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Covid fallout: Vulnerability and signs of recovery in Gauteng

- Gauteng City-Region Observatory

There is no doubt about the enormous scale of the shocks South Africa has experienced over 2020-21.

New survey results launched on 9 September by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) reveal just how much socioeconomic fallout the Covid-19 pandemic has caused for Gauteng. A full 11% of all adults in the province have lost a job since March 2020, while 4% were forced to permanently close a business. Of those who lost a job or closed a business, only 44% subsequently found new employment. There are, however, also indications of positive responses from both the government and society as a whole. Almost one quarter of households in Gauteng included an adult who received the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant, while 13% received food support, while levels of community trust have risen dramatically. 

These numbers from the GCRO’s sixth Quality of Life Survey capture contradictory household experiences of what is undoubtedly an epoch-defining moment in our history. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought two new kinds of threat to survival. First, the virus itself has caused enormous loss of life. At the time of writing excess deaths across South Africa stood at about 250,000 since the start of the pandemic, and these continue to grow at more than 5,000 each week.

Second, large parts of the economy and society have been constrained or suspended altogether. Ordinarily people survive and thrive in cities precisely because urban living enables them to move around and interact. While no doubt a necessary response to the public health shock of Covid-19, the injunction to stay at home has triggered extensive socioeconomic shocks. Jobs have been whacked, along with education and many urban amenities – including local libraries, restaurants and train services – that we used to take for granted. As we all understand well, these health and socioeconomic shocks landed in a context where the ability of a significant portion of the population to survive was already extremely precarious.

When societies are hit by an unexpected shock – drought, flood, earthquake or pandemic – households may be cut off from their means of survival. Those that have something to fall back on – savings, social networks, a “plan b” – can absorb shocks and re-establish themselves once it is possible. Since poor households typically have very little to fall back on they are vulnerable, and may not be able to make it to the other side of the crisis without help. In such contexts, it cannot be expected of all households to be independently resilient. Instead, responsibility for the resilience of individuals is in the hands of society at large, through its ability to provide the means of survival to the vulnerable. As we pick up the pieces from the crisis, we need to ask hard questions about whether we have done enough to ensure both individual and collective resilience, and what other mechanisms could be established for a better post-crisis future. To answer these questions we need more nuanced insights into how different kinds of households and parts of society have been differentially affected in the crisis. Here, data from large-scale socioeconomic and attitudinal surveys can be crucial.

From October 2020 to May 2021, Quality of Life Survey fieldworkers visited each of the province’s 529 wards, interviewing a total of 13,616 adults who were carefully sampled to be representative of the inhabitants of the province. Comparing these results to those from the five previous surveys in this series allows us to see both continuities and changes in the wake of the pandemic. The survey is wide ranging, with more than 200 questions on a wide variety of topics, providing evidence of the multidimensional knocks the province has taken over the past year. 

First, the survey results show the ways in which everyday behaviour in Gauteng has changed since the arrival of Covid-19. For example, nine out of 10 respondents stated that their households had avoided public spaces and gatherings. One-third of households changed where or how they bought groceries. Trips out of the home are now less likely to be for work, and are more likely to be shorter than in the past. Some changes, initially required by regulations, did not snap back immediately to pre-pandemic norms once regulations were lifted. For example, two-fifths of households with children kept them away from school even after they were allowed to return.

The impact of children being kept out of school is compounded in many of these households by limited access to home internet and computers. Three out of every five households with children under the age of 18 do not have a working computer, and four out of every five of these households do not have a home internet connection. This would have severely constrained options for children’s learning at home, even though families and schools have adapted in different ways to learning and teaching in the pandemic. School closures and the health crisis in general have also disproportionately impacted women, 40% of whom spent more time than usual looking after children or other family members since March 2020, compared with only 18% of men.

The survey shows the scale at which people lost work in Gauteng, whether due directly to lockdown restrictions, or a more general loss of demand. Over and above the 4% of all adults who had closed a business permanently, and the 11% who lost a job, 19% took a cut in salary and working hours since March 2020. Importantly, of those who had lost a job or closed a business, 50% have been unable to find new work, and 7% have dropped out of the labour market altogether. However, white respondents, and those with higher levels of formal education, were notably more likely to have found new jobs than black African respondents, or those with lower levels of education. This provides a stark example of the differential ability of people to “bounce back” from shocks.

