Living on the edge
Covid-19 has a taken a tremendous toll on South Africans’ livelihoods. Now is not the time to let up on social assistance ...
As SA moved into lockdown on March 27, the nation mobilised to get support to households. Many people were working hard on the frontlines to feed and help the poor. But the rest of us, locked in our homes, wondered what we would find on the other side.
More than 110 days later, it is apparent that the coronavirus and the lockdown are taking their toll. Infections are just one part of this. The impact on livelihoods and hunger is another.
This is revealed in the National Income Dynamics Study: Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-Cram), a telephonic survey of people broadly representative of those, 15 years or older, who were surveyed in Nids 2017.
Of the sample interviewed in May and June this year, two in five reported that their households had lost their main source of income since the lockdown began.
This has had devastating consequences for food security and household hunger: 47% of those interviewed reported that their households ran out of money to buy food in April; 21% reported that someone in the household had gone hungry in the previous seven days; and 15% reported that a child was among those who had gone hungry.
This has occurred despite commendable emergency relief efforts from the government and society at large in responding to the crisis. Top-ups to 18.2-million social grants were paid from May; the payout of the new Covid-19 special-relief-of-distress grant commenced in mid-June; and philanthropists and civil society pulled together to help those in need.
Among adults in households solely reliant on money from friends and family, almost 60% reported that someone went hungry in the past 7 previous seven days
Among the Nids-Cram sample, 18% reported receiving support for food or shelter during the lockdown from either the government, an NGO (churches or associations) or neighbours and others in their community.
Given this relief, how is it possible that we are seeing such distressing effects on livelihoods?
Social protection from grants or social relief is likely to fall far short of the household income deficit caused by job losses. Importantly, households that were receiving grants before the lockdown were not immune to income shocks, contrary to what some might believe.
The possibility of job loss or a downturn in business was a major threat to the livelihoods of many grant-receiving households — prior to the lockdown, three-quarters of grant-receiving households were getting some form of income from sources other than grants, such as earnings from employment, business or remittances.
For 44% of grant-receiving households, money earned or generated through business was the main source of household income, as indicated in Stats SA’s 2018 General Household Survey.
Then lockdown hit, and 42% of respondents in grant-receiving households in the Nids-Cram sample reported that their households had lost their main source of income. Make no mistake, these income losses have been a major driver of the rising hunger rates during the lockdown.
Nids-Cram respondents are 12 percentage points more likely to report that someone went hungry in the household in the past seven days if the main source of income was lost, even after accounting for the fact that some households were more susceptible to food poverty than others before the lockdown began.
The impact of income losses in some households has spilled over to others, who shared in incomes through remittances. Among adults in households solely reliant on money from friends and family before the lockdown, almost 60% reported that someone went hungry in the previous seven days if this income ceased.
In response to this, the technical glitches that have hampered the timely payout of benefits from the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) and the temporary employee relief scheme need to be resolved urgently. Lives and livelihoods are on the line.
What it means:
The haves, including the state, must continue helping the have-nots, whose numbers are rising
The Nids-Cram results are alarming — and, at present, this is the only data available for assessing the effect of the lockdown on South Africans.
We encourage the government to engage in the collection of other high-quality data on livelihoods, working with universities to corroborate new data collection initiatives against administrative data. We need to do this now.
In the meantime, what is clear from the data we do have, is that far too many people — and far too many children — are going hungry.
Now is not the time to let up on the support provided to households through three channels: social insurance through the UIF system; social assistance through a bolstered programme of grants; and localised, community-level relief efforts. Let us keep on giving until we have clear evidence of economic recovery, employment reabsorption and declining reports of hunger.
*Wills is a researcher at the research on socioeconomic policy unit at Stellenbosch University. This article draws from a policy paper titled "Household Resource Flows and Food Poverty during SA’s Lockdown", co-authored with Prof Leila Patel at the University of Joburg, and Prof Servaas van der Berg and Bokang Mpeta of Stellenbosch University. For more information on the Nids-Cram survey, visit http://www.cramsurvey.org
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