Guest Column

OPINION: We must not allow the coronavirus pandemic to worsen inequality

2020-05-15 10:30
Elderly people from Denver Hostel collect food parcels donated by the Uwais Qarni Islamic Centre. (Tebogo Letsie)

Elderly people from Denver Hostel collect food parcels donated by the Uwais Qarni Islamic Centre. (Tebogo Letsie)

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During the next years, we should show leadership in protecting the most vulnerable in our society by investing more in education and economic development, writes Ahmed Banderker.


As we use the latest communication technology to conduct executive committee meetings with our colleagues at their respective homes protected from Covid-19, we know that there are those without homes who are exposed to the coronavirus every day.

As we order groceries online to fill our refrigerators with perishable groceries and our sculleries with hand sanitisers, toilet paper, tinned food and other luxuries to limit venturing out, we are cognisant that too many can’t afford such stockpiling.

They simply don’t have the means to hoard.  

Covid-19 has highlighted the risks facing the poorest in our society, and the realities of social and economic inequalities.  

Covid-19 is exposing the steep wealth gaps in our country and around the world. One only has to watch television or search the internet for pictures of people from here and everywhere around the world are queuing for food parcels.  

Children often go hungry

There are many kids who got their main meals from school, thanks to the government feeding scheme. Often these kids go hungry during school holidays - now that schools are closed, they are fighting for the same plate with parents and other siblings.  

Carers, particularly women, also now find themselves on the frontline of the crisis, placing their own health at greater risk. These carers, already trapped in poverty, now face new, extraordinary pressures. 

Inequalities hitting us in the face

These inequalities are hitting us smack in the face. Of course poverty and inequalities have always existed, but too many of us were pre-occupied by competitive business projects and our own daily issues in our own bubble. 

History tells us that when crises strike, people on the breadline simply won't be able to cope with the loss of vital income when they are sick, or when businesses close and jobs are cut. 

Just before Covid19 spread around the world in January, Oxfam warned that the world's extreme inequality has gone out of control, with billionaires owning more than twice the wealth as 6.9 billion people and millions living are in abject poverty.

In a report titled, “Time to care” Oxfam said in 2019, 2 153 of the world's billionaires had more wealth than 4.6 billion people combined. 

The non-governmental organisation blamed governments for fuelling what it called an inequality crisis, which includes the underfunding vital public services such as healthcare and education. 

Also, the link between poverty and health inequality are well documented. According to Oxfam, people living in poverty are 10 times more likely to have a chronic health condition, and suffer poor mental health. 

These people already suffer from poorer health outcomes, reduced access to nutritional food, poor housing, low incomes, rising costs of living, and a lack of decent work. 

Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic is not only hitting the poorest in our society hardest, it is pushing many more into poverty. 

Poverty and other problems

We know that poverty is a main contributor to a host of problems, including substance abuse, poor health, domestic violence and child abuse, low educational attainment, crime, increased cost for public safety, and social and political disengagement, among others.

During the Covid-19 conundrum, as the white collar executives, we are not the only ones churning the economies of the world right now. 

Essential services workers such as grocery delivery people and health care workers, wear protective gear with hope and pray that they won’t contract the deadly respiratory virus.

Some are taking care of the sick and homebound.

They are putting their lives at risk so that the majority of the world’s citizens should not be inconvenienced. 

The coronavirus pandemic poses a genuine threat to the lives and human rights of all individuals, especially those living within poverty.

Covid-19 has exposed the inadequacy of our current social security system, the perils of lack of decent work, and the depth of inequality and poverty in our Rainbow Nation. 

R500bn economic stimulus

Our government must be applauded for putting aside a R500-billion economic stimulus package for a range of measures to help combat the impact of the disease. We are thankful this stimulus is helping the needy, but unfortunately it will not eradicate poverty.  

Benefits of stimulus

Lest we forget that money spent on poverty programmes is never wasted, as some would suggest.

Most of this money boosts local economies as recipients use it for housing, food, clothing, utilities, transportation, health care and other necessities.

This helps to further stimulate the economy. 

The major short-coming of our country’s social welfare system is that it does not educate, train and develop poor people to their full potential thus preparing them to participate in the economy. 

The problem is the under-educated, under-skilled and under-developed nature of many poor potential workers results in low levels of workforce participation among them. 

Indeed, the low or non-workforce participation of many poor workers results in low wages, which continues welfare dependency and a perpetuation of the cycle of poverty for them and their children. 

We cannot continue to be a Rainbow Nation where the haves and have-nots live such disparately different lives. 

More must be done to avert a worsening of inequalities. This pandemic is teaching us that we need to take better care of the most vulnerable. 

Breaking the cycle of poverty

I agree with Oxfam’s solution when it said inequality was a political choice.

"Governments around the world must act now to build a new, human economy that values what truly matters to society, rather than fuelling an endless pursuit of profit," it said.

"An economy that values the care work of women and girls instead of billionaires' wealth. An economy that works for everyone, not just a fortunate few." 

We need to address the inequality in education. It is imperative that we invest in education to ensure that every child is educated, transported to school and fed.

Sadly, if we had done this is 1994, those children would be contributing and supporting our society today. But it is not too late. If we make a change now, we will reap the rewards within the next 18 years.  

This is the solution that will break the cycle of poverty and welfare dependency by increasing the job-skill levels and labour-force participation rate of poor people in liveable wage jobs, thereby reducing poverty. 

Accomplishing this requires the recognition by all of us, the public and private sector, big and small business, that the reduction of poverty is an economic development strategy and is in our economic best interests. 

During the next years, we should show leadership in protecting the most vulnerable in our society by investing more in early childhood development, high school education, tertiary education, workforce and economic development, infrastructure, research and development, and other activities to tackle poverty and reduce inequality. 

We must not allow the coronavirus pandemic to worsen inequality. 

- Ahmed Banderker is Group CEO of Afrocentric Group, one of South Africa’s largest health administration and medical risk management solutions provider, which owns health companies such as Medscheme.  

Read more on:    coronavirus  |  economy  |  pandemic
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