South Africa: Virus lockdown worsens suffering for Johannesburg beggars

Children of migrants from southern Africa play outside in the courtyard of their building in Johannesburg, South Africa on April 16, 2020. AP

Inock Mukanhairi shows the small amount of food that he has for himself, his wife, Angeline, and five children — barely enough to make it through another week of South Africa’s strict coronavirus lockdown.

The 58-year-old and his wife are both blind. Normally, they would be begging at traffic lights on Johannesburg’s streets, relying on handouts from motorists, pedestrians and shop owners.

But the lockdown, now in its fifth week, has changed that.

Police are preventing them from leaving their dilapidated building to beg on the empty streets and barren sidewalks.

The building houses about two dozen blind or otherwise disabled foreigners who rely on handouts to make enough for food and rent. With their children, they make up about 70 people. Many have entered South Africa illegally from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi.

“I really understand that the coronavirus is killing a lot of people. But at the same time, I’m locked inside my room,” said Mukanhairi. “So death is death, due to corona or due to hunger.”

South Africa has the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Africa, with more than 4,360, including 86 deaths.

The country’s far-reaching restrictions have been in effect since March 27 and residents must stay home, except for visits to grocery stores, pharmacies and health facilities. The lockdown will be eased starting May 1, but this is unlikely to help the beggars, because people will still be required to stay home.

Zimbabwean migrant Fatima Fachi, who is blind, sits on her bed in her room in Johannesburg, South Africa on April 14, 2020.. AP

Families of six to eight people are crammed into small rooms where they cook, eat and sleep. Under such conditions, social distancing is not possible. The building has a few taps for water, so regular hand-washing is also difficult.

The elderly and blind often just sit on their beds as their children play in the dimly lit and narrow hallways, where loose electric cords dangle from the ceiling.

Without any donations, they say they are uncertain about where they will get their next meals.

Last week, South Africa announced an increase in social grants for the poor, elderly and disabled, but these immigrants are not eligible for that aid.

At the start of the lockdown, authorities swept the homeless from the streets and took them to a housing facility where food is provided. The beggars say they fled to their own building at the time to avoid being rounded up.

They are not alone in being uncertain about how getting adequate food. The U.N. World Food Program said this month that the number of people around the world with acute hunger could almost double this year because of the pandemic. At least 265 million people could face food insecurity by the end of this year, a jump of 130 million.

Rosewite Prikise, 41, lives with her four children in one of the small rooms, where all share a bed.

“We have one week’s worth of food left,” she said. “So we cannot survive, especially us who are blind. We cannot go outside and our situation is not right.”


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