Words and pictures by Rod McGregor
For the healthy, strong and privileged, the COVID19 enforced lock-down may not be much more than an inconvenient over-bingeing of streaming services or box sets, social distancing and comfortable self-isolation. For shack dwellers in rural and urban townships in South Africa it is yet another bitter slice of the misery layer cake.
There is no space. No stock piled cupboards. No casual work. No income, except for meagre monthly government grants of less than a hundred pounds for pensioners and less for mothers with children. It is a perfect storm for a population that has the largest percentage of tuberculosis and HIV/Aids anywhere: a defenceless community with the most weakened immune system on Earth.
There is a grandmother I came across. I’ll call her Sisi, you wouldn’t be able to pronounce her Xhosa name. She cares for her family of Aids orphans with her monthly grant and child care allowance. Sisi lives in the Eastern Cape province in a very rural area. She is un-banked and lives far from the nearest town. To access her payments Sisi must meet up with a government pay-point truck in a field close to her home. The truck carries an ATM which dispenses the grant money to all the villagers like Sisi. They have to come in person as they each must prove their identity, biometrically, by placing their fingers in a fingerprint scanner. The desperately aged and the crippled have to join the queue at all costs, even if it means being dragged to the field in a wheelbarrow.
This week, with the now SA government-announced lock-down for every citizen, Sisi and those just like her have learned that they must still present themselves in a queue at the pay-point truck field; later they will still have to risk being crammed into a shared mini-bus taxi to get to the nearest town to buy food. Social distancing in the queue, the taxi, in the shop is not an option.
So the question that hovers in the air, unspoken on many lips: what will happen when the old and highly vulnerable grant beneficiaries succumb to this scourge? This virus? What will their dependants do? How will they survive?
In the urban townships things are equally bleak. In ordinary times the unemployed can hustle; garner some scrap metal, gather paper, cardboard and plastic bottles for recycling. In a lock-down they will be locked up. Locked away from the faintest chance of scratching up the price of a loaf of bread.
Even those who have been earning a wage are very unlikely to have any savings to tide them over.
With some recognition of the urgency of this situation, the country’s president Ramaphosa has launched an appeal for any who are able, to donate to what is undoubtedly a disaster relief fund in its truest sense.
Mighty magnates have already pledged their billions, while ordinary South Africans in their thousands have added to this pool.
But can this relief get to Sisi in time? The race is on and all the odds are stacked against. At this moment. There is no good news.