The COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented pressures on governments, economies, and families, posing what many observers consider the largest global peace-time challenge since the Great Depression a century ago (Goodman, 2020; Rogoff, 2020). In South Africa, the government moved swiftly after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was recorded on 5 March (Mkhize, 2020), turning away arrivals from countries considered high risk (Fabricius & du Plessis, 2020). By 27 March, a national lockdown required South Africans to stay at home except for essential food shopping and medical appointments. Security forces were mobilized to enforce the lockdown (Mahlati, 2020; South African Presidency, 2020).
To date, the South African measures appear to have been successful in slowing the spread of the virus, and have been lauded internationally (Brandt, 2020; Harding, 2020; Nordling, 2020). But they have also highlighted the challenges and costs of a lockdown, especially for the poor (New Humanitarian, 2020).
This dispatch looks at the lived realities of ordinary South Africans in terms of how easily they are able to stay at home and stay safe. Afrobarometer survey findings from 2018 suggest the country entered the COVID-19 era with large disparities in access to essential services, such as water, toilets, markets, and banks. Many citizens, especially the economically disadvantaged, are forced to leave their homes and compounds to access water and toilets, thereby placing themselves and others at risk of contracting or spreading the virus. Many also lack the resources to work from home, stay informed, seek help, and educate their children online.
In principle, South Africans are less supportive of government restrictions on free movement than most other Africans. And in enforcing COVID-19 restrictions, the army faces significant popular distrust and doubts about its professionalism and respect for the rights of all citizens.