COVID-19: The Threat To Townships

Updated: May 20

Why are townships in South Africa particularly vulnerable to the threat that COVID-19 presents?

Experts predict that 60-70% of the South Africa population will become infected by COVID-19. South Africa is currently under lockdown in a desperate effort to avoid at all costs the spread of the pandemic into the townships. It is trite that there is a vast inequality gap between the rich and poor in this country. While everyone is susceptible to the coronavirus, it is the poor that will suffer the most. But what specifically makes townships vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19?

1. A poor public healthcare system

Private and public hospitals operate in South Africa. Those that can afford it will flock to the safety that private hospitals offer while the majority of the population will seek refuge in under-resourced public hospitals. South Africa’s healthcare system is already notorious for its inability to assist all those in need; with the spread of COVID-19 through townships this will further exacerbate issues of lack of resources (beds, gloves, masks, and ventilators) and availability of healthcare professionals to fight the virus.

2. Prevalence of HIV/AIDS

In a country plagued by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the concentration lies not in rural areas,but populated townships. In a report released by the World Health Organisation, it was recognised that two groups are particularly vulnerable to the virus: older persons and those with underlying medical conditions. Should the virus spread through townships, it will likely have a greater impact in these areas because of the high statistics of people with the pre-existing condition of HIV/AIDS (many of which are not on antiretroviral treatment). Furthermore, many people are at risk of contracting tuberculosis which would worsen the impact of COVID-19 due to its effect on the respiratory system.

3. Poor sanitation and lack of running water

Townships are characterised by poor ablution facilities (communal toilets and taps) and open sewerage facilities. This makes it near impossible for people to adhere to basic hygiene guidelines endorsed by the government.

4. Overcrowding and social distancing

The government has stressed the need for social distancing whilst under lockdown. However, due to the sheer amount of people living together (sometimes as many as six or more in one room), this makes social distancing a difficult measure to implement successfully. As early as 27 March 2020, shortly after the lockdown commenced, people in townships were standing in long queues to buy groceries and failing to keep a distance of 2 meters from each other.

5. Ineffectiveness of the police and the army

Originating from the Apartheid era is a deep distrust of the police and army. Democratic South Africa shows that there is no reason why this should be any different. There have been various reports of police and the army shooting rubber bullets at shoppers for not complying with social distancing.

6. Is there an alternative approach?

The need for a diverse and appropriate approach to managing the spread of the coronavirus in the South Africa context is needed. It would be ill-advised to generally apply the restrictions in the same manner in every context. To do so would result in an unfortunate and unreasonable of the rights held by people.