When word got out that farmers and their workers were exempted from the 21-day coronavirus lockdown, Mzansi’s agriculturists started fearing for their lives. On the one hand, they are committed to still feeding the nation, but they are also worried that they might be infected.
Since the announcement of the national lockdown, 25-year-old Siphesihle Kwetana, a farmer from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, has not stopped thinking about ways to protect and ensure the safety of the workers employed on her farm. While many other farming enterprises are equipped with hand sanitisers, face masks and gloves to help protect themselves from covid-19, Kwetana and her team remained exposed.
Mthatha might be the main town in the King Sabata Dalindyebo Municipality and even boasts with its own airport, but there is critical shortage of personal protective equipment due to the pandemic. And in the rural village where Kwetana farms with, amongst others, spinach, cabbage and carrots, alcohol-based hand sanitiser is a luxury product, anyway.
Kwetana tells Food For Mzansi she fears that her workers might soon be exposed to the coronavirus. She says, “Since the start of lockdown, it has not been easy to supply to our markets. We don’t have access to protective gear, and I don’t want to expose my workers to the virus. They’re also the ones who are doing the deliveries, so they are really at risk. I’m considering stopping my operations for now.”
“Yes, I’ll lose out on sales and revenue, but I’m not willing to risk the safety of my farmworkers for money.”
Before the virus outbreak, Kwetana employed a total of 22 agricultural workers. In the first five days since the lockdown she was forced to reduce this to just 10 workers who are staying on a property that she rents for them.
She adds that her other agribusiness, Siphe Development and Capacitation Agency, which she co-owns with her husband, Hillary, has had to shut down completely. The agency offered training, support, infrastructure development and agricultural supplies for undeveloped areas in the Eastern Cape.
Kwetana explains that it wasn’t an easy decision to make. She says, “We still have irrigation jobs to do for farmers, but now we can’t anymore because of the lockdown. Every day the number of infected people are increasing, and people are starting to die of the virus as well. I’m worried that the lockdown period might be extended and this will delay our operations even further. I’m a small-scale farmer and entrepreneur – how am I supposed to survive this?”
Government has now intensified covid-19 testing and tracing efforts with at least 10 000 field workers deployed to communities across Mzansi. It is not clear whether they will also reach Mthatha, but Kwetana says that misinformation has seemingly been spreading faster than the pandemic.
“People are listening to what the president has said, but fake news continues to spread. We live in rural area and some people don’t even have TVs. They rely on their phone and social media platforms to receive news and updates about the virus, but that’s where fake news is being spread mostly,” Kwetana explains.
The young farmer says that initially, people in her community didn’t take the news of the coronavirus seriously and adds, “People were saying it’s a sickness for white and rich people. Only after they announced the first death in South Africa, then some started taking this thing more seriously. But you still find WhatsApp messages being shared saying that the virus only attacks white people.”
Kwetana is just one of at least four million small-scale farmers in South Africa who play a critical role in food security. Her fear that her staff might be infected follows the call by Agbiz CEO John Purchase to the agricultural and agribusiness sectors to hold each other accountable during the unprecedented lockdown. He also urged the farming sector to heed the critical restrictions related to hygiene, sanitation and loading capacity.
“Farmworkers are the bedrock of the agricultural sector and these men and women are currently risking their safety and health to ensure the nation stays food secure during these trying times. Their safety cannot be compromised as there would be no food security without them,” says Purchase. “By not complying, the sector runs the risk of more stringent and onerous measures being introduced.”
Should you wear a face mask?
Meanwhile in other parts of the Mzansi, colourful face masks were being made for vineyard workers on the AA Badenhorst Family Wines farm. With face masks flying off shelves due to covid-19 panic buying, Hanneke Kruger, the assistant winemaker, and Christine Bester, the “chief executive of chaos”, decided to take matters into their own hands on this Western Cape farm.
Kruger is not only a talented winemaker, but also a budding seamstress. Kruger and colleague Giveness Murambi brought their sowing machines to the farm to make face masks for all staff. Cornelia Coetzee tells Food For Mzansi everyone collected some fabric scraps, and soon there were enough colourful face masks to protect workers picking grapes.
Dr Zweli Mkhize, the minister of health, has since tweeted that there is no question about the importance of face masks to help curb the virus spread. He says, “Masks can assist in containing the spread of the virus, especially for those who are coughing, sneezing or are infected.”
However, around the globe there is uncertainty about whether fabric face masks can actually make a difference. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says they stand by their recommendation to not wear masks if you are not sick or not caring for someone who is sick. According to the WHO disposable face masks can only be used once, and people are encouraged to use masks wisely because of the worldwide shortage.
“There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest the opposite in the misuse of wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly,” says Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO health emergencies programme.