/Mbhazima Shilowa | It will be disastrous if people survive Covid-19 but succumb to hunger

Mbhazima Shilowa | It will be disastrous if people survive Covid-19 but succumb to hunger

2020-04-16 14:34

This is not the time for petty politics. Vigilance yes, but put your money where your mouth is, writes Mbhazima Shilowa.

Ever since the president announced the national state of disaster and the subsequent lockdown, political parties have worked together to ensure that our country overcomes the devastating effects of Covid-19 and its impact on the economy.

This is a welcome development. Obviously, this does not mean there will be no differences in their approaches or emphasis. But there will be a single message on why the national state of disaster and the lockdown have been declared.

As we move to the next challenge of how to get the economy going after the lockdown has ended  albeit gradually, be it in provinces or specific sectors of the economy – it would appear political parties are feeding their inputs to government. And government is likely to make an announcement in due course.

While there has been media focus on the DA’s working document, other parties have also made public some suggestions about social solidarity, the resources needed to cushion the poor, small businesses, workers, as well as steps needed to safeguard the economy. We all agree the economy is in the doldrums and is likely to be in that situation for many more years to come.

The unity of purpose has been taken a step further with the IFP, DA and EFF responding the president’s call for a contribution to the Solidarity Fund. Just as the president, Cabinet, provincial governments and MECs have pledged a third of their salaries over the next three months, they too have followed suit.

The ANC, however, has been silent on this matter. Its chief whip has instead called for a meeting of the chief whips to decide on the matter.

Why the ANC caucus needs the consent of the chief whips is beyond me. Here is a party whose president has made the call. It’s like they do not support the call and are hiding behind parliamentary processes.

The rest of the parties seem to hide behind the possibility of corruption in the distribution of the fund, with the Freedom Front citing BEE considerations in the distribution of the fund.

This is hogwash as the chairperson of the fund Gloria Serobe and its Interim CEO Nomkhita Nqweni have indicated there will be no “middlemen” as they will buy the necessary equipment directly and distribute it to health workers and communities.

They seem to confuse the funds earmarked by government for small businesses, with the Solidarity Fund. In any case, as has been the case with some foundations, they could indicate what the funds should be used for and insist on audited accounts.

This is not the time for petty politics. Vigilance yes, but put your money where your mouth is.

The cohesion of political parties seems to be in jeopardy as a number of ANC public representatives have been seen distributing food parcels, most of which was allegedly commandeered from the social development department.

Not only does it undo the work of the president and his message of working together, it brings party politics into the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

The message now seems to be you will die of hunger or will receive support if you are close to the local big honchos of the ruling party.

As if this was not enough, the premier of Mpumalanga, yes, that one who has been invincible during the campaign against Covid-19, has been distributing sanitiser buckets with her face and message of Mpumalanga cares and so do I.

No other province or premier has been as daring as she has been, and unless the national government brings her to order we are likely to see other parties doing the same.

This week the minister of health gave a comprehensive briefing on the government’s response to Covid-19. This gave the country a glimpse into the empirical evidence that informed government’s decisions to declare the national state of disaster and lockdown.

What is missing, and has been from the beginning, is a financial package by Treasury beyond the pledges based on re-prioritisation by departments and the steps taken by SA Revenue Service (SARS), the SA Reserve Bank (SARB) and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC).
Hopefully Cabinet will discuss this and a package will be announced by the president before the end of the week.

There have been calls for bold steps, including a revised budget as well as social assistance to the poor and those who are unemployed and excluded from the UIF. The UIF only assists employed workers who lose their jobs and, in this instance, those who are not earning anything due to the national lockdown.

Already a number of communities in the Western Cape have been protesting, calling on government to assist with food parcels. It is inevitable that a basic income grant, even if temporary for say six months, must be considered.

With schools closed and children relying solely on getting nutrition at home but not getting it, the problem is likely to get worse. It will be disastrous if people were to survive the pandemic but succumb to hunger.

The challenge is where to find the money. Obviously the first call will have to be the fiscus, but with the economy in lockdown, there is very little that is likely to come from there.

All eyes will be on the Reserve Bank, depending on policy positions arrived at by government and financial institutions (including private and international institutions), provided there are no conditionalities that undermine our national sovereignty.
The time is now to recalibrate our budget from structural reform to structural transformation. It may even be the time to reconsider zero budgeting, especially for social services such as health, education, social welfare and the police.

It is ironic that in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown doctors, nurses, social welfare workers and the police have not received their increases. These are the people who are at the forefront of the battle against Covid-19 while many of us are at home.

Added to this is the likely demise of SAA, which will put close to 10 000 workers out of employment. This excludes those who will lose jobs as factories and small businesses fold.

Regarding outside funding, the debate will be whether to take advantage of the offers of assistance by international institutions, especially the Internation Monetary Fund and World Bank, who are notorious for insistence on structural adjustments. It would appear though that this would apply to normal funding for budget shortfalls, and not for a pandemic, such as the one we are currently facing.

It will be folly to reject funding for Covid-19 offered by various development institutions based on ideological considerations and not on any attached conditions. In that case, we may have to look elsewhere or internally.

Unfortunately our finance minister is not known for boldness but rather traditional methods. Maybe just as the president has stepped up to the plate during this time, he too will surprise us and take bold measures to fire up the economy. Failure to do so will be akin to fiddling while Rome burns.

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