The consensus among social justice activists, health experts, and economists is that the high cost of living in South Africa is detrimental to the nation’s health. There are concerns about the alarming levels of high stress and malnutrition, particularly among vulnerable groups such as women, children, the elderly, and the poor. Doctors are particularly worried about the increase in diseases like wasting and stunting in children, cardiovascular disease and stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers in the general population.

By Mbali Mthembu

The increasing cost of living, particularly food prices, is causing concerns about a potential increase in mental health issues and malnutrition, creating a new health threat associated with poverty.

According to Health-e News, social justice advocates, health professionals, and economists are in consensus that the exorbitant cost of living poses a threat to the well-being of women, children, the elderly, and families with low incomes.

According to the publication, Hayley Cimring, a Nutrition Scientist at the Heart and Stroke Foundation, stated that individuals alter their eating habits due to financial factors, which could lead to the development of various illnesses.

“This can present as under-nutrition, such as wasting and stunting in children, but also as overweight, obesity, and diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes and some cancers,” Cimring says.

Financial advisor Marothi Letsaolo explained to The Telegram that we can expect these challenging times to continue for a bit longer, as inflation is projected to stay above 6% for the rest of the year. This means that the cost of living will remain high, as the increase in fuel, food, and interest rates will harm consumers’ finances. Unfortunately, this will affect not only the middle class but also a significant portion of the population.

BusinessTech agrees.

“Middle-class South Africans are under immense stress, struggling to make vehicle and home loan repayments while relying on credit cards to make it through the month. The latest Credit Stress Report by consumer analytics and research company Eighty20 for the first quarter of 2023 paints a bleak picture for South Africa’s middle-class and affluent households,” it states.

According to the report, a significant majority of middle-class individuals in South Africa, specifically over 70%, are using their monthly income to meet their debt obligations. The report also highlights a rise in default rates among middle-class households. The most severe impact is felt by the impoverished population.

Nozipho Ndlovu, an unemployed young mother with an eight-month-old child, shared that she frequently experiences poor nutrition and daily financial strain.

Ndlovu said that she is used to having a limited diet due to the lack of access to nutritious food options. She is unable to afford meals that include essential components such as fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains, and healthy fats.

Ndlovu, who lives in a small one-room shack, supports herself and her baby by begging at traffic intersections. In a recent conversation with The Telegram, she shared that her baby has faced numerous health challenges and has had to make frequent visits to the hospital due to a weak immune system. Healthcare professionals have suggested that the child’s illness may be linked to a poor diet.

“I simply cannot afford to buy the right meal for my baby. I don’t make as much as a beggar. I go home with R80 on a lucky day, otherwise, I live with much less. So, I only buy food that I can afford for us both. If I can only afford a tin of baked beans and bread, then that’s all there is for my boy to eat.

“It hurts, but that’s all I can afford. It doesn’t end there, his health is a big problem. The clinic is concerned about him. Each time I take him for his monthly check-ups at the clinic, they say he has some bacteria because his not eating healthy but there’s nothing I can do, healthy food is too expensive,” Ndlovu said.

Dr Ndiviwe Mphothulo, a Public Health Specialist, expressed concern to The Telegram that the current challenging economic situation could potentially lead South Africa to revert to poverty and malnutrition levels that were last seen before 1994.

“South Africa has not really exited the apartheid times high levels of malnutrition. The democratic government has managed to contain the problems with the introduction of some interventions such as school nutrition preprogramme and the child support grant.

“However, the levels of malnutrition even with these interventions declined very slowly. So, the persistent rise in the cost of living may ascend the malnutrition levels in South Africa to pre1994 levels,” Mphothulo said.

He stated that the country’s persistent levels of malnutrition were caused by high levels of unemployment.

“The challenge is these interventions are targeted at children when the entire family is faced with hunger. So, naturally, the money meant for children will end up being used for all the family’s needs.

“With that comes worst case scenario malnutrition cases, stunting.  Stunted people will never reach their full growth potential. They will have many health challenges that will impair their ability to be economically active and this causes long-term challenges to both the patients and the country,” he explained.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) expressed similar concerns about the economic and social difficulties experienced by South Africa in its March country report.

IMF’s head of research in the African Department, Papa N’Diaye, visited South Africa in March and held meetings with economic authorities. He revealed alarming findings. N’Diaye said South Africa is facing mounting challenges and is at risk of stagnation due to an unprecedented energy crisis, increasing infrastructure and logistics bottlenecks, a less favourable external environment, and climate shocks.

“A recovery in the services sector supported job creation in 2022; however, employment remains below pre-pandemic levels and unemployment close to record highs, on the back of already high poverty and inequality. In addition, the economy remains exposed to external shocks and capital flow volatility, in the context of tighter global financial conditions, and volatile commodity prices related to Russia’s war in Ukraine,” said N’Diaye.

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