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Covid-19 is exacerbating hunger and mental health probl...

South Africa


Covid-19 is exacerbating hunger and mental health problems in young people, WC legislature hears

Dr Keith Cloete, head of the Western Cape Department of Health, said in the Nids-Cram Wave 5 report, 17% of respondents reported household hunger and 14% child hunger, and that often adults would forgo food so children could eat. (Photo: Black Star / Spotlight)

Covid-19 and the lockdowns had exacerbated issues of mental health among the young, Western Cape Department of Health head Dr Keith Cloete told the provincial legislature.

Hunger and mental wellbeing among young people during the Covid-19 pandemic were a recurring theme during a briefing in the Western Cape legislature on Monday. The legislature’s ad hoc committee on Covid-19 heard from provincial government departments, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and non-profit organisation (NPO) Jelly Beanz. 

Committee member Nomi Nkondlo asked what was being done to assist hungry students. CPUT Professor Mellet Moll said there was support for students through feeding schemes during teaching time, but during recess “it has been something of a problem”. 

Daily Maverick has reported extensively on student hunger: see here, here and here.  

Student hunger is not limited to CPUT. In June, a report by the Human Sciences Research Council and Higher Health found that 41% of students were not able to buy food during the lockdown, while 15% went hungry. 

But it’s not only at the level of higher education that hunger among young people is a problem.

Dr Keith Cloete, head of the Western Cape Department of Health, said that 35% of households — a “frightening figure” — reported they had run out of money during the lockdown, according to the National Income Dynamics Study — Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey Wave 5 report, which was released this month. 

Cloete said 17% of respondents reported household hunger and 14% reported child hunger, and that often adults would forgo food so children could eat.  

“Hunger is a primer for poor mental health,” said Cloete. He said Covid-19 exacerbated mental health problems, including through the loss of jobs, identity, loved ones and one’s purpose. 

“All of us have to work together” to fix these issues, and the provincial departments of social development, education and economic development “need to take this seriously”. 

Cloete said the ongoing taxi violence in Cape Town was “absolutely traumatic” for commuters, particularly young women who use public transport. 

“Our children, pre-Covid, were already traumatised,” said social worker Edith Kriel from Jelly Beanz, an NPO that works with children who have experienced trauma. 

Kriel said they had seen a significant increase in gender-based violence, sexual violence (including violence perpetrated by children on other children) and increased accidental exposure to pornography as children now have access to the internet because of school assignments being shifted online.  

Kriel said another problem experienced by children was messages about Covid-19 that were not child-friendly. In one example pointed out by Kriel, a child had said, “Mom might get infected and then we get infected, and we all die.” 

There were also “significant increases” of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts in children, said Kriel.

Suggestions to assist children include a functional toll-free helpline, and ensuring access to basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing and medical care. Another suggestion was to ensure frontline responders in psychological first aid.

“We are really failing our children,” said Kriel. DM


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