Impact of COVID-19 on Poverty in South Africa
Nestled at the southernmost point of the African subcontinent, South Africa stands as a sparkling reminder of everything pristine. Known for its deep blue lakes, majestic peaks and picturesque landscape, South Africa is a country rich in natural beauty and cultural diversity. However, South Africa continues to face a persistent challenge in providing a decent standard of living for all of its citizens. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this situation and the country of South Africa has felt the pronounced impacts of COVID-19 on poverty nationwide. Here is some information about the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in South Africa.

Inequality in South Africa From the Pandemic

Inequality has long been a problem in South Africa, with a large portion of the population struggling to make ends meet even before the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2017 study found that approximately 18 million people, constituting the poorest 20% of households in the country, were living in dire conditions, with a disproportionate number of these households located in rural areas.

When COVID-19 arrived, these figures increased considerably. According to The Conversation, the bottom 10% of households lost nearly 45% of their income during the nationwide shutdowns, highlighting the pandemic’s devastating impact on the most vulnerable. The pandemic has not only affected the income of South Africa’s poorest households but also resulted in a major decline in employment. The country saw a net 40% drop in employment from February to April 2020, leading to widespread job losses. Estimates have indicated that 20% to 33% of those who lost their jobs during the lockdown period lost the majority of their income, with 3 million to 5.5 million individuals falling into poverty as a result. Despite attempts to implement relief programs, a staggering 80% of newly unemployed individuals did not receive any support whatsoever.

Effect on Education

In addition to its economic ramifications, the education sector in South Africa has also felt the tremors of COVID-19. The pandemic lockdowns in 2020 resulted in widespread school closures, with nearly all African academies remaining shuttered for a minimum of 100 days. As a result, estimates have stated that nearly 13 million young students fell behind on curriculum coverage and will now face severe skill deficiencies in the coming years.

While virtual learning was an option during this time, the vast majority of learners across rural South Africa did not have access to such luxuries. In fact, a study of 515 participants aged 15-24 across the nation found that only 34.7% of households had access to a laptop and only a mere 23.9% had internet access at home, according to Frontiers in Education.

Food Instability

Another key facet of the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in South Africa is food insecurity. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a devastating spike in food prices across the nation, disproportionately affecting the country’s poorest. In March 2020, when the entire country went into full lockdown, many informal food traders were unable to practice their trade. Considering that the informal sector accounts for some 70% of overall food sales in South Africa, this delivered a major blow to the food economy. When food traders stopped operating, travel costs increased exponentially for food and transport expenses for those who were still operating skyrocketed.


Fortunately, the government of this country has taken several steps to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in South Africa. Through the use of insurance, social programs, NGOs and nonprofits, the South African government has distributed nearly 1 million food parcels, reaching about 5 million people in the most severely affected regions of the nation. Furthermore, the government’s temporary “COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant” (SRDG) provided nearly two-thirds of applicants with crucial funds to help ease some of the burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, many citizens view the government’s actions in these regards as too little, too late. The application process for many of the grants and relief programs, including the SRDG Act, has received criticism for being difficult to access and understand. The expectation to apply through an online portal also excluded many individuals living in rural areas and regions without internet access. Despite the South African government’s efforts to provide online learning resources during school closures, students from low-income families, rural areas and underserved communities still struggled due to poor internet connectivity and a lack of personal devices. Furthermore, government officials’ misuse of grant monies and depletion of the already restricted funds made corruption a recurring problem in the distribution of help.

All in all, the devastating impact of COVID-19 on poverty in South Africa is an issue as widespread and contagious as the virus itself. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every aspect of daily life, robbing everyday citizens of the financial and social securities they previously enjoyed. Without firm and immediate action from the government and international community, this issue will undoubtedly have long-term consequences for generations to come.

– Sanjith Sambath
Photo: Flickr