International jurist and former UN Human Rights Commissioner, Judge Navi Pillay, has criticised the government’s prioritisation of funding airlines when the people are hungry, have no access to food and forced to stand in very long queues to access grants
Her criticism comes as a new survey shows hunger and lack of access to food have become more acute during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown and many people are starving since the outbreak of the disease.
The situation is particularly dire among children due to no school nutrition.
This is the main finding of a new survey undertaken by the Foundation for Human Rights (FHR) in conjunction with 127 community-based advice offices (CAOs) that also found that many social security grants become very difficult to access during this period.
This prompted SA-born Pillay, who was participant in a webinar panel discussion during the launch of the survey, to lash out against what she dubbed “a violation of human rights” that resulted in senior citizens, the sick and disabled people having to stand in long queues to receive their grants.
Pillay, who is also former UN high commissioner for human rights, said government prioritised luxuries such as spending R50 billion on an airline rather than feeding the people and this was indicative of its “anti-human rights approach”.
The survey, which looked at the impact of Covid-19 on communities during Levels 4 and 5 of the lockdown and zoomed in on hunger and its knock-on effects, found that access to food was a huge challenge for many poor families and children during the lockdown.
This was despite the fact that access to food is especially important during the Covid-19 pandemic to strengthen immune systems and lower the risk of disease.
It was found that access to food was limited by rising prices, high income inequality and increasing unemployment.
The survey also found that 50 percent of the unemployed did not get the government distress relief assistance that was promised.
“Our results corroborate claims that the most serious implication of the ongoing lockdown is hunger,” the report said, citing a survey by Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group (PMBEJD) showed that food prices increased by 7.8% between March and May this year.
There was a reduced income among the most vulnerable, comprising the self-employed and precarious workers in compliance with lockdown regulations. This was coupled with food price increases in South Africa.
“Most CAOs (community advice offices) reported that food was the most difficult basic good to access during the lockdown. Our respondents also reported numerous instances of food parcel theft, as well as political nepotism and corruption in the allocation of parcels to community members.”
PMBEJD found that new grants which were intended to mitigate the effects of the virus and lockdown did not even cover groceries for the average family.
“Almost all of our respondents indicated that children in their communities could not access feeding schemes during lockdown. In many low-income areas, local and school feeding schemes may have been children’s primary source of food.
“Hunger has severe short and long-term impacts on children’s development and could permanently hinder all learners from succeeding academically, this year and beyond. Hunger among children may lead to malnutrition and an increased drop-out rate, especially for Matrics.”
Only 53% of learners finished Matric in 2019 out of the cohort’s total grade 1 learners.
“Barriers to success in school are considerable, especially in poorer households, and the hunger crisis and its knock-on effects will likely add to this.”
FHR advised that to avoid this, the department of social development and the department of basic education should take more coherent and proactive action to understand and mitigate the effects of this crisis.
“A study on the effect of the lockdown on all children this year would be a positive first step. These departments should also use this experience as an opportunity to develop protocols for emergency feeding schemes for children to avoid hunger and its severe consequences on children’s development.
“It is imperative to address the transgressors who exacerbated the effects of the lockdown. Alleged corruption, poor leadership, and administrative issues prevented those who needed food assistance from receiving it.
“Those who obstructed or undermined food assistance delivery (through inflation of food prices and corruption) should be held accountable.
“More attention should also be paid to generating sustainable solutions to the hunger crisis. Local stakeholders like CAOs are ideally placed to facilitate and monitor food parcel distribution.”
FHR suggested the implementation of these systems and using existing networks can ensure greater transparency and accountability during the pandemic and beyond.
“Sustainable food solutions are key to mitigating the food crisis in South Africa. While children are less likely than adults to experience severe Covid-19 symptoms, they will likely bear the considerable burden of hunger and economic fallout during, and in the aftermath of the lockdown…..These issues should not be side-lined by government, as the future may be irreparably damaged by actions taken now,” the report said.