Whether in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic or during the current violent attacks and looting in South Africa, the needs of young children are often the last to be discussed. The youngest members of our society are among the most vulnerable because — unlike adults — they are unable to make their voices heard; they are unable to protest or advocate their rights (let alone riot and loot).
What will the future generation of skilled labour look like if we neglect the physical, social and cognitive early childhood development of children right now? What will the long-term impact be if we restrict our children’s ability to reach their full potential, thus exacerbating intergenerational cycles of poverty?
On an ordinary South African day, according to the Grow Great Campaign in a Maverick Citizen article, “As we hit day six of violent protests, spare a thought for our children” (15 July 2021), 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; and 27% suffer from stunting because of chronic malnutrition (malnutrition is believed to be an underlying contributory factor in almost two-thirds of child hospital deaths).
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.
Children’s access to quality early learning programmes has been a critical challenge at the best of times. According to Ilifa Labantwana, 3.2 million children do not have access to any form of early learning, and the majority of these children come from the poorest quintiles. This number will likely increase further in light of recent events.
The unrest has resulted in food shortages in many parts of KwaZulu-Natal, with many stores left without stock, little to no distribution trucks operating and warehouses left desolated. According to the Sunday Times, many primary caregivers in Windermere Centre, Durban, were having to queue for hours to access necessities such as bread, milk, vegetables and baby formula. Only a few stores opened their doors, including Shoprite Checkers, Woolworths and a fruit and veg shop.
The current large-scale looting of food stores and burning of warehouses will have a negative impact on child malnutrition in the months and years to come. Not only is less food available, but livelihoods have been destroyed (on top of the damage from Covid-related restrictions of the past 18 months), making it even more difficult for the vulnerable to access and purchase food in the short, medium and sometimes long term.
Increasing levels of unemployment will mean primary caregivers are not able to afford to send their children to ECD centres, which will affect children’s early learning and brain development. For some children, these centres are the source of the only nutritious meal of the day as well — contributing further to chronic malnutrition. In short, the long-term damage done to children’s development, and hence South Africa’s development, is potentially dire.
What role can social investors play?
Like never before, this is a time for social investors to actively contribute and participate in supporting the thousands of families with young children who are facing the devastation and consequences of the recent horrific events. This can be done by supporting organisations that provide food relief packages to families that have young children to ensure that children’s nutritional needs are met.
As thousands of families have been pushed into unemployment, there is also a need to support organisations that provide non-centre-based early learning services, such as playgroups and home visiting programmes to ensure that children have access to quality education and stimulation.
Now is the time for us to pull the ECD sector together and play our part in rebuilding (and building) a better future for our children. DM