South Africa’s Response to COVID-19 Compared

South Africa’s Response to COVID-19 Compared

Jaco Oelofsen | AIDC Economic Justice Programme | 21 May 2020

This is a short excerpt from a brief study conducted by the AIDC, to read the report in full click here

South Africa’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been both lauded and condemned; while some have praised the speed and intensity of the response, others have rightfully pointed out the catastrophic impact it has had on the working class and the economy. Unfortunately, the debate has largely been framed in terms of a single dichotomy: lockdown versus open up. This dichotomy asks us to choose between the lesser of two known evils: the overflowing hospitals of the United States and Italy, or the starvation and police brutality of lockdown South Africa.    

It is not only the lockdown’s many failures that have led to the popularity of re-opening the country; but also the inability to imagine a successful lockdown, one that can avoid these failures. The government’s stimulus and relief package, amounting to 10% of GDP when including budget reallocations and debt restructuring, seems to have had little impact beyond serving as the final nail in the coffin of the “lockdown camp”. Those who are eager to reopen the economy can now point at the R500bn stimulus and say “We could barely afford this and it still has not helped us, let’s open up.” 

However, by looking at the response and relief measures taken by other countries, we can see that the problem with South Africa’s COVID-19 response is not that there isn’t enough money or resources to make it work. It is instead a problem of priorities, one betraying a deep-seated unwillingness to stray from its script even in a time of crisis. This brief study will discuss South Africa’s COVID-19 response in relation to similarly-resourced countries, with a specific focus on ways in which the stimulus package and emergency measures have fallen short of those instituted by other countries.

§1 – South Africa’s COVID-19 Response:


Epidemiological Timeline:


South Africa received its first case on March 3rd. On March 15th, the first local transmissions were announced and a state of disaster declared. On March 23rd, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national lockdown beginning at midnight on March 27th, ending April 16th. On April 9th, St. Augustine’s hospital in Durban was closed due to an extensive outbreak on the premises, and the national lockdown was extended to the end of the month. A stimulus package was announced on April 21st, and lockdown moved to level four on May 1st. The final week of April saw the beginning of a significant upward swing in the number of confirmed cases, and there is reason to believe that the outbreak is now about to begin in full, especially in the Western Cape.

General Restrictions: The initial state of disaster regulations, implemented on March 15th and expanded on March 18th, was an attempt to      contain the spread of the virus     . Many points of entry to the nation were closed, travel to and from high risk countries was suspended, schools were closed, and many universities either closed or suspended classes. Limitations were put in place on gatherings, and bars or other places selling liquor were to be closed at 6pm.

Of course, these initial regulations proved insufficient, and a national lockdown began on March 27th in acknowledgment of the fact that containment had failed. All gatherings except for funerals have been prohibited, and movement for non-essential personnel has been restricted to accessing health services, buying essential goods and services (EGS), collecting grants, attending funerals, and activities in support of essential services. All national points of entry have been closed for non-essential purposes. The lockdown is militarised and strictly enforced, with the state committing to deploying a total number of over 70,000 soldiers at a cost of R4.5bn.

As of lockdown, all businesses and entities are to cease “physical” operation, except for those involved in the manufacturing, supply, or provision of an essential good or service. EGS include:

  • Food, both human and animal
  • Healthcare
  • Hygiene products
  • Fuel, including wood and gas
  • Basic goods, including airtime and electricity
  • Hardware and components required by essential tradespeople for emergency repairs or those involved in the production and provision of essential services.
  • Retail stores, spaza shops and informal traders providing EGS, given that a permit has been acquired.
  • Gold and Coal mining and refining.
  • Other miscellaneous services, including many municipal and state functions and services.

The EGS supply chains are generally formalized and monitored, with each link in the chain requiring various degrees of formal approval and accounting measures, such as permits and lists of customers requiring essential services. In other words, each link in EGS chains needs to have the capacity to be entered into the bureaucracy of the state. One consequence of this is that the informal economy has disintegrated overnight, as most in the informal sector are obviously unable to obtain permits even if they do provide EGS. As up to 20% of all employment is in the informal sector, and most in this sector do not have savings, serious relief is required in order to avoid a looming economic and humanitarian disaster. The other upshot of this bureaucratization is that existing community care and aid networks are threatened, with many operating in a legal gray area.

On May 1st, the lockdown was lowered to a level four state. A few new economic sectors and retail items were added to the exemptions, and public transport was allowed to resume to a limited degree. In addition, a time slot was set aside for exercise, and one or two exceptions were added to the interprovincial movement restrictions.

The COVID-19 crisis and ensuing lockdown have predictably resulted in a catastrophic impact on the working class and unemployed. The various predictions of job losses from the crisis range from a best case 1.6 million (estimated by Nedbank), and a worst case 7 million (estimated by the Treasury). While exact numbers are difficult to obtain, it is safe to say that without adequate intervention, millions more South Africans will be unable to access basics like food and shelter in the coming months. This is especially true for those in the informal sector who do not have the UIF to appeal to; the below graph estimates decreases in income by up to 45% for informal worker households.

Calculated using NIDS 2017 by Bassier, Budlender, Leibbrandt, Ranchhod and Zizzamia.

To read the study in full click here.

Posted in AIDC, CoronaVirus
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  1. […] all but shut down. And this statistic is in line with those from an offline jobs published by the AIDC reporting on the income loss of informal worker […]

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