Other variables also illustrate the variations inability to cope, with some households and individuals more vulnerable than others. For example, the percentage of low-income respondents who recently missed a debt repayment went up, while the percentage of high-income earners who missed a debt repayment decreased. 

In a context where the proportion of Gauteng’s households living below the average poverty line has risen to 36%, from 25% in 2017/18 (the last time the Quality of Life Survey was run), how have vulnerable households been able to survive? Here the role of the state is crucial, not only in continuing to provide the infrastructure and services that make urban life possible, but also through safety nets to help households meet their needs in the absence of sufficient work. In total, almost half of all Gauteng respondents (48%) said that someone in their household received a social grant of some kind. This was up from 42% in 2017/18. In May 2020, the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant was introduced for people who were unemployed. Almost a quarter (23%) of survey respondents indicated that someone in their household was receiving this R350 grant. While grants are no doubt essential to those who receive them we should note that R350 is one-tenth the minimum wage, and as such is not a replacement for decently paid employment. 

We also see evidence of broader social support in the survey data. More than one in 10 respondents received food support, whether from the government or an NGO, since March 2020. Levels of community trust have increased substantially since 2017/18, continuing an upward trend from 2015/16. However, community trust levels remain notably lower for black African and coloured respondents than for Indian/Asian and white respondents. Participation in organised social activities such as church, stokvels or sport actually increased very slightly relative to 2017/18, despite lockdown regulations limiting in-person gatherings for much of 2020. Participation increased most substantially among individuals reporting extremely low household incomes, suggesting that these activities might have provided an element of support for Gauteng’s poor during the pandemic.

Despite various forms of support, results from the survey show that the pandemic has taken a toll on people’s physical and psychological wellbeing. Self-reported health, overall satisfaction with life, and mental health have all worsened relative to 2017/18. Using a screening tool for depression, our data show that 14% of Gauteng’s residents are at high risk of depression. This is an increase from 12% in 2017/18. Those who experienced at least one of the five economic impacts highlighted above are far more likely than the average to be at high risk of depression. Mental health services must be prioritised in Gauteng’s recovery, although the overburdened public healthcare system is struggling to cope with the pandemic, and even basic healthcare needs are going unmet: 7% of adults in Gauteng have struggled to access healthcare since March 2020, and more than 2% have been turned away when requesting a Covid-19 test.

Since the survey interviews were concluded in May 2021, Gauteng has experienced a particularly brutal third wave of Covid-19 infections and extreme civil unrest. Our data cannot reflect how these additional shocks have affected Gauteng’s residents. However, the results from the Quality of Life Survey 6 (2020/21) speak to the context in which these events occurred: one in which many more households are more broadly vulnerable, across multiple socioeconomic fronts. We can only anticipate that more recent events have intensified the vulnerability of many households.

Analyses of disasters show that shocks can set vulnerable households back well beyond the duration of the crisis itself. The fact that some households have been less able to cope with the multifaceted shocks triggered by Covid-19 underscores the importance of collective responses. As the geographer Neil Smith argued, it is not inevitable that some people should struggle to survive – to leave vulnerable people stranded is a societal choice. Given the reach achieved through social grants, and the fairly widespread provision of food support, there is no doubt that positive steps have been taken. These measures have gone at least some way in helping vulnerable households and individuals survive. But looking back we can ask whether additional support might not have softened the blows for the many still not coping. And looking to a post-crisis future we need to consider seriously how we might institutionalise systems of care for those who have been disproportionately affected, and are unable to achieve resilience on their own.

The writers are with the Gauteng City-Region Observatory: Dr Richard Ballard (specialist researcher); Dr Julia de Kadt (senior researcher); Graeme Gotz (director of research strategy); Christian Hamann (researcher); Sthembiso Pollen Mkhize (research intern); Yashena Naidoo (junior researcher); Dr Alexandra Parker (senior researcher); Rashid Seedat (Executive Director).

This article was first published in the Daily Maverick.