Covid-19: Lockdown responses from farmworkers to sex workers to CSOs

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(Unsplash)
(Unsplash)

As the major social and economic disruption that will be caused by South Africa’s 21-day lockdown owing to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic became apparent over the past few days, civil society organisations warned that issues affecting the poor and marginalised could fall through the cracks.

Spotlight contacted organisations that represent farmworkers, healthcare workers and sex workers, as well as various other civil society organisations to get their views and statements.

We have noted with concern how sex workers are missing from the general conversation about support for workers throughout the pandemic and lockdown
Sweat and Sisonke statement

Missing from the conversation

Hours before the lockdown was set to commence at midnight on Thursday, the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) and Sisonke, the national movement of sex workers, in a statement said the drastic decision translated into many uncertainties for unskilled workers, including sex workers.

“We have noted with concern how sex workers are missing from the general conversation about support for workers throughout the pandemic and lockdown,” the statement reads.

According to the organisations, it is not clear to them if they will be prioritised in the government’s support plans.

Since President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the lockdown on Monday, various ministers announced details of support programmes for households and businesses. This includes special measures, including using the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) to subsidise workers in this time.

However, these measures do not cover workers in the informal sector and Small Business Development Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said the support packages of her department were not geared for informal businesses. So the only assurance that this economic group seemingly has is the assurance of the safety net which Ramaphosa mentioned in his announcement Monday.

Sex workers will suffer loss of shelter and inability to access food, healthcare, medications and other basic necessities for sex workers and their dependents
Sweat

It is also unclear how those who work for non-compliant employers that are not registered with the UIF will be affected. However, in a ministerial briefing this week, Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi said he did not see why workers should be punished for rogue employers. It remains to be seen how such workers will be accommodated.

Although there was reference to informal workers, sex workers have not been explicitly mentioned once during the government briefings thus far.

Sweat argues that the loss of income that sex workers will suffer owing to the pandemic will mean a “loss of shelter and inability to access food, healthcare, medications and other basic necessities for sex workers and their dependents”.

According to Sweat’s figures, in 2013 there were about 158 000 sex workers in the country, each of whom had on average seven dependants. Sex work is still a crime in South Africa, making it difficult for sex workers to demand labour rights.

Questioning the inclusivity of support programmes for vulnerable and poor groups, the organisation said: “Since the outbreak, sex workers have been the first group of workers to be affected financially by the spread of the virus.”

Outside the cities

Organisations geared towards rural healthcare also raised some concerns. Russell Rensburg, director of the Rural Health Advocacy Project, told Spotlight that they acknowledged the fact that deciding to place the country on lockdown must have been difficult. Rensburg said if everyone adheres to the lockdown, it may help curb the spread of infection.

“It is not without risk but, given the Easter weekend coming up, it was the right decision. It alleviates the risk of the epidemic spreading to rural areas.”

Rensburg said it was important to prioritise those groups that are most at risk, particularly people living with HIV and tuberculosis.

“We also need the provincial authorities to work on province-specific plans, particularly Gauteng, the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.”

Rural communities have among the highest unemployment rates and are almost completely dependent on government grants and remittances from family, so the lockdown could deepen food insecurity
Russell Rensburg, director of the Rural Health Advocacy Project

The three provinces have the highest numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases and on Friday the country reported its first two suspected Covid-19-related deaths.

Western Cape Premier Alan Winde in a statement said: “The clinical picture is consistent with Covid-19, but we are awaiting the test results to confirm this.”

The one death was on Saturday ruled as not being related to Covid-19.

Meanwhile, Rensburg told Spotlight that the social mitigation measures government announce seem inadequate, particularly for the poor.

“Rural communities have among the highest unemployment rates and are almost completely dependent on government grants and remittances from family, so the lockdown could deepen food insecurity.”

According to Rensburg, rural healthcare systems, particularly at primary healthcare level, remain neglected and underfunded.

“The lack of outreach services and high levels of poverty often translate into lower health seeking and unmet needs. What this means is that many people don’t know their health status or are unaware of underlying conditions that could place them at greater risk. We need a surge in health promotion activities that inform [rural] communities on how best to protect themselves.”

He also called for the protection and support of healthcare workers, including community health workers.

There must be provision of transport for nurses, as essential service workers, because the majority of them don’t have cars and are reliant on public transport
Sibongiseni Delihlazo, spokesperson for the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA

Healthcare worker concerns

Sibongiseni Delihlazo, spokesperson for the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA, told Spotlight that some of the major concerns nurses have include issues with personal protective equipment, which is non-negotiable for every healthcare worker in the workplace during this trying time.

“There must be provision of transport for nurses, as essential service workers, because the majority of them don’t have cars and are reliant on public transport.”

Delihlazo noted that nurses were not well paid and would need support.

Many community health workers also raised concerns, mainly that they were not provided with personal protective equipment.

On Thursday, Western Cape head of the health department Dr Beth Engelbrecht said community health workers who primarily deliver medicines do not need protective equipment. However, Spotlight understands that many community health workers across the country will also be part of Covid-19 tracing teams.

Farmworkers

There were also calls from farmworker communities for government to urgently address layoffs in the sector.

We are worried that the department of [employment and] labour does not have the capacity to monitor violations of labour rights during this lockdown period
Wendy Pekeur, director of the Ubuntu Rural Women and Youth Movement

Wendy Pekeur, director of the Ubuntu Rural Women and Youth Movement told Spotlight that they were concerned for farm workers, who all rely on their jobs to feed their families. She noted that children living on farms, who are dependent on feeding schemes, will miss out on essential feeding programmes.

