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Weathering the coronavirus storm: Government must put the people first


Sikho Luthango is Southern Africa Programme Manager: Labour Relations and Economy at the Southern Africa regional office of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. She has an Mphil Cum Laude in Public Policy and Administration from the University of Cape Town.

Millions of South Africans are in danger of slipping further into poverty and hunger unless the government does a creative reworking of the lockdown regulations.

The government has taken an exclusionary approach to millions of impoverished South Africans in its preparation to fight the economic impact of Covid-19. These economic measures are necessary, but adjustments are needed to ensure the economic and food security of households to encourage physical distancing.

Covid-19 will further expose low-income households to vulnerabilities by race, gender, and immigration status. As a post-Covid-19 global recession looms, in a context of high unemployment, inequality and precarious health care institutions, African economies face a greater economic threat and South Africa is no exception.

Economies across the world are currently experiencing increased state intervention to fight the economic impact of Covid-19 in what can be described as “economic stimulus packages”. These are designed to prevent and mitigate excessive economic disruption, to guarantee the functioning of essential sectors, and to provide enough resources for vulnerable people who will lose their jobs and for those who will be directly and indirectly affected. The latter, being the most neglected element in the South African context, potentially leaves millions of South Africans questioning how they will survive this period and this certainly presents itself as a disincentive to follow the 21-day lockdown and its guidelines.

The economic stimulus package is a commendable initiative by the government to mitigate the economic risks of the coronavirus and it can be placed within a broader global context where other governments, including the US, the UK, Denmark, Germany and Kenya, have taken similar initiatives. Many countries are revisiting their national budgets and have dedicated an estimate of about 1-5% of their GDPs to stabilise the economy in the next three months.

South Africa’s current economic stimulus package is aimed at wage protection and at avoiding potential job losses as a consequence of large-scale retrenchments, as potential tax revenue, which also funds unemployment benefits, is threatened. 

It is imperative to ensure that workers retain their income and that they do not lose a connection with their employers in an effort to delay the impact of the coronavirus on the economy. Although varying in degree and resources, Covid-19 economic interventions must be centred around protecting people and especially womxn. To echo the New Zealand Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s words, the economic stimulus package should be about “putting people first”.

In this context, putting people first means that above and beyond wage-subsidies, funded sick leave which is also known as “self-isolation leave,” should form part of the current government economic initiatives and be targeted at all employed people. Ireland and Denmark recently announced that they would give workers paid sick leave to ensure that people can self-isolate without losing income. Paid sick leave is important to ensure that people comply with the 21-day lockdown because for many people, earning money to provide food and to pay for household essentials is a priority.

Furthermore, in prioritising wage subsidies, the current economic interventions exclude informal sector workers such as street vendors, domestic workers, sex workers, the childcare sector, caregivers, gig-economy employees, construction workers and contract employees. These are jobs that cannot be performed remotely and following health advice to self-isolate may be difficult. 

It is thus no surprise that the government opted to revisit physical distancing regulations on 2 April 2020 – about a week into the lockdown – by inter alia allowing street vendors to trade once again. Making such an allowance not only puts the vendors at an increased health risk but it also does not inspire confidence about the messaging around Covid-19 and physical distancing. This is why the government should consider a stimulus package that is targeted for the informal sector to incentivise informal sector workers to self-isolate by qualifying them for unemployment benefits.

With an unemployment rate reaching 29% in the first quarter of 2020 and a youth unemployment rate of above 50%, creating jobs for and stimulating the development of the youth should be considered an important task for the government too. The pandemic may present opportunities for, “shovel-ready projects”, which will allow people to work immediately. As the health and administrative system expands to meet the demands of the pandemic, the government should tap into its reservoirs of young, educated and unemployed people, beyond existing community healthcare workers, and train them to respond effectively and efficiently to the crisis.

Additionally, a reduction in VAT should also be tabled for consideration to increase household liquidity. Taken together, these measures are important especially since the government, disappointingly, did not announce an increase in social grants. With schools closed and the National Schools Nutrition Programme suspended, children will look to their immediate families for nutritional needs and the government should consider an urgent increase in the child-support grant.

Moreover, beyond a “people first” stimulus package, a gender-sensitive economic stimulus package is also necessary to protect marginalised people such as sex workers. The government should urgently heed the call by the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and Sisonke, the national movement of sex workers, to be included in the government’s temporary relief scheme. This will require decriminalisation and destigmatisation of sex work if the government is to achieve an effective shutdown.

Sex workers are not only faced with income loss but they are also now faced with an increased risk of violence from soldiers and police and will be left without recourse due to the criminalisation of sex work. They are also faced with a heightened health risk should they continue to operate in the shadows. The Ministry of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities should take a lead in key government initiatives that affect womxn, but, unfortunately, this has so far not been the case. This department should be playing a key coordinating role to ensure that womxn’s rights are represented across all departments and Covid-19 economic programmes.

International experience has shown that it is not an easy task to enforce a lockdown. In the South African context and for physical distancing to be effective, it needs to be centred around ensuring the safety and survival of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups of society both economically and healthwise. 

Additional fiscal and administrative resources will need to be democratically and transparently mobilised in consultation with key stakeholders to prevent what could possibly become a humanitarian and economic crisis in South Africa. The physical distancing discourse should be strengthened and lockdown guidelines should not be abandoned.

However, if the government does not take a holistic approach that is rooted in understanding the South African reality, enforcing a lockdown will become increasingly difficult to achieve and the virus will continue to spread. DM


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