse.

“One in three income earners in February did not earn an income in April,” which translated into an almost immediate job loss when lockdown was declared.

Professor Reza Daniels and Professor Vimal Ranchhod of UCT School of Economics found that the proportion of adults who earned an income in February declined by 33%, which is made up of a roughly equal share of those who lost their jobs and were furloughed (put on unpaid leave when businesses closed). 

This is already a shocker of a number but if you overlay it onto South Africa’s already endemic unemployed, what it means is that more South Africans are unemployed and without any income than those who are working.  

And Covid-19 has widened the gulf of inequality in South Africa. 

“The overarching finding from this analysis is that the job losses were not uniformly distributed amongst the different groups. In particular, groups who have always been more vulnerable, such as women, African/Blacks, youth and less educated groups have been disproportionately negatively affected,” write Ranchhod and Daniels.

Women hold up half the sky until it falls down

In South Africa, women keep the country going. The typical household in our country is that of the single working mother with children. Covid-19 cut hard but its scythe sliced women’s ability to work and feed their children with an even greater cruelty.

“Women have been more severely affected than men in the early phase of the crisis in South Africa, namely the ‘hard’ lockdown period. Net job losses were higher for women than men with women accounting for two-thirds of the total net job losses. Among those who remained in employment, there was also a bigger fall in average hours worked per week for women than men,” report Daniela Casale and Dorrit Posel of Wits University in the NIDS-CRAM study. 

National income studies have long revealed that women across the value chain earn less than men and that the gendered labour market also means that women lost their jobs more quickly as companies shut down in the hard lockdown phase. There are a lot of numbers here, but it’s a vital understanding of how women were impacted.

“In February 2020, or pre-crisis, 46% of women and 59% of men aged 18 and older reported being employed. In April 2020, or the month of the ‘hard’ lockdown, 36% of women and 54% of men reported being employed (or having a job to return to). This amounts to a 22% decline in the share of women employed compared to a 10% decline in the share of men employed between February and April. The gender gap in employment has therefore grown,” report Casale and Posel.

Not to be sensationalist, but this is a disaster for women’s empowerment as it will push women out of the jobs market and down the ladder after decades of incremental improvement.

“Of the approximately 2.9 million net job losses that occurred between February and April among all adults aged 18 and older, women accounted for two-thirds.”

Like most African economies, the informal economy (fruit and vegetable sellers, vetkoek aunties, roadside hot food stalls) is a vital part of the economy. “A larger share of the informal economy relative to formal employment were locked out of employment during April,” the survey says.  

In studies of how unpaid work grew as the lockdown extended for months and months, researchers also found that unpaid care work went up substantially by at least four additional hours a day. 

Because women head most households, the duty of care for children, and of home-schooling, fell to them. If Covid-19’s impacts have a face, then it is that of the African women.   

I am hungry

Most South African homes stay afloat on a mixture of grant and jobs incomes (through jobs in the informal sector or the bottom rungs of the jobs market). 

With that gone – in what economists call “income shocks” –  people could not put food on the table, as Maverick Citizen has reported throughout the pandemic’s course through South Africa. 

Now the survey shows how hard hunger hit. “Forty-seven percent of respondents reported that their household ran out of money to buy food in April 2020… it seems quite clear that the incidence of running out of money to buy food has doubled.

“One in five respondents reported that someone in their household went hungry in the last seven days, and 1-in-7 reported that a child had gone hungry in the last seven days.”

The survey was taken before relief measures and community action networks got into gear, but it does show the utter desperation that the Covid-19 outbreak has carried in its wake.

“In households that experienced hunger in the last seven days, 42% managed to shield children from that hunger,” the survey reveals.

What it paints is a Dickensian picture of adults going without food to ensure that the children have some: “Far too many people, and far too many children, are going hungry,” says the NIDS-CRAM survey.

A month into lockdown, the government announced the first tranche of its relief package as the devastation was clear almost immediately. Even though South Africa’s social solidarity relief net through which 19-million grants are paid every month is unusual in the developing world, it did not touch sides as the lockdown deepened.

This is because poor South Africans knit together a crochet of survivalist strategies that include incomes and grants.

“The possibility of job loss or a downturn in business presented a major threat to the livelihoods of a large proportion of grant-receiving households because, pre-lockdown, many rely on sources of income other than grants.”

Relief and solidarity

Government stepped in and so did significant social solidarity systems like the Solidarity Fund. 

While the survey measured the first month of lockdown, further waves of research will keep track of the impacts.

“The social sector and communities have engaged rigorously in relief efforts. During lockdown, 18% of adults reported accessing support for food or shelter from government (8%), NGO’s, churches or other associations (6%) or neighbours and the community (9%). 

The survey has confirmed what many reports have shown: the UIF system is a mangle. “Urgent attention needs to be given to rectifying technical glitches that exist in the UIF system,” says the survey, which found that only 20% of those surveyed who were eligible for the temporary employment relief (TERS) payment received it. The social relief of distress grant (SRD) could be a nifty tactic to get money into homes gnawed by hunger, but at the time of the survey it had not worked smoothly: of about six million applicants, just under one million had received the R350 grant at the time of the survey. 

Government is mulling a permanent basic income grant and this is universally confirmed by the researchers as the best method of preventing a fall into extreme poverty by more South Africans.

“Global poverty projections suggest that the international response to the virus will push over 70 million people into extreme poverty, with sub-Saharan Africa being hardest hit,” says the survey.

All 11 research reports will be publicly available here at noon on 15 July.

The project is a telephone survey of 7,000 households that is recognised as nationally representative. It will continue over five “waves”. DM

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