Coronavirus burden falls heavily on the poor

Image: 123RF/Jarun Ontakrai

True, the virus does not respect borders. Nor does it respect social classes.

And that is why the decision to close schools is going to be disastrous for the poor.

Here’s the deal. When political leaders make dramatic decisions about Covid-19, they work with middle- class sensibilities.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the decision to close schools.

When a middle-class primary school shuts down in response to presidential decree, there are  “maids” to collect them from school and look after them at home.

A car-share arrangement with other middle-class parents normally takes the children home after school.

There is food to eat at home and all kinds of distractions to “keep them busy”.

A well-known South African celebrity tweeted this week: “The children’s school has just informed us that the curriculum will be e-mailed to us and put on the school app.”

In elite schools, it is easy to make the switch to online learning should the shutdown continue for weeks or even months.

Most South African children are working class and poor.

When a school closes down for whatever reason, there is immediate consternation for the parents.

There is nobody at home to care for the child.

This makes children vulnerable to all kinds of dangers, including everyday violence and opportunistic predators.

Poor children go to school for two main reasons — to learn and to eat.

Anybody visiting a rural or township school will see large cooking pots on the grounds to sustain the children.

In fact, every day 8.8-million children in quintile 1-3 schools depend on a cooked meal for lunch.

Going home or staying at home will mean going hungry especially when the decision to close a school happens suddenly without the ability to make arrangements in advance.

Schools for the poor therefore have another function — to contain children while parents work.

Now there is the added problem that if the parent leaves work to care for or collect a child, wages are docked for time away.

Yes of course, the virus makes a compelling case for life. Better a living child than a dead one.

But those calculations work differently for the desperate than for those with middle-class options.

Poor parents are forced to take everyday risks that raise the eyebrows of the middle classes — like allowing your child to get  into a hopelessly overcrowded taxi just so  they can get to school.

Once again, easy to judge when you have options.

The poor can only hope and pray that that child makes it to school and back safely because that is all they can afford.

The president was not speaking to the majority of South Africans when he made the necessary decision to close down education facilities.

If he did, this question would have been addressed — what is the support system for poor and working parents if their children’s schools  are suddenly closed?

This is not a case for keeping the schools open, but an argument for a stronger social network that supports the most vulnerable in our communities.

What this school scenario indicates is that we are likely to pay a heavy price for the deep and unresolved inequalities in our society.

This virus will wreak havoc in informal settlements, where it makes no sense to tell people to stay indoors under dangerous conditions for an infection rate that grows exponentially.

There is a precedent for this prediction — tuberculosis.

Where TB spreads fastest is where people are cramped together in homes with poor ventilation among humans with compromised immune systems

It will take a brave epidemiologist who predicts the “flattening of the right-hand curve” of infections with a confidence that does not take into account our pre-existing socioeconomic conditions, to coin a phrase.

This, however, is mathematics and not management.

The president is therefore correct to require drastic actions that can limit the national trend with respect to infections.

Make no mistake, however, the burden of this disease will be higher on the poor because of ingrained inequalities in society.

What can be done?

To begin with, we need to share the burden that Covid-19 will impose on communities.

Do not require your domestic staff to come to work because you are putting them at risk with congested travel conditions.

You are also pulling them away from caring for their own families.

Then, paying your workers for this is the only way they can survive while remaining at home.

What the government can do is help schools to develop out-of-school learning opportunities for children of the poor.

Forget 4IR, it was and still is a distraction when it comes to basic literacy and numeracy for children of the poor.

What kinds of basic material support can be given for children to learn from home?

After all, there will be more epidemics that close down schools in the future.