Maverick Citizen: Tuesday editorial

The year of children’s broken dreams – and how to repair them

The year of children’s broken dreams – and how to repair them
Children playing Walmer Township in Port Elizabeth. (Photo: Donna van der Watt)

This week there are two international commemorative days relevant to children’s lives in South Africa: World Toilet Day and World Children’s Day. They offer us an opportunity to reflect on the state of our children’s nation.

If you are an adult, as most readers of Maverick Citizen probably are, I want to ask you this week to start by thinking back to your childhood.

Recall your worst fears.

Recall how new the world felt, how you smelt it, felt it, saw it.

Recall the things that gave you comfort, security and courage, as well as the things that created overbearing and irrational fears.

Think of your dreams for yourself and fears for those you loved. Think of your worst nightmares.

Think of how childhood amplifies so many of our emotions and how as children we often lack the language to explain those feelings to ourselves. That can make life bewildering and scary, stressful, even traumatic.

This week fleeting conversations with respected child protection and development specialist Luke Lamprecht, and Cassey Chambers, the Director of SADAG, opened this world to me.

In South Africa today we have approximately 20 million children among us. One way or another most children are living all those feelings now, some have support … but millions do not.

2020 has been a bad year to be a child.

According to Lamprecht, when the National Coronavirus Command Council decided to lockdown our country in March they “just didn’t see children” never mind made contingency plans for their well-being. They didn’t listen to the handful of child advocates who tried to offer counsel.

Since then, children have had dreams put on hold or broken altogether; schooling has been disrupted; families separated; and food and social security systems taken away from them.  Many have been locked in homes with their abusers, and locked out of care systems. Some have directly experienced the death of loved ones, most have experienced fear of death.

They have to navigate their ways through the war zones of many of our gang, crime and poverty ridden communities.

Covid, to many children, will have been a bewildering assault on the senses; a barrage of what Nadine Burke Harris, a highly respected paediatrician, terms ‘adverse childhood experiences’ which have a lifetime’s impact on mental and physical health (watch this video please).

Think about what it means to be bewildered as an adult – then times by ten.

Not surprisingly if you look you will see the scars.

Child hunger has increased (as captured in this painful series ‘when kids go hungry’ by Spotlight) as school nutrition programmes shut and parents lost incomes.

There is research to show that during past pandemics children who were quarantined or isolated were “more likely to develop acute stress disorder, adjustment disorder and grief.” So, unsurprisingly, childhood trauma and anxiety is up. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) the number of incoming calls they receive has doubled since the lockdown, and is now at between 1 200 and 1 400 calls per day.

Cassey Chambers says: “We get calls from all age groups – even children as young as 8 or 9 or 10 years old. We have many parents calling us because they are worried or concerned about their children or who have seen an increase in anxiety. There are still so many families and children in disadvantaged areas who don’t know how to access mental health help.”

Yet although children are amongst the worst hit by Covid-19 their plight is barely recognised or understood by the august councils and committees that we are told are planning our recovery. The government talks of economic recovery. But no one talks of psychological recovery. No one talks of the recovery of childhood innocence and joy.

It is in this context that we should mark the 30th anniversary of the coming into force of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which, with 196 state parties, is the most widely ratified UN human rights treaty.

And yet … ?

It is in this context that we should all obtain and scrutinise the adequacy of the next National Plan of Action for Children (NPAC), 2019-2024, lapsed for the last three years, but with a new one currently being finalised by the Department of Social Development (DSD). Unfortunately, the draft appears not to be available online.

It is in this context that, when the government marks World Children’s Day on Friday by convening a ‘special session between Child Ambassadors and Chairs of Parliamentary Portfolio Committees in Parliament’, we must demand that at least the foundations for children’s dignity and recovery are immediately put in place by our government; access to sufficient food and basic nutrition, basic education and safety at a bare minimum. Things that, Lamprecht says, will allow children to “rest and digest.”

Currently South Africa fails to meet our constitutional obligations to children on each of these counts.

As a result, although the coronavirus has largely spared children from Covid-19 disease, it has taken a terrible and unquantified toll on their mental health. Remember, children also have an unqualified right to basic health care services, yet, according to SADAG, only three provinces have child psychiatrists in the public sector.

It is therefore left to a handful of NGOs, which are themselves in financial distress, to do their best to pick up the pieces. But despite heroic efforts which make a huge difference to some children, they can meet only a fraction of the need.

This is the real state of disaster. Every organisation, company, church, club needs to think about what they can do to alleviate it, how they can “buffer” children’s suffering.

As the country considers what we must do to nurse and repair our children’s broken dreams, price and ‘affordability’ can’t be part of the discussion. Whatever we don’t do now because ‘we can’t afford to’, we will pay for many times over in social and economic costs in the near future.

Permitting childhood trauma on a mass scale has a price tag.

So, forget debt, data and statistics as the entry point to action for children. Think about love and empathy and rights. Think about how you felt when you were a child.

Then let’s start the post Covid-reconstruction through the eyes of a child. Let’s do it in the best interests of a child. Let children in South Africa find a path back to joy again. DM/MC


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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