Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

As we hit day six of violent protests, spare a thought for our children

Against the backdrop of the biggest Covid-19 wave South Africa has seen, lockdown Level 4, the extended closure of public schools and their feeding programmes, disrupted food distribution chains due to violent riots and record youth unemployment, it’s those who have nothing to do with these horrors of horrors – our children – who will be saddled with the long-term costs.

Dr Kopano Matlwa Mabaso is Executive Director of the Grow Great Campaign

On an ordinary South African day, 33% of children live in households that do not have the minimum income necessary to meet basic food needs; 10% are reported to go to bed hungry. Almost half are deficient in key nutrients such as vitamin A which play an important role in helping the immune system fight life-threatening infections; 27% suffer from stunting because of chronic malnutrition and malnutrition is believed to be an underlying contributory factor in almost two-thirds of child hospital deaths.

And then, of course, Covid-19 happened and made a very bad situation very much worse.

Local studies done over the past year suggest that as a result of the pandemic and related lockdowns, unemployment reached all-time highs, child hunger increased to 14% and almost 40% of pregnant women went to bed hungry. 

We do not have recent statistics for how the pandemic has affected stunting rates, but it is highly likely that, with the NIDS-CRAM survey finding that the severity of child hunger is increasing, that many more children are suffering from chronic malnutrition. 

This is of grave concern as stunting casts a long shadow on children’s health, education and employment prospects across their life course. It undermines their capacity to learn and thwarts their ability to obtain jobs and fully participate in the economy. It also leaves them in worse health, robbing them of a full and productive life.

If we thought Covid-19 pushed us to the precipice, one shudders to think what the current large-scale looting of food stores and burning of warehouses will mean for child malnutrition in the months and years to come. 

Food shortages are becoming an increasingly plausible reality and more families may be plunged into greater unemployment as a result of their workplaces being turned to ash. This means that even the existing social security measures available to vulnerable families, such as the Child Support Grant, will become increasingly impotent against the spike in food prices that is sure to follow, the additional costs related to accessing food outside of one’s community, and the many more family members now dependent on a single grant in a household.

The great injustice of it all is that children – innocent children who have nothing to do with how we came to find ourselves here – will be saddled with the costs. They will be forever locked out of the economy and condemned to lives of poverty because of the grip that chronic malnutrition has on their ability to, through education and employment, break out of the cycles of poverty. 

And not only them, but their children, too, and possibly their children’s children. Because, sadly, stunting traps families in intergenerational cycles of poverty: stunted mothers give birth to stunted children, who, without significant changes to their quality of life, become mothers who give birth to stunted children.

To our government: spare a thought for our children. Their tomorrow is dependent on how swiftly the current violent unrest our country is experiencing is brought under control. We, they, need you to act with greater urgency. Spare a thought for their tomorrow. DM/MC

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