The government has come in for a tongue-lashing over its “inappropriate” COVID-19 regulations, with one of the country’s top social development economists warning that rather than bringing the pandemic under control, economic micro-management will instead exacerbate the suffering of the poor.
While stopping short of addressing the alcohol and cigarette ban specifically, Professor Julian May told a virtual conference attended by hundreds of people from across the world that the loss of jobs and desperately needed revenue to the state would negatively impact the critical funding of social protection programmes going forward.
May, director of the University of the Western Cape-based National Research Foundation-Department of Science and Technology Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS), was a panellist on the webinar, which examined the impact of COVID-19 on nutritional status and food insecurity.
Referring to findings from three recent studies, May pointed to the fact that half of South Africa’s total population went into the lockdown with no food in their homes. The percentage of respondents reporting no income at all rose from 5% to 15% by the sixth week of the lockdown, and by April, 53% of households said they had run out of money to buy food.
Adults were also going hungry to shield their children, he added, in a reality where 34% of people reported they had gone hungry or went without anything to eat on at least one day during the Level 3 lockdown.
Urging the government to “leave the economy to do its job”, May cited regulations like the one dictating what kind of shoes and clothing South Africans could buy, and the barring of sales of vegetable seeds in the first weeks of lockdown, as among the “unwise” decisions that patently failed to take into account the economic well-being of citizens.
“Attempts were made to manage the economy and direct scarce resources rather than focusing on the vital message of what individuals should be doing to self-protect,” he told the meeting, adding that the government was taking action that, everywhere else in the world, had been shown to be unrelated to COVID-19 infection.
“I am extremely anxious about the longer running impact of the loss of jobs and the critical loss of revenue to the state that we very badly need to fund social protection programmes,” May stressed.
Fellow speaker Dr Chantell Witten, an affiliate of the CoE-FS, added her voice to the criticism. Witten, a nutrition specialist at the University of the Free State, said the COVID-19 lockdown had resulted in decreased access to food, inadequate food relief in schools, deepening food poverty and hunger as a result of the economic crisis, along with decreased access to primary health care. This had negatively impacted critical health programmes, including routine immunisation, growth monitoring and malnutrition screening.
“There is speculation of increasingly severe acute malnutrition in a scenario where more than three million people have lost their jobs, two thirds of them women. It’s clear that women-headed households and their children are bearing the brunt of the crisis,” she said.
Witten also pointed out that the R870 cost of the Nutritious Food Basket, which serves as a tool to monitor the cost and affordability of healthy eating, is almost double the child support grant. She added that the cost of milk, fresh fruit and vegetables had increased by as much as 50% during the lockdown.
Both she and May also criticised the government decision early on in the lockdown to bar street traders from operating, with May red-flagging the fact that since most of the country’s poor buy fresh vegetables from these informal sources, this had negatively impacted nutrition.
In COVID-19, the conversation is focused on food availability, relief and delivery. But we can’t address nutrition by only focusing on food. Nutrition security is an integral part of food security, and needs to be taken into account in respect of the long-term effects on children
May cautioned that the COVID-19 pandemic “won’t be the last of these kinds of incidents”, and urged the government to learn from it in order to be better prepared the next time.
“Job losses have an immediate impact on food security, not just of those who were employed, but also those dependent on them. Furthermore, the ability of the government to ramp up/extend social protection depends on the revenue the government can garner.
“The closure of businesses and slowing of the economy will reduce the government’s ability to assist.”
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