The South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) is turning away applicants for R1 860 disability grants and telling them to apply for the R350 Covid-19 emergency grants instead. Doctors said this is happening to claimants who meet all the relevant criteria.
The blocking of new disability grant applications kicked in at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown and will not be lifted until October at the earliest, according to human rights organisation Black Sash.
Sassa spokesperson Paseka Letsatsi did not respond to calls, messages and emails from the Mail & Guardian.
Evashnee Naidu, the Black Sash’s KwaZulu-Natal manager, said Sassa had told her organisation that the purpose of this restriction was to reduce the exposure of district surgeons to the virus, as they were responsible for the final assessment of disability grant claimants.
Sassa announced this week that it is reassessing millions of applications for the R350 grant that have been rejected, which is causing a huge backlog for this grant.
The fear is that new claimants for the R1 860 disability grant could end up receiving nothing.
Sassa closed its offices at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown at the end of March and referred all applicants for emergency disaster relief to its centralised call centre.
New applications for all other grants — including disability, childcare and old age grants — were stopped.
Towards the end of level four of the lockdown, Sassa offices reopened for applications for old age pensions and childcare and foster care grants, but not for disability grants.
Applicants have to provide a medical report from their doctor, and then undergo an assessment by a district surgeon, to whom Sassa refers them.
A Durban district surgeon, who asked not to be named, said he has not processed a single disability grant application since March.
“I normally process at least three applicants for disability each day, five days a week. People who desperately need disability grants and who qualify are being turned away and told to take the Covid grant,’’ the doctor said.
Naidu said the rejection of new disability grant applications until October was a national problem.
The Black Sash manager said Sassa had relaxed the lockdown conditions to allow old age pension applications on Mondays and Tuesdays and applications for childcare and foster grants on Wednesdays and Thursdays, with the overflow being dealt with on Fridays.
Applications for disability grants were not included.
“When we queried this. Sassa’s response was to say it was because of the threat of exposing district surgeons to Covid-19, which puts too much of a burden on the medical system,” Naidu said.
“They indicated that the grant application issue would be looked at in October and that in the interim people should rather consider going for the R350 grant.’’
Black Sash had proposed that Sassa station district surgeons at its offices to shorten the process and lower exposure to the virus, but the agency had rejected.
Naidu said that people who could ill afford it would have to go through the application process all over again, including getting new medical reports from their doctor, because they were valid for only three months.
Naidu said disabled people with temporary grants — which last for either six or 12 months — were also unable to renew their applications until October at the earliest.
“Those that expired between April and July are being kept on a month to month basis. Those that expired in February have lost out,” she said.
Naidu said the problem was a “systemic national issue”, which meant that people who desperately needed the disability grant, many of whom had special needs, would be forced to accept the R350 instead — if they could get it.
“There has been no recommendation from Sassa to assist the beneficiary. Their response has been to point to the Covid grant,’’ she said.
Naidu said while the application processes for old aged pension and childcare grants had been reopened, applicants had to queue overnight. Other people had to travel from one Sassa office to another as offices were being closed because staff members had contracted Covid-19, particularly in the Western Cape.
According to Sassa statistics, the agency has received just under 7.2-million applications for the special relief grants and approved about 3.25-million for payment. It is re-assessing 2.8-million applications it turned down.