Editor's note

In March 2020, a week before the COVID-19 lockdown, ophthalmologist Dr Tshilidzi van der Lecq's husband Fritz shared a photograph of his wife wearing a medical mask at work. The way she described that scene some days later, reflected something that is at the heart of this pandemic, its effect on human relations: “Ophthalmology is an intimate speciality. It is second nature for us to sit close to our patients when we examine them, to touch their faces, and to communicate. COVID-19 has changed the way we interact with our patients. This picture was taken the first time I examined a patient in the clinic once the pandemic became a reality for us in South Africa. I was fearful and my hands were trembling. This is what happens when one human being cares for another. Emotions naturally arise and become part of the interaction. The fight is not only against the virus but also in preserving our ability to still relate to our patients.'

By the end of April 2020, South Africa was in the midst of a national lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, which has the potential to bring the South African health system to its knees.

The economy has already suffered an enormous blow. In this edition of the HSRC Review, we feature a range of articles that highlight the extent to which this crisis may affect South Africans, especially the most vulnerable communities, and how it will bring poverty and inequality into focus.

The HSRC is helping the government with multiple surveys among citizens to record their understanding of the COVID-19 situation. These surveys will help the government to refine and target their COVID-19 messages and interventions. We have included a report on the results of the pilot survey, which looked at the public’s understanding of COVID-19 and their response to some of the pandemic interventions.

Many of the lockdown challenges were predicted, hence the government’s decision to deploy the SA Police Service (SAPS) and SA National Defence Force (SANDF) across the country to help enforcement. However, several incidences have been reported of alleged questionable interactions they have had with the public, such as humiliating or assaulting people in the streets and the killing of Collins Khosa in Alexandra, which is being investigated.

The danger is that such events can erode political trust, which is essential in a time of crisis, writes Prof Joleen Steyn Kotze in an article that looks at the potential effects of increased authoritarianism. Another article highlights the high levels of trust South Africans have had in the SANDF until now, according to the HSRC’s South African Social Attitude Survey series. Adv Gary Pienaar looks at the question of human rights affected by the lockdown regulations and the need for democratic oversight.

Focusing on health, Dr Sizulu Moyo discusses TB in the context of COVID-19, highlighting potential areas of concern for South Africa and experiences from the TB response that could benefit and strengthen the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prof Narnia Bohler-Muller and Nokuthula Olorunju emphasise the need for strong collaboration between the private and public health-care sectors.

The COVID-19 pandemic will affect more than systems, resources and people’s physical health. In South Africa, the stage is already set for major mental-health implications, writes Andrea Teagle in an article that focuses on the psychological impact of the crisis.

We also feature articles on food security and water provision, gender-based violence, remote teaching and the ban on alcohol sales. Social scientists need to have their voices heard on a range of matters affecting South Africans over the next months.

At the time of writing this review, the HSRC had completed a second survey to look at how people have been affected by the lockdown, asking questions about people’s living conditions, their ability to access food, water and health care, access to alcohol, their ability to earn an income, their interaction with law enforcement officers and their exposure to domestic abuse. The HSRC had also started a survey of health workers and another with Higher Health, formerly known as HEAIDS, on students’ responses to the crisis. We look forward to sharing the results with you in due course.