QUALITY OF LIFE SURVEY 6 (2020/21): OVERVIEW REPORT

There is no doubt about the enormous scale of the shocks South Africa has experienced over 2020-21. The Quality of Life Survey 6 (2020/21): Overview report reveals how these shocks have played out in the lives of the 16 million people who live in Gauteng, and how societal support is necessary for vulnerable households.

From October 2020 to May 2021, Quality of Life Survey fieldworkers visited each of the province’s 529 wards, interviewing a total of 13,616 adults who were carefully sampled to be representative of the inhabitants of the province. Comparing these results to those from the five previous surveys in this series allows us to see both continuities and changes in the wake of the pandemic. The survey is wide ranging, with more than 200 questions on a wide variety of topics, providing evidence of the multidimensional knocks the province has taken over the last year.

The survey results show the ways in which everyday behaviour in Gauteng has changed since the arrival of COVID-19. For example, nine out of ten respondents stated that their households had avoided public spaces and gatherings. One third of households changed where or how they bought groceries. Trips out of the home are now less likely to be for work, and are more likely to be shorter than in the past. Some changes, initially required by regulations, did not snap back immediately to pre-pandemic norms once regulations were lifted. For example, two fifths of households with children kept children away from school even after they were allowed to return.

The survey shows the scale of the pandemic’s impact on employment in Gauteng, whether caused by lockdown restrictions, or a more general loss of demand and economic downturn. Over and above the 4% of all adults who had closed a business permanently, and the 11% who lost a job, 19% took a cut in salary and working hours since March 2020. Importantly, of those who had lost a job or closed a business, 50% have been unable to find new work, and 7% have dropped out of the labour market altogether. However, White respondents, and those with higher levels of formal education were notably more likely to have found new jobs than Black African respondents, or those with lower levels of education. This provides a stark example of the differential ability of people to ‘bounce back’ from shocks.

In a context where the proportion of Gauteng’s households living below the average poverty line has risen to 36%, from 25% in 2017/18 – the last time the Quality of Life Survey was run – how have vulnerable households been able to survive? Here the role of the state is crucial, not only in continuing to provide the infrastructure and services that make urban life possible, but also through safety nets to help households meet their needs in the absence of sufficient work. In total, almost half of all Gauteng respondents (48%) said that someone in their household received a social grant of some kind. This was up from 42% in 2017/18. In May 2020, the COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant was introduced for people who were unemployed. Almost a quarter (23%) of survey respondents indicated that someone in their household was receiving this R350 grant.

We also see evidence of broader social support in the survey data. More than one in ten respondents received food support, whether from government or an NGO, since March 2020. Levels of community trust have increased substantially since 2017/18, continuing an upward trend seen since 2015/16. However, community trust levels remain notably lower for Black African and Coloured respondents than for Indian/Asian and White respondents. Participation in organised social activities such as church, stokvels or sport activities, actually increased very slightly relative to 2017/18, despite lockdown regulations limiting in-person gatherings for much of 2020. Participation increased most substantially among individuals reporting extremely low household incomes, suggesting that these activities might have provided an element of support for Gauteng’s poor during the pandemic.

Despite various forms of support, results from the survey show that the pandemic has taken a toll on people’s physical and psychological wellbeing. Self-reported health, overall satisfaction with life, and mental health have all worsened relative to 2017/18. Using a screening tool for depression, our data shows that 14% of Gauteng’s residents are at high risk of depression. This is an increase from 12% in 2017/18. Those who were economically impacted by the pandemic are far more likely to be at high risk of depression. Mental health services must be prioritised in Gauteng’s recovery, although the overburdened public healthcare system is struggling to cope with the pandemic, and even basic healthcare needs are going unmet: 7% of adults in Gauteng have struggled to access healthcare since March 2020, and over 2% have been turned away when requesting a COVID-19 test.

The overall impact of all these changes (positive and negative) is shown by our Quality of Life index, which provides a measure of multi-dimensional well-being, drawing on 33 variables, grouped into seven dimensions. The QoL Index score for 2020/21 is notably lower than in 2017/18, falling from 64 to 61. This is a return to 2013/14 levels and reverses the gradual upward trend in Index scores over time.

Since the survey interviews were concluded in May 2021, Gauteng has experienced a particularly brutal third wave of COVID-19 infections and extreme civil unrest. Our data cannot reflect on how these additional shocks have impacted Gauteng’s residents. However, the results from the Quality of Life Survey 6 (2020/21) speak to the context in which these events occurred: one in which many more households are more broadly vulnerable, across multiple socio-economic fronts. We can only anticipate that more recent events have intensified the vulnerability of many households.

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