Almost a million people in Johannesburg are in need of food aid due to movement restrictions imposed to curb the coronavirus pandemic, according to its mayor.

While South Africa has less than 9 000 infections, it’s still one of the highest numbers on the continent. The government imposed a lockdown late March that shuttered schools and businesses and only allowed essential workers out of their homes. Today, about 300 000 households in Johannesburg require food assistance, mayor Geoff Makhubo said in an interview.

“As more and more people get unemployed, the incidences of poverty and food insecurity start to increase,” Makhubo said by phone. “Social distress is something that is real.”

Even before the measures, 45% of the city’s 5.5 million inhabitants lived in poverty and 20% were food insecure, he said. The City of Johannesburg is planning food support for vulnerable households and will use the national social security agency’s data alongside its own as it seeks to find those that aren’t in the welfare system, he said.

Dollar millionaires

National short-term relief measures, including an additional R50 billion in welfare grants for the poor and unemployed, are assisting the city’s efforts.

Inequality is rife in Johannesburg, which is home to thousands of undocumented migrants as well as 19 000 dollar millionaires who make up almost half of the country’s high-income individuals. Chief executives and top lawyers make as much as R20 million a year, while the official minimum wage is just over R20 an hour.

The lockdown, even though it was eased slightly on 1 May, is likely to exacerbate that inequality. The country’s biggest business grouping, Business for South Africa, earlier this week urged the government to accelerate the restart of the economy to minimise hardship, hunger and desperation.

“If there’s going to be unemployment, here in Johannesburg we’re going to be hardest hit,” Makhubo said. “If people start to struggle in other provinces, they are going to move to Johannesburg thinking there’s opportunity.”

The city is reviewing its spending plans after revenue fell by R800 million in April due to reduced economic activity, he said. Electricity sales to commercial and heavy-use industries is the largest contributor to collections, Makhubo said. It also expects its R1 billion portion of the national fuel levy grant, which is calculated based on fuel use in the city, to be “greatly reduced,” he said.

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