The virus is not to blame

Posted on November 15, 2020


(First published in City Press and on Fin24)

Economic recovery. Economic growth. That is what is now being promoted in the wake of the devastation caused by the responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. But what is really required in South Africa is social reconstruction to try to remedy the extraordinary damage done to millions of mainly young people.

That means putting redistribution to the forefront; making the closing of the steadily growing and already obscene wage and welfare gap the priority. In the process, urgent remedial action will be required to try to undo at least some of the horrendous damage inflicted in many cases on young children by a mixture of official inaction, incompetence and perhaps just callous indifference. Many people are starving. That is the simple truth.

As judge Sulet Potterill noted when, in July, she ordered (only partially successfully) the government to reinstate school feeding to nine million children during lockdown: “A more undignified scenario than starvation of a child is unimaginable; the morality of a society is gauged by how it treats its children.’

But it is not just a matter of dignity or morality: a starving child is damaged physically, intellectually and emotionally, perhaps for life. Hunger and other forms of deprivation for millions of children creates another “lost generation” and reinforces social and economic inequality in a country that is already ranked as the most unequal in the world.

Included in that potentially lost generation are the estimated 2.5 million very young children deprived of even halfway adequate nutrition by the closure of more than 32,000 early childhood development (ECD) centres. Maintained by an estimated 125,000 practitioners, these centres provided sanctuaries for young children and, for the most part, some food on a daily basis.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown responses struck, surveys revealed that 27% of South African children under the age of five were already stunted. This is understandable, given the outrageous levels of joblessness, low pay and the fact that even the social development department (SDD) admits that the funding it provides to a registered minority of ECD centres is “inadequate”.

SDD funding to some 14,000 ECD centres is set at R17 a day per child for just 264 days a year and is meant to cover everything from food, equipment and incidental expenses to wages. But payment stopped when lockdown started and it took a court order in July to order the re-opening of registered centres.

However, that order came with the proviso that before they could open, the centres should be Covid-19 compliant. The average cost of such compliance is R4,000 which most centres cannot afford. As a result, it is estimated that only some 5,000 centres, mainly in more affluent areas, have been able to open.

The unregistered centres also remain closed, some perhaps never likely to reopen. At the same time, the latest unemployment statistics, taking account of the dependents of another 2.2 million workers without work, reveal that at least 10 million more men, women and children have been cast into penury or beyond. This is what the Institute for Economic Justice has warned is a pending “humanitarian disaster”.

As a result, a coalition of citizen groups, humanitarian agencies, ECD campaigners and trade unions is calling on the government to increase the present R350 a month emergency grant to R550 and to extend it beyond the end of this month. It ties in with the campaign to establish a basic income grant for all.

But, as SA Federation of Trade Unions general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi notes: “This would be a stop-gap measure as we address the real reasons behind an economic system that reproduces poverty, inequality and unemployment.” In other words, look behind the surface figures and widely publicised information.

In the first place, we should acknowledge that in our modern, widely industrialised world of plenty, we have always had millions of men, women and children facing starvation and a lack of proper shelter. However, in small ways, there have been improvements in recent decades, manifest in falling child mortality rates and generally longer lifespans, with South Africa providing good examples.

But it is now obvious that we are sliding backwards at a steady rate. And politicians tend to blame a virus. But Covid-19, with a relatively low mortality rate and mostly among the elderly and those with co-morbidities such as obesity and diabetes, is not to blame for the massive damage being inflicted, particularly on the young, and on the economy. That damage was — and continues to be — caused by the responses to the arrival of the latest strain of an airborne coronavirus.

And the effect so far for the majority of young children is summed up in one word by Tad Khoza of the Equal Education (EE) law centre: “Devastating.” But what to me is a shocking indictment is the fact that groups such as EE and Section 27 have had to resort to the courts to win decisions ordering the government to meet its responsibilities to its youngest and most vulnerable citizens, the workers of tomorrow.

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