On 6 August 2020, the Minister of Social Development issued amendments which allowed for temporary disability grants, lapsing from July onwards, to be extended to 31 December 2020. The Regulations allowed for a six-month extension of medical approvals for Disability Grants granted prior to the 27 March 2020 Covid-19 lockdown. This extension terminated on 31 December 2020, affecting 210 778 disability grant recipients. On 28 December 2020 government shifted back to Level 3 national lockdown to contain the current deadly second wave of coronavirus.
In July 2020, SASSA announced that it had a total of 475 contracted medical officers to conduct assessments but due to Covid-19 protocols, the number of assessments per day was reduced from 40 to 20
. Our healthcare system and capacity remains dangerously overstretched and is struggling to cope with the pandemic despite the President’s announcement that vacancies at public hospitals are being filled. In October 2020 SASSA staff, supported by NEHAWU, was locked in an industrial relations dispute over the provision of PPEs and other issues including the disability grant services. SASSA undertook to have a comprehensive system in place by the end of January 2021 for resolving these issues. It is unclear at this stage how effectively and safely SASSA will process lapsed and new disability applications during this resurgence of a more potent strain of Covid-19 and with reduced capacity to perform medical assessments.
The Department of Social Development (DSD) has a constitutional obligation in terms of the right to social security, to ensure that measures are in place for those entitled to a disability grant, without being hampered by administrative challenges during this health and humanitarian crisis. Whilst the Minister indicated that temporary disability grant recipients need to reapply, SASSA failed to communicate a clear procedure for how the medical assessments backlog will be dealt with. Recipients who are desperately trying to comply with the disability grant application process are now subject to long congested queues outside SASSA offices potentially exposing them to Covid-19. Many of whom are already faced with health challenges but now have to queue outside for hours without water and the necessary toilet and other facilities. In its most recent press statement SASSA
notes that it has no funding to cover the cost of R1.2 billion to extend these lapsed disability grants until the end of March 2021. However, for the 2020/2021 financial year, the Department of Social Development and SASSA budgeted R24,4 billion for disability grants. Between April and September 2020 an amount of R11,4 billion (46,8%) was already spent. Funds remaining, as at October 2020, was R12,9 billion. It is highly unlikely that all these funds would have been spent between November and December 2020. SASSA has the funding to extend the temporary Disability Grants for at least three months, until March 2021. This will present SASSA with a window of opportunity to resolve their system and capacity challenges to deal with renewals for the lapsed and new disability grant applications safely and timeously without infringing on the right to social security.
The projected figure of providing one million disability grants per annum has remained the same since 1994, and has not been adjusted to take into account population growth and increases in the unemployment rate for those between the ages of 18 to 59 years. This systemic oversight must be addressed in the 2021/22 budget.