Lockdown cuts off livelihoods for the poor



MASERU – The current lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19 and the disruption it has brought to every section of society, is hitting poor households and the vulnerable groups particularly hard. Social Development Minister, Motlohi Maliehe, told Public Eye yesterday that while the lockdown was a necessary evil, the damage to the poorest citizens was enormous.

Maliehe said the government has the responsibility to protect the health and well-being of the population endangered by the outbreak of coronavirus, but admitted the lockdown will leave people more vulnerable and the self-employed stranded. He said the lockdown had already disproportionately hurt marginalised communities due to loss of income and lack of food and other basic needs.

“Government has adopted measures to urgently protect the country’s poorest and most vulnerable. We expect the number of the most vulnerable to increase and we are tirelessly preparing for that so that we can give our people social assistance”, he said. On Wednesday last week, Prime Minister Motsoahae Thabane announced a preventive nationwide lockdown for 21 days, one of the strongest national measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The lockdown started at midnight on Sunday.

During lockdown, citizens are not allowed to leave their homes except to procure essential goods and services, which excludes the purchase of alcohol and cigarettes. People are being asked to socially distance themselves from others. For the poor and the vulnerable, this is a crisis of enormous proportions as they struggle to strike the balance between vigilance to avoid infection and the need to maintain some normalcy in their lives.

It is no surprise that some of the lockdown restrictions were being widely violated on the very first day, a day which was marred by violence attributed to police and soldiers enforcing the emergency regulations on the streets. Tanki Mathibelle who earns a living by washing parked cars on the sides of big streets in Maseru, told Public Eye that going out of his house was not about disobedience but about the difficulty of complying.

“I wash cars in town. With the little that I make, I am able to buy food. I have to wash a car so that I can have breakfast, wash another to buy lunch. With the little that I saved during the day, I buy supper when I go home and the following morning, I have to start from scratch,” Mathibelle said. Khotso Tšele is self-employed and lives from home to mouth. Tšele told Public Eye that he sells food at the bus stop area in Maseru and lives at Ha Thetsane. He said the lockdown had taken away his daily income.

“We understand and appreciate the importance of keeping safe by staying at home. I personally know the virus is killing hundreds of people each day. I have complied with the lockdown regulations because I know the lockdown needs to happen but it is proving difficult for my livelihood,” he said. For those who are educated and employed by big organisations with uninterrupted salaries, the lockdown is more like a vacation.

“They are still going to get paid their full salaries despite staying at home and watching television all day. Some of us do not even have those televisions and radios. If you stay alone in a single room without TV and radio like myself, what do you do? You start overthinking; the measures are going to place stress on us,” he said. On Monday this week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called on countries to develop policies that will provide economic protections for people who cannot earn or work during lockdowns.

“I grew up poor and understand this reality. I call on countries to develop policies which provide economic protections for people who cannot earn or work amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ghebreyesus said. He added: “People without regular incomes or any financial cushion deserve social policies that ensure dignity and enable them to comply with COVID-19 public health measures advised by the health authorities and WHO.”

In Lesotho, poverty remains widespread with nearly half of the population living in poverty and 75 percent of the population either poor or vulnerable to poverty, according to a joint report by the World Bank and the Lesotho Bureau of Statistics released in December last year. A profile of the country’s poor shows that poverty levels are highest among female-headed households, the less educated, the unemployed, large families and children. Lesotho’s vulnerability situation has worsened lately due to high rates of unemployment, climate change, poverty, inequality, and HIV/AIDS.

Destitution has increased among men, women and children. According to the National Strategic Development Plan (NSDP) II, people living with disabilities due to illness are reported to be around 45 607 and the number of elderly people (60 years and above) is reported to be around 171 742. The number of double orphans, in 124,485 households, is reported to have declined from 221 403 in 2006 to 210 712 in 2016.

Maliehe told Public Eye yesterday that the social development ministry expects the number of vulnerable people to increase after the lockdown. “More people will need social assistance. Currently we have 41 000 households across the country which receive social grants from government. We anticipate that number to rise to above 50 000 after the lockdown.” he said.

“Our ministry has already briefed cabinet about this situation. We are budgeting for that and are also in consultation with our development partners that they should come forward to help us when we need their assistance,” he added. In Rwanda, the government has formulated a social protection plan for the delivery of free food to at least 20 000 households in the capital Kigali, during lockdown.

The door-to-door delivery is meant to mitigate the impact of a lockdown implemented in that country on March 21, as Rwandan president Paul Kagame has acknowledged that people’s livelihoods had been affected. Kagame said the social protection plan would support the most vulnerable in communities. He said he also planned to provide essential services such as supply of water and electricity for free.

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