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A crisis of possibilities

The COVID-19 public emergency in South Africa and the world has spurred individuals, communities and governments to support each other in unprecedented acts of empathy. Sofia Neves from Salesian Life Choices imagines a more equitable country in which citizens come together to find solutions to the nation’s current and future challenges.

Safety measures against the spread of COVID-19 includes physical distancing and isolation, amongst others. However, while we are physically isolated, across Cape Town it seems we have never been as connected we are as now. 

Given the deepest levels of inequality in the country, individual lived realities differ greatly in the lockdown, yet the pandemic has – for the most part – been a showcase of humanity’s best side. The crisis has refreshed perspectives about what is possible and what can be achieved as a collective. 

Many of the initiatives being implemented now have been debated, torn apart, and dismissed as impassable.

South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal societies. According to the latest figures from the World Inequality Database, the top 1% of South African earners take home almost 20% of all income in the country, while the top 10% take home 65%. The remaining 90% of South African earners get only 35% of total income. These unequal incomes remain stubbornly racialized, gendered, and spatially distributed. Low income is directly related to poor health outcomes due to bad nutrition, overcrowded spaces, high levels of violence, and so on.  This cruelty against humankind has worsened over the years and we can’t deny it has led to the death of thousands of fellow South Africans. What is remarkable, however, is that it has never motivated a unifying response from all of us. 

For years, many of the initiatives being implemented now have been debated, torn apart, and dismissed as impassable. In less than two months COVID-19 has achieved what was unimaginable on 5 March, when South Africa reported its first case.  

Feed the hungry

According to Statistics South Africa, 6.8 million South Africans experience hunger (1.7 million households) and this was before COVID-19. We can agree that these numbers have increased in the last five weeks. What we are observing today across the city is incredible. Movements of people, restaurants, and hotels are cooking free meals for the poor. Individuals, organizations, and government are providing food parcels and food vouchers. Suburbs and families are being matched with low-income areas to provide support.

READ – 2.5 Million Children in South Africa Go Hungry Every Year, 10 September 2019 // Global Citizen

The government announced an increase in the monthly amount for each type of social grant. We are witnessing a surge of true solidarity. Movements are supporting one other to ensure that people do not go to bed on an empty stomach. Unfortunately, these efforts will not be able to reach every person in need. Despite this, we can certainly say that we have never seen this being done before, to such magnitude. The question I am sitting with is whether we could have decreased the number of people in this country going hungry to the bare minimum, had we done this in the past.

Basic Income Grant

The President announced a COVID-19 social relief of distress grant of R350 a month for the next 6-months for those who are unemployed and do not receive any other social grant or UIF payments. Many years ago, a basic income grant was robustly debated in South Africa. Its proponents argued that it could give effect to the constitutional requirement to cater to the immediate basic needs of an estimated 14 million people who were living below the poverty datum line at that time.

Unfortunately, due to the cost and questionable effectiveness of the proposed grant, it was ruled as unviable. The COVID-19 relief grant is not the same as what was proposed as the basic income grant, however, it is close enough to allow us to begin evaluating the concept in real-time and maybe challenge some of the misconceptions against such an initiative. For the first time, millions of unemployed individuals are being acknowledged and supported.  


South African education has been in crisis for many years. Children attending South African schools fare poorly on almost every metric and are ill-prepared for the world after school. More tragically, those who suffer the most from poor schooling are disproportionately children from low-income communities. The crisis is complex, but two of the contributors to such a crisis are overcrowded classrooms and a loss of contact time.

WATCH – Better 2018 matric results yet unequal education, 4 January 2019 // SABC News

If schools are to reopen this year, COVID-19 will force schools to decrease the number of students per class (due to the social distance guidelines) and will force schools to extend classes into the holidays to catch-up on lost time. These are two concepts that were probably inconceivable to officials when discussing how to improve educational outcomes.

Strengthening the health system

As many as 45 million, or 82 out of every 100 South Africans, fall outside the medical aid net, and as a result, are largely dependent on public healthcare. No wonder, the provision of health has also been in crisis for many years. You just need to visit a public clinic on a normal day to observe the long waiting periods people need to endure to receive basic health services. And often, waiting for hours could turn into waiting for months if further specialized care is required.

