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Covid-19 rules that ignored reality of shack dwellers’ lives come under fire

Dave Chambers Cape Town bureau chief
Homes in Booysens shack settlement, a densely populated area in the south of Johannesburg, are typical of those where occupants found it difficult to comply with social-distancing regulations.
Homes in Booysens shack settlement, a densely populated area in the south of Johannesburg, are typical of those where occupants found it difficult to comply with social-distancing regulations.
Image: James Oatway/New Frame

Lockdown regulations that ignored the living conditions of shack dwellers were “astonishing”, according to a new analysis.

It said the adoption of a universal approach to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social-distancing “failed to acknowledge the unequal distribution of their impracticability, costs and consequences in one of the world’s most unequal societies”.

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) team behind the research said the approach demonstrated the “limited awareness and understanding of those in authority concerning the day-to-day lives of ‘ordinary’ people”.

George Ellison
George Ellison
Image: LinkedIn

George Ellison and colleagues from UJ's academic development and support division had access to unreleased SA data from the latest Afrobarometer survey, conducted in 1,381 households in May and June 2021.

Reporting their findings in a preprint that has not yet been peer-reviewed, they said respondents living in shacks were much more likely to say they had not been able to comply with lockdown restrictions or had found it difficult to do so.

Many of them did not have access to an indoor toilet, for example, and had to mingle with neighbours while making their way to communal toilets.

“There is little evidence that the SA authorities sought to work with them to develop alternatives to lockdown restrictions that are at best impracticable and at worst punitive for those who rely on casual, flexible, informal and opportunistic sources of in-person (as opposed to virtual or online) work,” said Ellison and his colleagues.

This also applied to “those living in contexts where space is at a premium, and where access to clean water, toilet facilities and food necessitate levels of social interaction that require them to breach such restrictions”.

The researchers added: “It is frankly astonishing that the constraints these households face were overlooked.

“The extraordinary disconnect between what policymakers expect and what shack dwellers can achieve has led to withering attacks on SA’s emergency response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Among these critics were those who acknowledged the need to impose short-term emergency measures to delay the spread of disease, but who argued that these should only be used to buy the time required to better understand the biology and epidemiology of this new disease.”

The critics also criticised the economic and social costs of non-pharmaceutical interventions and the assumption that everyone was able to comply.

"'Flattening the curve’ to protect finite health services (also) makes little sense and may even be inequitable in contexts or communities where these services were already inaccessible or had little to offer before the pandemic struck,” said Ellison. 

“Hindsight is a cruel teacher, and it is all too easy to forget the uncertainty, anxiety, confusion and wild speculation that accompanied the onset of the pandemic.

“Yet many of these concerns were raised at the very time policymakers were adopting draconian measures while candidly admitting an astonishing degree of uncertainty.”

The researchers said stratified policies — such as those that are means-tested — “may often be the only way to ensure that those with limited capacity to cope with restrictive regulations receive additional support to ensure they can comply”.

TimesLIVE


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