YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – As South Africa prepares for the COVID-19 pandemic to get worse in the country, Church leaders are warning that the country must work to become more economically inclusive once the crisis is over.

So far, South Africa has recorded 20,125 people who have had the coronavirus, with nearly 400 dying. However, a government commission is warning 40,000 South Africans might die of the disease before the year is out.

In a letter from the South African Council of Churches (SACC), Church leaders called for the government to work for social and economic equality in South Africa, noting the pandemic is affecting the poorest and most vulnerable.

Residents of the densely populated Hillbrow neighborhood stand and wave from their balconies during the coronavirus outbreak in Johannesburg during March 27, 2020. (Credit: Jerome Delay/AP.)

The SACC includes members from the major denominations in South Africa, including the Catholic Church.

“We write to a nation boxed in by the double whammy of COVID-19 and the junk status of our economy,” the letter says.

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The unemployment rate in South Africa was already at 29 percent before the pandemic, and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry has warned it could climb to 50 percent.

Authorities, aid groups and private citizens alike are handing out food. Across the country people have lined up by the thousands, waiting hours on end, for a package containing basics like flour and sardines.

Social distancing everywhere is imperfect, from the rich suburbs where runners and dog-walkers burst outdoors after those activities were allowed again, to the townships where a growing number of worried people wait for monthly relief grants.

“We say, together we can and shall rebuild our economy, but that the resolve must be for an inclusive economy, making our reality of two separate economies – ‘formal’ (mainly white and rich) and ‘informal’ (mainly black and poor), the matter of a pre-COVID past. We must now plan and work for a restructured post-COVID inclusive economy with validated contributions from all, and benefits for all,” the Christian leaders continue.

Relatives grieve Benedict Somi Vilakasi at his burial ceremony at the Nasrec Memorial Park outside Johannesburg, April 16, 2020. Vilakasi, a Soweto coffee shop manager, died of COVID-19 in a Johannesburg hospital April 12, 2020. (Credit: Jerome Delay/AP.)

Father Peter-John Pearson, the Director of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference Parliamentary Liaison Office, told Crux inequality plagues the country.

“South Africa as you might recall is one of the most unequal countries in the world,” he said.

“With Brazil, it is top of the Gini coefficient which measures the internal inequality in a country, at 0.65,” he said.

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The Gini coefficient is named for Italian economist Corrado Gini, who came up with the system to measure inequality in a society in 1912 – a 0 means perfect equality and a 1 means perfect inequality.

“It is estimated that 30.4 million South Africans live in poverty. It is an inherited poverty that is part of the legacy of the iniquitous apartheid system which legalized inequality based on race,” the priest told Crux.

A young girl covers her face, in the Sjwetla informal settlement on the outskirt of the Alexandra township in Johannesburg, May 5, 2020, during the coronavirus outbreak. (Credit: Jerome Delay/AP.)

More than a quarter-century has passed since the end of the racist system of apartheid, or white minority rule. Many South Africans in this youthful country did not live it, but history, and its aftermath, are never far away.

Pearson said the legacy of apartheid has led to 60 percent of the population depending on social grants for survival, rather than from employment.

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“For employed black Africans the monthly income averaged 6899 Rand [$390] and for whites it was 24,646 Rand [$1,400]: More than three times as much … The pandemic has meant that people who rely on casual labor, and thus casual wages, are reduced to nil because of the lockdown and for those employed in factories, et cetera, the same applies. The economic legacy of apartheid has not changed much and that shows in the above figures,” he told Crux.

In its letter, the SACC says “the big question” is whether inequality can ever be tackled “without measures to slow down the rate of wealth growth for the extreme wealthy while building up the capacity for wealth creation by those in the dungeons of poverty.”

Pearson said the SACC’s call “is a challenge to ensure that economic justice happens more rapidly otherwise the poverty and injustices at so many levels will continue and fester and result in social ferment.”

This article incorporated material from the Associated Press.