Lockdown reaching breaking point as poor unlikely to just wait to starve to death

A man looks on as South African residents of Masiphumelele informal settlement gather to see if they are on a list of those vulnerable families earmarked to receive food parcels in the community of Masiphumelele, Cape Town, South Africa, EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA

As more cases of ‘food riots’ are being reported around the country, most people in South Africa are being affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The food crisis is a serious concern, according to the C19 People’s Coalition, which is made up of 250 entities, including community-based organisations, social movements and nongovernmental organisations from across civil society in all provinces.

The coalition said yesterday that an estimated 5.5 million informal sector workers had lost their livelihoods, which roughly affected 16.5 million people.

“We reject the term ‘food riots’ which suggests that people are merely angry or ill-disciplined. What we are seeing are food rebellions of the poor – people who say ‘we will not sit quietly indoors and starve’,” said the coalition.

It said the state’s efforts to provide food aid to poor and vulnerable communities had demonstrated a constrained capacity and the politicisation of distribution based on partisanship.

“If government prevents people from working to get money to buy food, then it must take adequate measures to compensate and ensure people can get the food they need,” the coalition said.

It also said the school feeding schemes which provide a crucial lifeline to poor households and vulnerable children should be resumed so that children can collect food from schools or other accessible public collection points.

“This includes rural schools, where the children of farmworkers, in particular, are vulnerable; those who are producing our food are among those most at risk of hunger. In the absence of this, poor children are more at risk of dying of malnutrition than of the coronavirus,” it said.

According to Amnesty International, government intervention is required to avoid having millions of people facing hunger under lockdown regulations.

The organisation said millions of people across southern Africa face hunger as they are unable to access food during lockdowns.

“With inequality and unemployment so high across southern Africa, the majority of people live from hand to mouth – meaning they cannot afford to remain in lockdown for a week, let alone for a month, because they have no financial means to stockpile,” said Deprose Muchena, the director of Amnesty International for East and Southern Africa.

He said that without support from government, the lockdown would become a matter of life and death for those living in poverty.

“Currently, many are being forced to choose between complying with lockdown measures and going hungry, or stepping out to access food and being penalised for it,” explained Muchena.

He said the vast majority of people in the region made their living in the informal economy as street vendors or manual labourers, for example, and under the current lockdown regime, these were considered nonessential roles and therefore workers had been prohibited from working.

“While supermarket trips are permitted under lockdown rules because food is deemed essential, those who are found on the streets in townships trying to go and buy food with whatever money they can find, or those hustling for food, are often criminalised and sometimes attacked by the security forces,” said Muchena.

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