Pandemics, new initiatives, and social work

Food parcels waiting for collection. File photo

There is delight and appreciation from many sectors about the new initiatives announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on 21 April 2020 to address the socio-economic situation of South Africans. These initiatives focus, among others, on social relief and protection through grants for citizens who qualify for it, namely: 

-An increase in the child support grant of R300 for May and R500 from June to October.
-An increase of R250 per month for all other grants over the next six months.
-A new grant of R350 per month (a special Covid-19 social relief of distress grant) for the next six months to those who are unemployed and not receiving grants or UIF payments (who have no income).
-All other grant beneficiaries will receive an extra R250 per month for the next six months.

The vulnerable populations become more vulnerable

The South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) will implement a technology-based solution to roll out food assistance at scale through vouchers and cash transfers to ensure that help reaches those who need it faster and more efficiently. Furthermore, the Department of Social Development, in partnership with the Solidarity Fund, NGOs, and community-based organisations, will distribute 250 000 food parcels across the country over the next two weeks.

During a pandemic such as Covid-19, vulnerable populations, e.g. those who are unemployed, children, people with disabilities, and older adults become even more vulnerable as there is an increase of bio-psychosocial and economic problems due to the unpredictability of the disease. In South Africa, social grants aim to improve the standard of living of its citizens. Sections 24 to 29 of the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution recognise the socio-economic rights of citizens, including the right to social security. The government is obligated to realise these rights, meaning, “… the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of the right”. The new initiatives on social relief and protection of South Africans who qualify for social grants are therefore the correct manner to move forward for now. We are in the midst of a disaster requiring that attention should be paid to emergency measures, as peoples’ lives depend on drastic interventions.

Social problems will escalate

There is also apprehension about the initiatives that were announced. A question that needs to be addressed is, what and how after six months? What will be different? More dependency on the state is not a long-term solution for people. It is not financially sustainable and leads to disempowerment of communities. People will still struggle with unemployment and other social evils. My prediction is that social problems will escalate at a faster pace than during the previous decades. What measures can we take to put the poor and excluded in a better position to improve their lives – to empower them on a socio-economic level? Social workers are ready to do that – we are capable of what and how to do it, whether with individuals, families, groups and/or communities. Society has the right to ask social workers to step in and do what they have been trained to do. Unfortunately, to the detriment of society, many social workers are currently unemployed – a colleague of mine is working as a security guard. She has to work, because she is the sole breadwinner. My colleague has been trying to find work as a social worker since the end of 2016. 

Not the last pandemic

Social work positions are not being filled, whether it is at the Department of Social Development or private welfare organisations, because money is used in ways that are not conducive to the well-being and social welfare of the South African citizen. Almost 18 million people are currently beneficiaries of social grants. We have a population of 57 million. Make your calculations and support social workers to do the work they are capable of. 

This is not our last pandemic.
[i] Prof Sandra Ferreira, Head of the Department of Social Work and Coordinator: Postgraduate programme: MSW and PhD (SW) Faculty of Humanities.