Lockdown hasn’t shown us our inequalities; it’s shown us lack of empathy from the privileged.

There’s always been massive inequality in South Africa, but those who have the money and power still aren’t getting it.

President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered a nationwide lockdown in late March, the nation was shocked and scared. For many different reasons.

Rich business people were worried about what this meant for their company turnover and profits. The middle class were concerned about being able to walk their dogs. The poor were wondering how they were going to feed their families if they could not go to work.

We all hoped that it would be over on 16 April, but then Ramaphosa dealt us another blow. Be more patient. Wait two more weeks. Now, we’re moving into a slow scaling down of restrictions.

An already broken economy

There were cries of outrage, again for different reasons; and in days gone by many economists and business leaders have called for the end of lockdown so that we can go back to ’normal’.

Our economy was already suffering and now we’re projected to go into a deep recession followed by a modest upswing in 2021, according to Fin24.

As Congress of South African Trade Unions parliamentary liaison officer, Matthew Parks, said to Fin24: “We were already in a recession with 40% unemployment before lockdown. That’s not the normal we want to go back to.”

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there were already an estimated 6.7 million unemployed people in the country. Projections say it will cause at least 1 million more job losses. By the latest estimations, Treasury’s worst-case scenario sees the coronavirus costing us 7 million jobs. 

The poor bear the brunt

It’s the poor who are bearing the brunt of this, no matter which way you look at it. Ramaphosa announced a new R500 billion economic support package recently, which is a temporary solution for those who are unemployed and/or already receiving grants for their families to survive. It’s a small reprieve, but that extra R500 a month will help many families because they are that poor.

Yet, still, there are people asking “When can we just go back to normal? When can I start running my business again? When can I walk my dog without being arrested?” without considering what this means for everyone, not just those who are still healthy. Not those who are immune-compromised. Not those who need to work but are scared to because what if they get sick?

The phased reopening of the economy Ramaphosa announced is our best solution. It’s not perfect. There is no denying that. But this way we can try to save as many lives as possible.

We cannot just go back to whatever ‘normal’ was before. We need to do better. We need to see that the inequality of our country and our economy needs to be evened out and we need to come up with solutions for during the pandemic and after.

The rich and middle classes with their access to healthcare and the ability able to self-isolate from their families are not the ones who will be affected the most. 

The lives of people are being placed second to that of the money that can be made. Because it is an inconvenience.

As a friend of mine said the other day: “Lockdown is not meant to be convenient, it’s meant to save lives.” Whether you live in a mansion in Sandton, or a small shack in Soweto.

But those who have power and money (and those who have and are still benefiting from a previously oppressive government system) do not know the true struggle of being poor. Of being a poor person in South Africa; a country where the divide is so massive that we have an informal settlement splat bang in the middle of two affluent housing estates and it’s used for tourist fodder.

Mind the inequality gap

Those who are complaining because they cannot have their weekly drink at their favourite watering hole, or buy a rotisserie chicken from Woolies are not considering the people who couldn’t do any of these things even before lockdown.

The people who have a three-hour commute to get to work on time for minimum wage and are now probably not earning any money at all. The people who cannot self-isolate in their one-bedroom shack and family of six. Those who are borrowing from their neighbours, who had to borrow from their neighbours, to be able to buy R50 electricity to make sure the lights stay on for a few more days.

The children who are not getting the education they deserve because they do not have access to a computer or resources were not made available from their schools because there was no money to do so.

The people who have life-threatening diseases that need to be managed like HIV or TB, but are too scared to go to the clinics to get their ARVs or treatment because what if they contract Covid-19 and they die, or give it to their family? Because they’re the breadwinner and cannot risk dying from coronavirus and letting their family starve.

Businesses must sacrifice

We need to work together with our government, who are doing an excellent job, and create solutions. We need to abide by the rules. Don’t have large gatherings, don’t force your workers to come in if they are not essential and can work remotely. We need to see the people who work for us, not just the profits that can be made. Put their health and overall wellness first. Donate to the Solidarity Fund, but also look at the people at the bottom of the pyramid. Look at how they suffer.

Businesses need to sacrifice what they can to help our people be safe and healthy. This creates trust and loyalty that will serve them well after this is all over. Not just from employees, but consumers too.

Thousands of people will probably die because of this pandemic, most of them poor. Our government has put strict measures in place and provided care for the underprivileged. For those who do not have access to water or even toilets in their homes.

But they cannot stop the reality that it is the poor who will suffer the most. It will mean more unemployed graduates, more applications for social grants, more people having to build shacks because they’ve lost their homes.

This means that we need to fix our inequality problem instead of just talking about it. We need practical solutions that aren’t just “let everyone go back to work”.

This is the part of the apocalypse movie they don’t show you.

Carmen Williams is a freelance journalist with a decade of experience and a wide range of interests. Among others, she has written for 24.com brands including W24 and Parent24. Views expressed are her own. 

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