This part 1 of a 3-part series provides a general overview of how the COVID-19 crisis has exposed vulnerability fault lines.
COVID-19 is a universal crisis, which affects each person in each country of the world. This does not mean that it affects all in the same way.
This article looks at how existing vulnerabilities have been exposed by responses to slow down the spread of the virus, and how access to technology and tech-savvy enables responsiveness and resilience in adapting to the “new normal” under lockdown in everyday life and in education.
An unexpected and exceptionally challenging global crisis
At the launch of the UN’s report on the socio-economic impact of COVID-19, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres said that the world is facing the most challenging crisis since World War II.
A crisis is a situation of instability and danger or a period of upheaval. It can also be defined as “a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, especially for better or for worse, is determined”, or a turning point. In a medical context, it is a point at which “decisive change” occurs, or it could be used to describe the change itself.
Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis has brought the world to the point where nothing will ever be the same again, simply because of the way in which this crisis has affected the psyche of the world. We are much less safe and prepared for disruptive change than what we thought. And this applies to all areas of life.
Countries on lockdown all around the world
We cannot significantly change what is happening at the moment. Already on 25 March 2020, it was reported that 20% of the world’s population was under lockdown, and the number of people confined to their homes is increasing with more countries implementing lockdowns, extending lockdowns, or implementing stricter physical distancing regulations.
While most agree that lockdown is the only way in which the speed of the virus spreading can be slowed down, there is also widespread agreement that the economic implications of these measures will have a crippling impact on economies worldwide.
The impact of COVID-19 and lockdowns does not only affect economic activities, markets and trade – it has an impact on each and every aspect of life. At the launch of the UN’s report on the socio-economic impact of COVID-19, Guterres emphasised that countries had to unite, not only to fight and beat the virus but also to deal with its “profound consequences”.
Importantly, he said that it would be important to “deal decisively with those issues that make us all unnecessarily vulnerable to crisis”. Vulnerability is indeed a fault line that has been exposed in the past few weeks, in ways that the world has not seen before.
The fault lines of physical vulnerability
The virus itself is a more significant threat for persons with existing medical conditions which makes them vulnerable already: diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. The world is waiting in anticipation for the knowledge that will emanate from countries which have populations with a high incidence of HIV, TB and malnutrition.
While there is no data on the impact of COVID-19 on persons living with HIV and TB, we know that their vulnerability will be amplified. Another vulnerability that is magnified by COVID-19 is age, given that many older persons already have pre-existing medical conditions, and as is evident from mortality rates, which shows a substantially higher death rate for older persons. Particularly those over 70 years of age.
Exacerbated existing social challenges
Other vulnerabilities that have been highlighted by lockdown are along the lines of social and economic demographics. The lockdown saw local authorities, social development agencies, community and faith-based organisations under severe pressure to provide shelter for the homeless.
The vulnerabilities associated with homelessness are not new, and to date, South Africa has been grappling with how to help large numbers of homeless persons, including youth, who sleep on the street every night, and who make a living on the streets. Hopefully, the temporary solutions implemented during lock-down can ignite change that will see better accommodation of this vulnerable group in future.
The COVID-19 lockdown also highlighted how existing issues regarding informal and overcrowded housing, water and sanitation increases vulnerabilities under a huge section of the South African population. Without access to running water and with communal toilet facilities, it is impossible to implement the hygiene standards required to prevent transmission of the virus.
This crisis is a stark reminder that too many South Africans have become accustomed to living in conditions that are detrimental to their health, and which poses a nearly unmanageable risk under current circumstances.
There is a down-side to public transport
The COVID-19 crisis has even brought unintended negative consequences of using public transport to the fore. Although many South Africans have increased their use of public transport, many still have the option of using private vehicles – something which has now become a safety mechanism. For the majority in our country, this is not an option, and being mobile has now become a major risk.
e-Commerce is not for all
Inequality in South Africa cuts through all aspects of life, including access to technology. In addition to the obvious advantage of technology as a way to access up to date information on a rapidly changing situation, it also makes it easier for some to practice physical distancing.
Those with connectivity and devices are exponentially better positioned to navigate the treacherous and unknown terrain created by COVID-19. For most of the middle class, salaries are deposited into accounts, debit orders go off automatically, and electronic transactions are done in the comfort and safety of homes.
Some of the most vulnerable in our country, who receive pensions, disability and child grants, the only option is to gather in groups, stand in long queues, and are unable to practice physical distancing as prescribed.
Online shopping is reserved for the privileged, and the rest have to take the risk of going to a shop, where the risk of coming into contact with people who are ill but non-symptomatic is a very real possibility. And as the incidence of the illness magnifies, this risk will also magnify when going shopping.
Bracing for tough economic times
The COVID-19 lockdown seems to have hit economically vulnerable people the hardest. The vulnerability of the informal sector and SSMEs have been exposed in an almost brutal manner. The service industry, non-food and medical supply retailers and wholesalers, transport operators, the tourism and hospitality businesses have taken the knock head-on.
These sectors also have large numbers of casual and temporary workers, who are now sitting at home, many without pay. Hopefully, calls to employers of domestic workers to keep on paying salaries during lockdown will be heeded, as long as employers themselves have an income, and given the need to keep food supply up and running will to some extent protect agricultural workers.
During the lockdown, many who usually rely on information and communications technology to do their jobs, seem to be least affected in the short term. With access to technology at home, they can continue to work, albeit with some modifications needed to their modus operandi.
While the economic impact following the immediate COVID-19 crisis will ultimately affect all, the urgency of embracing the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR), has been highlighted.
Uncertainty about the education calendar
It has taken only a few days for the euphoria about an extended school holiday to be replaced by questions on how learners will catch up on lost classroom instruction. It seems that a systematic response is still lacking and that there are diverse strategies in place for assisting learners during this time.
Under lockdown, technology is the obvious solution, but in one of the most unequal societies In the world, the current situation may disadvantage learners who do not have access to technology because of lower economic status even further.
Resilience and solidarity
It is clear that the current situation calls for resilience, innovation and collaboration like never before. There have been several encouraging initiatives aimed at pooling resources, finding solutions and coming up with innovations. Most of these are focused on the immediate physical needs of vulnerable persons, on alleviating immediate economic pressures, and assisting with medical responses.
Many in the education sector seem to operate from the assumption that schools will go back to operating as usual at the end of the 21-day lockdown. It is unlikely that this assumption will hold, and soon it will be necessary to provide urgent and tangible solutions to ensure that learning can continue for the class of 2020.
While not underestimating the dire consequences of the inherent vulnerabilities in our society as a result of inequality, the positive side of this crisis is that it has woken us up to how important it is to urgently address these issues and to bring about changes that will enhance our capacity to navigate challenging circumstances.
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By Fia van Rensburg
South Africa suffers among the highest levels of inequality in the world when measured by the commonly used Gini index. Inequality manifests itself through a skewed income distribution, unequal access to opportunities, and regional disparities. Low growth and rising unemployment have contributed to the persistence of inequality. Source: IMF