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Clara Ferreira Marques

Covid-19 Is the Salt in South Africa’s Wounds

The pandemic has worsened divisions in one of the world’s most unequal countries, contributing to a week of violence and destruction. The scars will linger, but smart intervention can help.

The fight against Covid could narrow educational gaps.

The fight against Covid could narrow educational gaps.

Photographer: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

Pandemics don’t cause riots. They do, though, create the perfect conditions for turmoil in fragile societies that are already powder kegs of inequality and sky-high unemployment, and where coronavirus has inevitably hit the poor hardest. South Africa’s days of unrest this month, the worst violence since apartheid, were triggered by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma on contempt-of-court charges. The financial pain caused by Covid-19 was dry kindling and fuel.

After mayhem that left more than 200 people dead, shattered storefronts are now at last being swept up. But the social and economic damage caused by the pandemic is not over, and the unseen damage behind the anger of recent days, from malnutrition to surging school dropout rates, will hamper the cash-strapped country’s longer-term convalescence. It’s a crisis that can also compel the government, business leaders and civil society to fill some of the gaps Covid-19 has widened.