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The rural poor: Some very messy basic arithmetic on Covid-19 – and it doesn’t add up

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Erna Kruger has been a rural development field worker in the non-profit sector in South Africa for 30 years. Based in Richmond, KwaZulu-Natal, she is the director of Mahlathini Development Foundation which focuses on pro-poor agricultural innovation to support the rural poor in South Africa in their struggle to gain food security and improved livelihoods for themselves, while respecting the needs of those around them and their environment.

About five million people living in rural and peri-urban areas across South Africa need to collect their social grants and buy their monthly food in a five-day stretch at the beginning of the month. They all need to take public transport to their closest town to buy their supplies.

South Africa has a population of about 58 million people, of whom six million are unemployed adults – 17 million social grants are paid out every month with about 12 million going towards child support. This is a staggering achievement, costing South Africa in the region of R202-billion a year.

This amounts to about 4% of our GDP and is considered stable social spending as long as we maintain a 3% growth rate in the longer term. There is already a contraction in our GDP, predicted to be between 2.5% and 10% in 2020. So, while we ponder what is going to happen next, let’s consider the short term.

About five million people living in rural and peri-urban areas across South Africa need to collect their social grants and buy their monthly food in a five-day stretch at the beginning of the month. They likely do not have any food left at home at the end of the month and all need to take public transport to their closest town to buy their supplies. So now, the taxis are packed full of people and crowds gather for hours and hours outside the supermarkets. So much for physical distancing and protecting the vulnerable. Remember almost three million of these people are elderly and about 322,000 of them have TB.

We respond by limiting the number of people allowed to be in a taxi at any time to 70% capacity and start instituting hefty fines, strictly controlled and policed. But still there are people wandering around aimlessly and buying cigarettes. So, we make the rules stricter, in an effort to control the situation, now limiting the number to 50% capacity and also enforcing a curfew of sorts where taxis cannot operate between 10am and 3pm. Private vehicles may not contain more than two passengers and they need to prove that they are shopping.

We now find a police captain in a small town fining a young man – working for a non-profit organisation with two passengers – for attempting to operate as a taxi. This despite the fact that the young man is carrying an essential service certificate, and ostensibly as it is unfair for the taxis that private vehicles now bring people into town. We make 2,300 arrests for contravention of lockdown regulations in a week, while our confirmed Covid-19 cases creep steadily up.

But have we asked ourselves this question: How are these people supposed to get food? They cannot pick up their grants on different days, they cannot conveniently finish off what is still in their cupboards, they cannot access any of the well-publicised help that is being offered as they are the poor, the dispossessed, the ones that do not own registered businesses or have farming enterprises with more than a R50,000 turnover, or have jobs for which they can claim unemployment benefits. 

We are leaving these people to work out their own problems while we jostle for political position and save what we can of our economic activity.

Have we asked ourselves how we can help these people, rather than control them? Have we thought of ways to get food to people, rather than trying to stop them from flooding into town as they have done every month for the last 25 years? Have we considered what the effect of Covid-19 will be on a portion of our population, a large portion, who live in overcrowded conditions, not by choice; are reliant on crowded public transport, not by choice; and have to buy all their monthly food at the same overcrowded supermarkets, not by choice? 

Have we once thought about going to these people with help, rather than restricting their ability to come to us? Have we put in protective measures for the unemployed and the elderly?

We are failing our poor people, more specifically our rural poor and in so doing, we are failing to proactively deal with this pandemic. Deep down we already know this is the quiet before the storm. DM

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