The organisation, in partnership with the Carmen Stevens Foundation, on Tuesday managed to feed 200 children on four farms.

According to Pekeur, one farm in the Stellenbosch area recently dismissed 22 seasonal workers “owing to the coronavirus fears”.

“We are worried that the department of [employment and] labour does not have the capacity to monitor violations of labour rights during this lockdown period and precarious workers whose jobs are already insecure will suffer more. And this while the sector has a history of extreme rights violations.”

Pekeur said in cases where farmworkers are expected to work, health and safety inspectors – who are too few as it is – will struggle to monitor compliance on farms. She stressed the need for government to partner with advice offices, trade unions and farmworker committees to make sure that all safety measures are adhered to.

Pekeur also called on Ramaphosa and Nxesi to urgently address the layoffs.

“Talking to businesses alone will not solve the problem. Please speak to the workers who produce the food we eat, as they have lots to say.”

The department had set aside a R1.2 billion package to help mitigate the impact of the pandemic and ensure sustainable food production after the pandemic
Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Thoko Didiza

Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Thoko Didiza this week stressed the importance of food security. She said the agricultural sector would continue with harvests and production to keep the food supply chain going. When Didiza addressed the media earlier this week, she scantly referred to farmworkers.

She said: “Together with the industry, we are working on sector operational procedures that will ensure adherence to the measures announced by the president. This includes the provision of sanitation to employees within the sector, especially farmworkers.”

Didiza said the department had set aside a R1.2 billion package to help mitigate the impact of the pandemic and ensure sustainable food production after the pandemic.

“The department will soon make the details of this package, together with the application channels available,” she said.

Rights under lockdown

Section27 head of health Sasha Stevenson noted that even as the decision to lock down the country is supported by the best available health evidence, everyone recognises that it will have wide-ranging social impacts.

“The HIV epidemic in South Africa demonstrated that human rights are a fundamental component of public health,” Stevenson told Spotlight.

“And, in a time of crisis, the human rights principles of prioritising the needs of the most vulnerable; abiding by guarantees of equality and non-arbitrariness; and upholding rights to information, participation, the underlying determinants of health, and security for people who are or will become unemployed or sick are critically important.”

Concerns about possible rights violations and what recourse there will be for the public were also aired at the ministerial press briefing on Wednesday. Questions were raised over the human rights training of the army officers and members of the police meant to enforce the regulations.

Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola reiterated that the lockdown and the enforcement thereof would be guided by the law and the Constitution, and everyone would be required to act within the law.

Some constitutional law experts, however, have warned that some of the regulations issued in terms of the Disaster Management Act are too vague, leaving people with much uncertainty, which will impact adherence.

Three weeks of lockdown in a context of massive inequality such as ours could lead to social breakdown, especially in townships with large households and poverty and lack of knowledge
People’s Health Movement SA Dr Louis Reynolds

Meanwhile, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said that although army officers were not trained in crowd control, they had human rights training.

Social solidarity vs social disintegration

The line between social solidarity and social disintegration also seems to be not all-too-solid for some. Member of the People’s Health Movement SA Dr Louis Reynolds told Spotlight that the pandemic could lead to social solidarity, but only if “there is adequate support such as food, water and sanitation, as well as empathy, trust and a sense of togetherness”.

“On the other hand, three weeks of lockdown in a context of massive inequality such as ours could lead to social breakdown, especially in townships with large households and poverty and lack of knowledge.

“Widespread fake news could lead to false hopes or divisions among groups and fuel xenophobic attacks. Frustration at lack of essentials, a culture of violence, high crime levels, gender-based violence and issues such as toxic masculinity will make things worse,” he warned.

According to Reynolds, the lockdown can be an opportunity for popular education, raising awareness, stopping fake news, preventing unscrupulous people from exploiting the crisis, building social solidarity and supporting each other.

He stressed, however, that it was vital to make sure that everyone’s basic needs are met in terms of water, sanitation, food, income and social grants.

“We must recognise our indebtedness to those on the front line, which includes health workers as well as people in townships and rural areas, where the real battle rages,” he said.

Plans for support

Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu said during a media briefing this week that social grants would still be paid, with special measures for hygiene and other protection at pay points.

Food banks and local community food distribution centres will provide indigent and qualifying households with food during this time. Old age homes, rehabilitation centres, as well as child and youth care centres will also be provided food.

Zulu said community workers would be roped in to deliver food to beneficiaries to limit movement of people. When prodded during the briefing, she did not have much to immediately offer victims of domestic abuse, who during lockdown will be forced to be cooped up with their abusers. She did, however, acknowledge that this was a serious issue and mentioned a helpline that victims can use to call for help – 0800 428 428 – as well as a number of existing shelters for vulnerable women that will remain open.

Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu announced measures to get water tankers to drought-stricken areas, especially in rural areas, to improve access to water. Water with which to wash hands is essential in the hygiene drive against Covid-19 transmission.

Despite Sisulu’s efforts on a national level, some residents, especially those in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, complained that the municipality was still cutting off water for non-payment, with community activist Qaba Mbola accusing the City of Cape Town of sending these households to the guillotine and “sentencing them to death”.

This article was produced by Spotlight, an online publication monitoring South Africa’s response to TB and HI



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