It is extraordinary what the government has managed to achieve during lockdown. The Department of Health has activated an emergency operations centre to deal with COVID-19. They have appointed dedicated staff to work exclusively on the pandemic, dispatched mobile units, and selected thousands of people who are part of Province response teams to conduct community screening and testing.

Hospitals in all provinces have been equipped and are prepared to receive potential COVID-19 cases. A parallel health system has been created as centres for isolation and treatment. Who could have imagined that the government could achieve this in merely 30 days? And even though we understand that they are still facing several challenges (such as a shortage of nurses), I can’t help but stop to wonder, if all these resources had been deployed to strengthen the healthcare system before this crisis, how many lives could have been saved from other illnesses?

If all these resources had been deployed to strengthen the healthcare system before this crisis, how many lives could have been saved from other illnesses?

The list could go on and on, on things COVID-19 has achieved. We could talk about financial packages for small businesses in distress, support for industries performing poorly, financial incentives to recover the economy at large, reduction of carbon emissions, improvements in government service delivery through the use of technology, increased public transport, politicians giving up a portion of their salaries to the poor, and so much more.

COVID-19 as a social equalizer 

The question remains, if we had done all this before COVID-19, where could we be as a country?

In one of his addresses, the President alluded to the fact that this crisis “might be the opportunity to create a different economy.” Perhaps an economy that can work for the vast majority of South Africans?

Unfortunately, this dream might be difficult to achieve at this time. As with any type of catastrophe, the most vulnerable will always be the ones suffering the most, and COVID-19 is not an exception. After this crisis, the inequality gap will definitely increase.

So, why is a virus that in the worst-case scenario kills 1-2% of the population, attracting such a unique response?  

One possible reason is that COVID-19 does not discriminate and everyone is at risk. It is impossible to tune out from this reality. It affects us all, the entire population.

COVID-19 might be forcing us to look at each other as equals for the first time. It is creating a collective despite the structural divides.

While empathizing with someone who was born in, and lives in, a township might be difficult for someone who was born in, and lives in, a suburb (because the two realities are too far a part to fully comprehend), the fear of becoming infected with COVID-19, to get sick, and to die, or to lose a loved one is something that we all experienced, regardless of our differences.

COVID-19 might be forcing us to look at each other as equals for the first time. It is creating a collective despite the structural divides. A collective that shares similar fears and hopes towards a common enemy. It is forcing us to connect with each other in a perceivably ‘safe’ way, via online platforms. And this is subsequently creating unprecedented waves of support that are naturally emerging at different levels of society.

Another reason could be the nature of the pandemic. COVID-19 is challenging what was previously accepted as logical. It has distorted what we deem to be possible. It is creating a reality that was unthinkable and only a few apocalyptic authors dared to imagine. COVID-19 is so fast and global that leaders feel they don’t have any option other than to act or react in order to preserve their countries. It is forcing leaders to make and rapid decisions based on present infection and death rates and pushing all other ministries (e.g. treasury, trade, education) to become secondary during the first response. COVID-19 is bringing the preservation of life to the center of every government decision.

Interestingly, this is a right that has been embodied in our constitution since inception – the right to life, a dignified life for every single citizen in South Africa.          

Imagining a new future

As COVID-19 continues, the question is whether we can use this unique experience as an opportunity, not only to respond, but to deeply reflect on our nature as human beings. I am not part of the optimistic group that believes the world will never be the same and a new reality will emerge where things will be fairer.

I truly hope to be wrong, but my guess is that after the crisis we will go back to the ‘norm’ – to live in our own small bubbles where we focus on our own survival and we only connect with the people we feel close to. We will close our eyes to the injustices of the world and repeat the mantra in our heads, “this is how the world is and has always been. There is nothing that can be done to change it.” 

The scale of the response to the pandemic is magnificent and I hope it can capture the imagination of the collective because it has clearly showcased that where there is a global will, there is a way.

My dream is that in a not too distant future, we will look back at the COVID-19 era and be inspired to rise as a collective and tackle a much bigger enemy, namely inequality. 

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.