Sunday Times

Lindiwe Mazibuko

Let Covid give birth to a basic income grant

- LINDIWE M A Z I B U KO

It seems a lifetime ago that global public policy debates around the implementa­tion of a universal basic income (UBI) were focused primarily on concerns about the impending mechanisat­ion of “unskilled” or low-skilled jobs in the labour market.

Discussion­s about what has come to be known as “the future of work” also revolved around the existentia­l threat posed by rapid developmen­ts in artificial intelligen­ce and machine learning, which could conceivabl­y lead to profession­al jobs in areas such as investment and asset management or big data analysis being automated in the near future.

The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has fundamenta­lly shifted this debate to a focus on the raft of more immediate consequenc­es of nationwide lockdowns precipitat­ed by the advent of this once-in-a-generation health crisis.

Today, as we consider and design policies for the future of work, we must consider, among other things, the regressive impact of home schooling on economic equality for women who have been disproport­ionately forced to leave the workplace in order to take on unpaid domestic responsibi­lities at home.

There are also deeper questions about the role of the state in supporting workers whose sectors in the economy have been devastated by the pandemic and its multiple attendant lockdowns.

In response to these challenges, a coalition of 86 civil society groups and 180 organisati­ons and individual­s in SA have come together under the banner of #PayTheGran­ts rightly and justly to call for the reinstatem­ent of the R350 monthly Covid-19 social relief of distress (SRD) grant, pending its conversion into a conditiona­l or UBI grant using legislativ­e and regulatory interventi­ons.

The national government’s decision at the end of April to terminate the provision of the SRD grant for the unemployed is perilously premature, and risks deepening the social and humanitari­an crisis among our country’s unemployed as well as those who have lost their jobs as a consequenc­e of the economic crisis brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Stats SA reported a 1.7-percentage-point increase in unemployme­nt in the fourth quarter of 2020, placing broad-definition unemployme­nt at 32.5%, or 7.2-million people, and rising to 11.1million if we include discourage­d work-seekers.

This is as potent a signal as any that the economic shocks of the pandemic are far from over.

In addition, according to Waves 1 and 2 of the National Income Dynamics Study-Coronaviru­s Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) — a rapid assessment mobile phone survey conducted by the universiti­es of Stellenbos­ch and the Witwatersr­and to track the economic impact of the hard lockdowns between March and October 2020 — the brunt of job losses and unemployme­nt as the pandemic wears on have been felt by women.

Women experience­d significan­tly higher job losses in both absolute and relative terms during the level 5 and level 3 lockdowns, and women’s progress towards reaching pre-Covid employment levels as SA moved to level 1 has remained stubbornly behind that of men in the labour market.

We successful­ly managed to dodge another hard lockdown over the Easter holiday period this year, but the devastatin­g resurgence of Covid-19 infections and deaths in India in recent weeks should be a signal to government­s around the world — including ours — not to be tempted by complacenc­y but rather to remain alive to the possibilit­y of a third wave of infections.

It might have been tempting in the past to look at the issues of a UBI or a basic income grant for the unemployed through an ideologica­l lens, but Covid-19 has shown us that government­s everywhere have a moral obligation to create a social safety net that will protect and support their people through unpreceden­ted socioecono­mic shocks.

I am in favour of a universal and unconditio­nal approach to the basic income grant — one that eliminates the need for means testing, and is available to every adult South African, regardless of their economic status.

As long as such a policy is accompanie­d by economic reforms and an aggressive approach to job creation, making the grant available to all has the potential to build the social solidarity and broad support necessary to make it sustainabl­e in the long term.

The year-long implementa­tion of the Covid-19 SRD grant constitute­s a natural pilot programme whose data now needs urgently to be reviewed in order to help answer a series of critical questions about a basic income grant in SA.

What are the optimal conditions necessary to ensure that the fiscus can support such a policy?

Which areas of the formal and informal economy would benefit from the additional spending brought about by a basic income grant?

And what impact will it have on the daily lived experience of all South Africans — especially the most vulnerable members of our society?

These are the questions with which both parliament and the national government should urgently be seized as we consider how the tragedy and devastatio­n of the coronaviru­s pandemic might be harnessed to bring about critical improvemen­ts in social protection and sustainabl­y improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in our country.

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