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SAVING LIVES AND LIVELIHOODS

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The lockdown is a necessary bullet that the country must bite in order to save lives.

However, for a lot of people, reporting to work every day is a necessity that cannot be avoided because they simply want to stay alive. The truth of the matter is that a majority of the people who are able to work from home are probably the ones who have decent employment contracts, enjoying permanent employment and a list of other employment benefits that make it easy for them to shut themselves out of the world in their safe bubbles at home. These people have nice bank accounts that can sustain them through the lockdown and beyond. Then there is the serious case of the many struggling emaSwati probably earning less than E5 000 or even less than E3 500 per month, who desperately need to keep their jobs to keep their families alive.

Debts

These people live from hand to mouth; some have to boost their incomes by getting into unsustainable debts borrowing from shylocks and their circle of friends and family. Life is really tough in this low income section of the Eswatini population and the idea of abiding to the current lockdown is simply not a viable option. Some, especially those in the hospitality industry, have already lost their jobs and those who are still hanging in there are facing pay cuts and reduced working hours. The sad reality about the private sector in Eswatini is that it has no back-up for the employees should things go belly-up. For example, the developed world has comprehensive social security programmes such as unemployment benefits to take care of people when they fall through the cracks in tough economic times. We do not have that in Eswatini; it is simply every man for himself. What is worse is that in the current fiscal crunch, government is in no position to guarantee wages for these employees during the lockdown period and perhaps two or three months down the line.

Prevent

To prevent the economy from spiralling further into the gutter, government has put a few measures in place to sustain consumption in the economy. For one thing, the lockdown is not a total shutdown: goods are still allowed to cross our borders from South Africa to Eswatini to ensure that we have food, medical supplies and other essential items to keep the economy going. Unfortunately, every country is now rationing essential goods to make sure that they keep enough stock for their own people before they can export to other countries like Eswatini that rely almost entirely on imports to do anything.

Government is also relaxing deadlines for filing income taxes for businesses, renewal of licences and will be posing serious penalties on business that will be manipulating prices to take advantage of the current desperate situation for goods in high demand such as food, sanitisers, etc. Furthermore, the country is expecting a slash in fuel prices over and above the postponement of the electricity tariff hike. These measures should be somewhat of a relief to our pockets but on the grand scheme of things, they are simply not enough to sustain the livelihoods of the majority of low income households that have either lost their jobs or hanging by the thread, surviving on zero few bucks each day.

Most of these measures that have been put in place by our government will largely benefit businesses which in turn will not hesitate to let go of their employees to cut down their operating costs. In other words, government should think of a rescue package that can directly provide economic assistance to the low income households, especially those that have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19. Let this also be a lesson to our Ministry of Labour and Social Security that it needs to do a lot of work to encourage some key reforms in the labour sector to establish viable employment benefits that would be able to cushion people during economic shocks such as this current pandemic.

Generally, in sectors that can autonomously continue to operate or where people can still do their jobs without having personal contact with others, they should be supported and kept going. At the same time, government should not forget the people that need a bit of boost in their pockets to keep them alive and going in these desperate times. As the cheques keep coming in for the COVID-19 Resource Mobilisation Fund, the managers of this fund, together with government, should ensure that they consider all aspects of the economy for support. Above all, we should keep people alive by strengthening the health sector but also making sure that people have enough money to keep the Lilangeni going around while we are in lockdown. In short, while government rolls out various strategies to keep the business sector intact, it should not forget the people, especially our low income and vulnerable population.

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: COVID-19 pandemic
Is desperation creeping in among emaSwati because of the COVID-19 pandemic?