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SA faces devastating multiple social impact

- William Gumede

Government urgently needs an integrated Covid-19 response to deal with mental illness, violence and crime.

South Africa urgently needs to put in place mechanisms not only to deal with the devastating social impact of Covid-19, whether from the trauma from the economic fallout from the virus, the mass loss of human lives and the effect of “cabin fever” from the lockdowns.

Record numbers of people will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD cases), the combination of stress, anxiety and depression that develops in some people who have experienced a terrifying event. It is very likely that the incidents of suicides are likely to jump, in a country with already high suicide rates. South Africa has the eighth highest rate of suicide in the world, with around eight thousand people committing suicide every year, meaning it is the third biggest cause of unnatural death after homicide and unintentional reasons.

Mental illness are likely to increase because of the financial stress, anxiety and self-isolation. The reality of possible illness or death surrounding us – and the possibility of becoming a victim can cause profound anxiety, depression and unease. The last World Health Organisation mental health survey of South Africa estimated that 30% of South Africans will suffer from a mental disorder over the course of their lifetime. It is very likely that Covid-19 pandemic will increase these figures.

Violence, whether in families, on the roads, workplaces, educational institutions and in communities are going is likely to rise. There has been a terrifying rise in domestic violence and abuse against women and children.  There will be a rise in marriage breakdowns. Drug and alcohol abuse will soar. Familicide, murder-suicide or murder in which a person kills multiple close family, whether spouses, children and relatives are likely to increase also.

Crime levels in South Africa is likely to increase to even higher levels, whether robbery, housebreaking and cash-in-transit heists. The prolonged lockdown, with many young people in townships and informal settlements being idle, may see an increase in teenage pregnancies, not unlike the spike seen in the 1980s State of Emergencies. The disruption in the school year, may also mean that many in public schools will drop out of the schooling system, in ways black youth dropped out of school during the 1980s State of Emergencies. South Africa may see another Lost Generation of public school dropouts, unless there is an urgent intervention by government, civil society and communities.

As Covid-19 rages, many South Africans with other illnesses are either not seeking medical help; or not getting attention – as the hospitals are turned into Covid-19 treatment theatres. This means that many South Africans may die of non-Covid-19 related causes. Unless government get food to the needy and to schoolchildren large numbers may die from starvation, malnutrition and related illnesses.

Gangsterism is already on the rise. In the despair because of lack of income, food and government failure, ganglords in many townships have now become the providers of food, money and help to the needy. There is likely going to be a rise in corruption too.

If the state fails to deliver an effective Covid-19 strategy, there will be a rise in violent social protests. Populism will rise – as opportunists will try to exploit hardships for self-enrichment. There are likely going to be a rise in tribalism also, as people seek refuge in tribal solidarity, to, given a failing state, to deal with their hardships. There are likely going to be a rise in blaming outsiders. This means we will see a rise in xenophobia too. Racial tensions may rise, and with it incidents of racism and accusations of racism rising too.

Government urgently needs an integrated Covid-19 response which must include plans to overcome the potentially devastating multiple social impact of Covid-19.  Covid-19 business, unemployment and basic income grants must reach the needy in time. The Covid-19 social grant should be extended beyond the Covid-19 period. Social grants could be linked to training, civic work in critical areas such as crime prevention, supporting vulnerable families and children and community cleaning. 

The army may have to remain in townships for some time beyond the Covid-19 pandemic to tackle crime, violence and social breakdown.

Government, business and individuals must behave honestly during this crisis and beyond. All South Africans must support individuals not on racial solidarity, but on honesty, values and competence. We need new levels of civic solidarity, which goes across race, class and political party. Individuals will have to reach out to vulnerable neighbours, friends and family, to provide support, connection and companionship. Schools, religious and community organisations must reach to vulnerable members, individuals and groups.

Those who can should prioritise self-wellness, self-care and healthy living. Companies will have to invest in employee wellness as the fear, anxiety and powerlessness associated with Covid-19 and the lockdown “cabin fever”, cause symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress syndrome in many, which could potentially undermine employee productivity. 

Civil society is going to be crucial in softening the social impact of Covid-19. Currently, no provision has been made in the government’s Covid-19 emergency stimulus or by private sector solidarity funds to support non-profit civil society organisations, which includes charities, community-based organisations and civil movements.

Civil society groups should help co-deliver public and basic services in communities – from tackling gangsterism, combating gender-based violence and fostering community-building programmes to keep crime down and supporting the vulnerable.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand; and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). This article was published in the Sunday Times.