What does the “new normal” for South Africa look like post the COVID-19 lockdown?

What does the “new normal” for South Africa look like post the COVID-19 lockdown?

May 8, 2020    

As South Africans finally enjoy some exercise in the open air after six weeks of strict government-imposed lockdown, the biggest question on everyone’s minds is: What does the path back to normality look like? The strict measures have been successful in flattening the curve and have bought valuable time to avoid overwhelming the country’s health systems, but at what cost? ​

Initial economic indicators paint a concerning picture. In the first two weeks of lockdown, the Reserve Bank estimated that the it was responsible for a 2.6% reduction in GDP, 370,000 job losses and 1,600 businesses going insolvent. ​But what was the impact on the livelihoods of South Africans? An analysis of the insight2impact COVID-19 tracker data can assist us in answering this question and understanding the social and economic effects of the lockdown and the pandemic itself.

First, some good news. The Government has done an excellent job at communicating the details of the virus and the lockdown. Personal health measures seem to be taken quite seriously by South Africans, with a significant majority reporting using more hand sanitizer, wearing facemasks and washing their hands more frequently. People aren’t afraid to seek medical help and few are panic-buying and stockpiling food.

The survey however highlighted something interesting, if not particularly surprising: South Africans are worried. Regardless of race or gender, an overwhelming majority of South Africans report being extremely concerned about the personal safety of their families.

What exactly are South Africans afraid of? For a country badgered by high crime rates, it is surprising that 31.7% feel that crime has decreased over the past 14 days. It doesn’t seem to be health either. Despite the fact that 42.5% of respondents reported that they were “very likely” to seek medical care for the coronavirus if their symptoms were mild, over 65% are not willing to pay money for a COVID-19 vaccine, and the remaining 35% are only willing to pay R95 on average.

Instead, it appears that the primary concern for most South Africans is financial.

Eighty-two percent (82%) of the respondents in our survey reported that they would have problems at putting together R5,000 – the equivalent of 1/20th GNI for the country – within 7 days, with just over 40% of them stating that this is “wouldn’t be possible at all”.  This might explain why, despite the apparent compliance to health measures, only between 39 and 47% of South Africans reporting behaviours like limiting contact with other people, avoiding big groups and lessening how much they travel outside the home.

Eighty percent (80%) of respondents would choose cash over food parcels as a form of government support, and only 14% report indifference between the two. On average, people report that the minimum amount they would need to be paid to stay home is R1,700 per day. Of course, no one is being paid to stay at home and most report that they are complying with government regulations to minimise movements, so it is likely that these responses are opportunistic.

The effects of the lockdown are also not equal: Last week an article published in the WSJ reminded us that we are not in the same boat, but in the same storm. While 18% of respondents report lower income levels during the lockdown period than during the same period last year, 55% of those who have lost income are women. Looking at it by race gives us equally concerning results – 69.8% of those who report a loss in income are black Africans. Although the health effects on the elderly have been top of mind in most countries, the economic losers of the lockdown seem to have been the younger segments. A little under 40% of those who report lower incomes are younger than 34 years old, and 32% of those reporting lower incomes are between the ages of 25 and 34. Unsurprisingly, households with more adults see higher income stability, given the diversity in income sources, but they also mean that there are more mouths to feed.

The State of National Disaster in South Africa brings with it a number of relief measures for many South Africans during the worst of the current crisis. The issue, however, is their ability to recover from these shocks when those measures come to an end.

In a country that was already struggling with wealth and social disparities, the survey shows us that, despite the success of lockdown in managing the health crisis, South Africa emerges from it more worried, poorer and more unequal. This raises an entirely new question and a challenge: Who will drive the consumer demand that is necessary to kickstart the economy and bring us back to normality?

These results are based on the last week of lockdown and Cenfri will keep monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods through the coming months. In the next wave of data, we’ll be looking out to see if loss of income spreads to affect the upper-middle class and, if so, what the knock-on effects of this will be one lower-income segments, as well as consumer spending more generally. We will continue to work with our partners to understand the emerging needs of South Africans, to support relief efforts and to encourage long-lasting and inclusive recovery.


As the next step in our effort to assist development partners, governments and the private sector in responding to the impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods in Africa, we will be producing a series of blogs analysing the data from the recently launched insight2impact COVID-19 Livelihoods Tracking Survey.

The Survey will run over 10-weeks with multiple waves across 6 African countries from April 2020 to June 2020 including South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia. The surveys are weighted to represent the national adult populations (18+) of each country.

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