COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an increase in starvation in South Africa

The recent political and social unrest in parts of South Africa have once again highlighted the country’s profound structural problems. These include the high level of poverty for an upper-middle-income country, largely due to extreme income inequality, meaning that a large part of the population is much poorer than the average, and massive unemployment.

Hunger is another feature of South Africa’s inequality that has become relevant in the current socio-political climate. Hunger is of course subjective, but questions about hunger are often used in short surveys to measure respondents’ nutritional situation. Many commentators have cited this as one of the underlying causes of the unrest. We are not suggesting that hunger is the cause of the current social unrest. But, along with other deeply rooted structural inequalities, it provides additional fuel for sociopolitical fires.

We recently examined hunger in times of COVID-19 as part of the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM). This nationwide representative panel survey of 7,000 South Africans aimed to provide quick data on key outcomes such as unemployment, household income, child hunger and access to government grants.

Our research was published as a working paper based on the survey published in early July. Our results suggest that hunger and food insecurity – the interruption in eating or eating habits due to lack of money and other resources – have increased in South Africa due to the pandemic. In 2019, just before the outbreak, a national household survey found that 11% of households went hungry in the past year. The most recent NIDS-CRAM survey found that 15% of respondents experienced this in the week before the survey.

This increase followed a period of nearly 20 years during which hunger levels declined. The introduction of child benefit in 1998 was a major reason for South Africa’s progress. The data for the period 2002 to 2019 showed a halving of hunger in both children and adults.

But even though hunger had decreased, food quality remained a major problem. This is shown by the fact that the growth retardation remained higher.

While the introduction of child benefit and moderate economic growth in the early 2000s caused the decline in hunger, that decline slowed after the 2008 financial recession.

The economic shock caused by the pandemic and lockdowns dramatically changed the situation and reversed the decline. In addition, the NIDS-CRAM surveys showed that hunger now appears to have stabilized at a new level.

Track effects

The NIDS-CRAM study was introduced to meet the need for nationally representative data on the socio-economic situation of South Africans. It was carried out by telephone in all 11 official languages ​​of the country, with a largely nationally representative sample being interviewed five times.

This gave the researchers a perspective on changing circumstances at a time of great volatility. The survey met a particular need for current and nationally representative data for the political process in times of crisis.

The panel survey tried five times to reach the same respondents. The first interviews took place in May and June 2020, shortly after a tough lockdown was introduced.

Respondents in each of the interview series were asked questions about hunger in the seven days prior to the interviews and whether they had had enough money to eat in the month prior to the interviews. This gave us an insight into the change in the situation of the respondents and their households.

In all five surveys, we found that hunger was higher than before the first lockdown.

Initially, during the initial interviews, many of the respondents stated that they had run out of money for food, but fewer households were affected by hunger. This could suggest that some households have managed to make ends meet somehow, at least to alleviate hunger. In the second data collection period in July and August, we saw some improvement after the first hard lockdown was over. This was due to the partial economic recovery, the increase in existing social benefits and the introduction of the new social assistance grant and the temporary employer-employee assistance program.

Food aid from the government, NGOs, and religious and community organizations also helped.

But these positive effects did not last.

Very hungry

As the following figure shows, food insecurity regarding not enough money for food has decreased since the initial lockdown. It was significantly lower in March 2021 than in April 2020. The initially sharp decline was also reflected in household and child hunger.

This was likely due to some improvement in the economy, but also to the government’s decision to top up the grants, the introduction of new grants and other support measures.

The authors’ own calculations from NIDS-CRAM data.

In more recent interviews in our study, there has been a decline in households running out of money for food – but not a decline in hunger.

Underlying factors

To cope with national debt and prioritize public health spending, the government began phasing out emergency aid and social security from October 2020.

All forms of emergency aid were discontinued by the end of April 2021. The below-inflationary welfare increases in April 2021 also diminished their value. This has been accompanied by a decline in food aid to poor households provided by governments, NGOs and community support systems.

The National School Nutrition Program is not operational in many parts of the country. This weakened the safety net. Millions of people became penniless while unemployment rose.

Despite the low monetary value of the Social Welfare Allowance (R350, or about $ 24 a month), temporary access was expanded to include nearly 6 million unemployed people who were not eligible for Unemployment Benefit and Temporary Employer Assistance Scheme. These services were discontinued at the end of April 2021.

Researchers estimate that without the special emergency grant, poverty in the poorest households would have been 5% higher and income inequality between 1.3% and 6.3% higher in the past 12 months. In addition, the scholarship increased the likelihood of looking for a job by 25 percentage points.

These underlying factors could explain much of the frustration that is being expressed in communities across the country. It also shows that social protection and emergency aid can have important stabilizing effects on families and communities.

Without these measures, hunger would undoubtedly have been worse, with possible long-term consequences for child development and social cohesion.

Grace Bridgman, a PhD student at Stellenbosch University specializing in spatial inequality, child hunger and development economics, was part of the research team.

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