OPINION | Lockdown: A reminder of the devastating realities of inequality

The national lockdown imposed by government to prevent the spread of the coronavirus has not only presented a new challenge to our weak economy, it has also magnified deep socio-economic challenges that are not going away – and that the country will still need to address long after the virus has subsided.

Ours is a country of great contrasts, where grinding poverty exists side-by-side with opulence found in gated estates and posh suburbs, from Fish Hoek to Umhlanga and Dainfern. 

Any solutions aimed at curbing the spread of the deadly coronavirus should have taken these stark realities into consideration to ensure better adherence to lockdown rules and the desired results.

The 21-day lockdown announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa earned him praise and plaudits. But given the already grim impact posed by the virus – impact our staggering economy can ill afford – these restrictive measures should also serve as a reminder of the harsh realities we face. 

Income inequality in South Africa is said to be among the highest in the world, and the resultant poverty affects a vast number of people. 

One-size fits-all approach

The lockdown demands that people stay at home and limit contact with others while practicing increased personal hygiene. These measures appear to be easy enough to follow, but not so easy if your house is a 3m by 2.5m makeshift structure made of pieces of corrugated metal sheets. Where the closest thing to a toilet is a bucket shared with dozens of other people, with no running water, where families of up to six people are crammed into a single windowless room. 

This calls into question the feasibility of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to this desperate fight against the coronavirus, especially among the country’s most vulnerable communities.

It is only fair to conclude that the Covid-19 response plan fell short of addressing the socio-economic circumstances of these sectors of our society, who are expected to comply with the regulations the same way as those in positions of privilege. 

Impossible task

Under such conditions, keeping a ‘safe distance’ is near impossible task. Survival issues take precedence. And yet we read concerning news of heavy-handedness by law enforcement.

It is in these conditions that the virus is mostly likely to spread like wildfire, bringing the already strained public health care system and the economy to its knees. ‘Income inequality’ is a term South Africans are familiar with. We needed a plan better equipped to take into account what that means. 

In an interview on national television, a lady who lives in a shack in sprawling Alexandra, a stone’s throw away from Sandton – a wealthy neighourhood known as Africa’s richest square mile – mentioned that she uses a plastic shopping bag to relieve herself, just to avoid coming into contact with other people.

That is a devastating reality. It is one of many realities that appear to have been overlooked by task teams responsible for drawing up the lockdown rules.

I can only hope that this misstep is not a reflection of how much those we have entrusted with power have lost touch with life on the ground. And we can only hope that government will use the lockdown experience to come up with better ways to address deep structural problems affecting the well-being and development of all citizens.

* Sibongile Khumalo is a senior journalist at Fin24. Views expressed are her own. 

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