02.06.2020

Using COVID-19 to open the Door to Youth and Job Creation

Researcher Salimah Valiani in Johannesburg imagines an economy thriving on life instead of one faltering on illness and death.

Bild: von Sebabatso Mosamo Young unemployed man looking for work outside a Builder's Warehouse in Randburg, Johannesburg.

Just before lockdown in South Africa, a young person close to me landed her first job. About a year earlier she had completed a college marketing course. Employed by a firm subcontracted by one of South Africa’s few and wealthy financial firms, she was selling insurance by phone.

After some weeks of training paid at the national minimum wage, her earnings shifted to pure commission paid only if she made four sales or more daily. The income not being enough for her transport to and from the township, she asked her grandma to assist. It occurred to me that by staying with us in the city, she could save transport time and grannie wouldn’t have to give from her meagre government grant. Mid-March, my young friend received her February pay, delayed twice.

Ten days later the lockdown brought everything to a halt.

As businesses began pressuring government to ease the lockdown, the financial sector made the argument that it provided an essential service and should be permitted to reopen. My friend was keen on returning to work, regardless of meagre pay and despite the risk of travelling to and from the township in unregulated vehicles yet more unsafe in the times of COVID-19. I asked my young insurance seller friend which of the insurance plans she had been selling could be seen as essential. Her response: “Funeral insurance.” 

All of this brings home the painful reality of millions of unemployed youth and minimal job creation in South Africa. The few young people that do land jobs face extremely limited choice, often trading off safety and other workers’ rights for continued employment. Between 1995 and 2014, business services and finance was the only growing sector in the economy, rising from 16 to 22 per cent of GDP. Little has changed. In turn, the bulk of job creation is there, but the jobs  are largely precarious and low paying, like the one held by my young friend.

Additionally, the sector, like many others, is about capitalising on the high rates of illness and premature death so typical in a country rated the world’s unhealthiest by the 2019 Indigo Wellness index

What if things were different?

From narrowly-defined economic growth to drawing the crucial connections between population health and healthy economies COVID-19 offers the possibility to reimagine.

Instead of the army policing people’s movements in the township during lockdown, what if the state employed youngsters like my friend for door-to-door awareness raising? A number of misgivings about the virus continue to circulate. Some of the most successful HIV-AIDS interventions involve community members working in their communities to raise awareness. After the pandemic, these foot healers could continue to work on broader areas of health literacy.

Rather than handing out parcels containing only basic toiletries and unhealthy bulk foods amounting to about half of the UN recommended calorie intake during a pandemic, governments could include seeds and other basics to grow vegetables. Displaced young workers and the unemployed could be engaged in food cultivation with effects lasting beyond the current crisis.

Even before the lockdown, close to half of the national population was food insecure. In 2017, the City of Johannesburg estimated six million food insecure people in greater Johannesburg alone. Enough healthy, daily food is vital for workers and learners to be as productive as possible. To assure fresh food to all during the pandemic, young people and others could be mobilised and trained to cook balanced meals safely and en masse, and deliver them to people at home.

Before the pandemic, another young person close to me had been employed for a year as a community health worker screening door-to-door for undetected illnesses. When her  contract ended, she was replaced and has not had full time work since. Despite screening experience and knowledge of health issues in her community, she has not been able to land a community health worker position screening for COVID-19.

Community-based coronavirus management is government’s official strategy. Some 28,000 community health workers have been employed to identify people that need testing. But for 28,000 workers to cover the population of 59 million, each worker would need to screen some 21,000 people — and quickly, to avoid further community spread.

What if more community health workers were trained and employed for the task? What if yet more were added to assure that already existing epidemics like tuberculosis and HIV-AIDS are not neglected during the pandemic? And still more to deal with the unspoken epidemic, alcoholism, that the lockdown ban on alcohol sales quietly acknowledged. After the pandemic, these workers could remain and help build public health care that is truly universal.

COVID-19 allows space for societies to reimagine and shift. The choice is between an economy thriving on life and an economy faltering on illness and death.
 

Dr. Salimah Valiani is an independent researcher and the author of "Rethinking Unequal Exchange - The Global Integration of Nursing Labour Markets". She has worked with unions, nongovernmental organisations and think tanks in South Africa, Canada, India and the Philippines. She has an academic background in world historical political economy. Her publications can be found at https://wits.academia.edu/SalimahValiani/Papers


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