Covid-19 takes a growing toll on South Africa’s children

The impact of masks and social distancing and the lack of contact with other children has had a dramatic impact on their holistic development, says Mayke Huijbregts of Unicef. (Photo: / Wikipedia)

A lack of normality and routine is one of the foremost tolls Covid-19 has taken on the health of children. This structure loss, specifically in schools, is having dire consequences on their wellbeing, food security and cognitive development.

For many children, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant the loss of a loved one, loss of parents’ income and loss of the school as a safe place to socialise, play and learn, said Mayke Huijbregts, chief of social policy and child protection at the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) South Africa. 

Huijbregts was speaking at the virtual South African Child Health Priorities conference about Covid-19’s impact on children. The conference was convened by the South African Child Health Priorities Association and held on Wednesday and Thursday.  

“The impact of masks and social distancing; the lack of contact with other children has had a dramatic impact on their holistic development,” Huijbregts said. 

We saw during Covid and lockdown that gender-based violence and intimate partner violence levels in the homes intensified, with children witnessing and experiencing the spillover violence and abuse in their homes,” she said. 

Across the board, children’s anxiety and distress increased as the learning journey was interrupted and their concern grew about poverty and the lack of jobs. 

Children are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, said Dr Anusha Lachman, head of the adolescent psychiatry unit at Tygerberg Hospital.  

“But not in the way that we imagine…  grief hasn’t just been about parents dying, it’s about the fear of parents [especially, frontline workers] potentially dying.” 

As a result, in some cases children are even starting to show chronic pain symptoms, Lachman said. 

“Headaches, fatigue, feeling unmotivated and physically unable to move,” were some of the symptoms she listed. 

“This translates into longer-term cognitive outcomes we’re still to see — and obviously problematic, at the moment, is that most children aren’t going to school every day,” said Lachman. 

Children are struggling — especially more vulnerable children, like children with disabilities or special needs, who have lost the kind of structure that the school provides, said Lachman. 

Lost time in the classroom 

Since the disruption of Covid-19, school children have lost “two years of learning”, said Professor Haroon Saloojee from Wits University’s Paediatrics and Child Health Department. 

In terms of school attendance, the vast majority of public schools were rotating on a daily or weekly basis to comply with distance regulations, with some exceptions for Grade 12 learners, said Professor Mary Metcalfe from the University of Johannesburg and former education MEC for the Gauteng legislature. 

Since August, government regulations further required that primary schools return to full-time attendance only if schools could adhere to a 1m social distance, despite a number of schools being unable to observe this regulation, Metcalfe said. 

“That isn’t necessarily an infection-containment strategy,” she said, adding that the schooling system and health community needed to take a more holistic view and approach to get learners back to school from January 2022. 

By 22 January, 2o22, all primary school children must return to full-time attendance — even if the 1m distance guideline can’t be maintained, Metcalfe said. 

Get the kids back to school 

“There’s absolutely no reason why schools shouldn’t be fully open in the South African context,” agreed Professor Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at Wits University and director of the SA Medical Research Council Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytical Research Unit. 

“It’s no longer about trying to prevent infections and trying to eliminate the virus, which was never a realistic goal to start off,” Madhi said, pointing out that the country is still trying to adhere to the “outdated” thinking decided at the outset of the pandemic rather than keeping up with the science.

children covid-19 learning
Across the board, children’s anxiety and distress have increased as the learning journey has been interrupted by Covid-19. (Photo: Gallo Images / OJ Koloti)

“The latest science clearly indicates that there’s no elimination of the virus. The main goal that we now face is preventing severe disease and death — and not about preventing infections,” he said. 

“The only thing that needs to happen within a school environment that is fully operational is ventilation, and the wearing of face masks when indoors, which has limited value given the way that people wear face masks and take care of them,” said Madhi. 

Increasing coverage of vaccines in children is also not the solution, Madhi said. “If we start benchmarking increasing [vaccination] coverage of children as the basis of reopening schools we would be shooting ourselves in the foot.” 

Fluctuation and flexibility 

Fluctuating school attendance due to Covid-19 comes in the face of South Africa’s inequality in literacy, Metcalfe said.

“Virtual learning is a privilege for a few,” and extending school days is not a viable solution either, said Metcalfe. 

“We have to provide better support to teachers to be able to use their professional judgment in pacing [the school curriculum]”, assessing where learners are and identifying the gaps, Metcalfe stated. 

“The problem in South Africa is that we have a curriculum that’s highly prescribed. But when it’s followed by teachers, it is as if they must gallop through the curriculum without focusing on what the learners have learnt,” said Metcalfe. “You take away the teachers’ ability to respond to the needs of children.” 

Sequential teachers need to be more flexible in deciding where they want learners to focus, and languages and maths must be prioritised, Metcalfe said. 

Food security 

At this stage of the pandemic, households probably have fewer resources to draw on than in the earlier part of the pandemic, said economist Servaas van den Berg from Stellenbosch University’s Department of Economics. 

This is worsened by school meals, a source of daily food intake that many learners depend on, fluctuating alongside their school attendance.  

Government grants — which are not necessarily going to households running out of money — may ameliorate the poverty issue, but they do not solve it, Van den Berg said. 

He pointed out that neighbours, family and community are the most important source of support.

“We need a strong and growing economy and to prioritise that children get food, and good food,” he said. “Hunger is likely going to remain at its elevated levels until the economy returns to its strong growth.” 

Van den Berg said it might take some time before we see a sustained long-term growth, and relief needs to therefore remain a priority. 

“At the same time, we know that the government is faced with a lot of very difficult trade-offs — more taxes or more grants, more spending on schools or… more spending on health, all of those things come into play.” DM


"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]"