Picture: Sunday Times/Alon Skuy
Picture: Sunday Times/Alon Skuy

A key feature of the government’s response to Covid-19 has been its uniform, place-blind character. The lockdown was applied like a blanket across the whole country, along with standard relief schemes for households and businesses.

Nationwide measures may have seemed most straightforward and fair. But new evidence reveals that the spatial impact has been very uneven. Treating places that are already unequal in a uniform way doesn’t narrow the gap between them. In fact, it can amplify geographic divisions.

Every part of SA has been buffeted by the pandemic and the lockdown reflex. However, some places have carried a bigger burden than others, because they were more vulnerable to the spread of the virus and the restrictions on economic activity and movement.

The Nids-Cram data for urban areas has been disaggregated to analyse the differences between suburbs, townships, shack dwellers (informal settlements and backyarders) and peri-urban areas (smallholdings, farms or tribal land).

The results show that the slump hit poor communities harder than those in the suburbs. A higher proportion of adults living in the townships, informal settlements and peri-urban areas lost their jobs and earnings between February and June than suburban residents. They had more precarious livelihoods to begin with, and their informal enterprises were prevented from trading, which disrupted local food supply networks.

In contrast, suburban residents had more secure jobs, more savings and other resources to fall back on, and found it easier to work from home.

The outcome is striking in the way unemployment rates between these areas have diverged over time.

The 2017 National Income Dynamics Study provides a useful baseline to put things into perspective. There was a 12 percentage point gap in the unemployment rate between the different places in 2017. By April 2020 the gap had widened to 20 percentage points. There was a sharp rise in unemployment everywhere, but it was particularly acute in the peri-urban and shack areas, where it more than doubled.

By June the unemployment gap had reached 27 percentage points.

The suburbs and shack areas showed signs of bouncing back, but not the townships or peri-urban areas.

Consequently, the three types of low-income area were much worse off in June relative to the suburbs than they were before Covid-19 struck. Job losses and lower earnings forced households to cut their spending on food and to take on more debt.

The severity of the shock has been ameliorated somewhat by social payments from the government, including the R350 special Covid-19 relief grant and various top-ups to existing grants.

Poor urban communities were more likely to receive these than suburban residents. Nearly one in three peri-urban households (29%) received the Covid-19 grant, compared with 27% in townships, 18% of shackdwellers and 16% in suburban areas. The payments helped people who did not qualify for grants before, such as unemployed men.

Some places have carried a bigger burden than others, because they were more vulnerable to the spread of the virus and the restrictions on economic activity

Grants have served a useful purpose of social protection in poor communities and they offer some compensation for soaring unemployment. However, there is a risk to living standards when this temporary relief is withdrawn — especially if it happens before economic conditions have properly recovered. Terminating the special payments will aggravate people’s suffering and distress.

Even with the grants, a surprising number of households ran out of money to buy food. In June, 50% of shack dwellers were affected, as were 40% of township residents and just 24% of suburban households.

The high proportion of shack dwellers who ran out of money and the low proportion who received grants is a serious concern. It means more hunger.

When surveyed in July/August, nearly a quarter of shack dwellers (22%) said that someone in their household had gone hungry in the previous seven days, compared with 16% in the townships and 7% in the suburbs.

Government plans for recovery need to pay more attention to the distinctive challenges facing different places, especially townships and informal settlements. A differentiated approach can be more sensitive to diverse local conditions than blunt national measures and avoid aggravating pre-existing spatial divides.

National and municipal actions need complementary community-centred efforts to boost jobs and livelihoods in vulnerable areas, and to restore trust in government.

A developmental approach means investing in essential infrastructure and housing to literally build back better. Action plans involving all spheres of government could accelerate the upgrading of well-located informal settlements and backyard shacks, thereby reducing the risks of further contagion and creating more liveable and functional neighbourhoods for the future.

*Turok is distinguished research fellow at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and National Research Foundation research professor at the University of the Free State; Visagie is a research specialist with the HSRC

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