Covid-19 lockdown a disaster for children’s growth as poverty deepens

The number of children living in poverty has now soared to nearly 1.2 billion.
Image: REUTERS

The UN has sounded an alarm on what Covid-19 has done to children globally, with South Africa no exception.

It has released a report stating that “the number of children living in poverty has now soared to nearly 1.2 billion”, a 15% increase from pre-pandemic levels.

According to analysis carried out by the UN Children’s Education Fund and Save the Children, the situation “could worsen” in months to come as the true fallout becomes clearer.

“Covid-19 and the lockdown measures imposed to prevent its spread have pushed millions of children deeper into poverty,” according to Henrietta Fore, Unicef executive director. “Families on the cusp of escaping poverty have been pulled back in, while others are experiencing levels of deprivation they have never seen before. Most concerningly, we are closer to the beginning of this crisis than its end.”

The impact could be particularly harsh for children in the crucial “first 1,000 days of life” (from conception to second birthday), as that’s when the most neurological hardwiring takes place in a child’s brain, and nutrition is a huge part of that.

According to the DG Murray Trust, which invests in programmes that develop the country’s potential and reduce inequality, “no form of education or early learning will be enough to help children thrive if their nutritional and neurological foundations are not well laid — particularly in the first 1,000 days of life”.

The organisation said nutritional stunting is associated “with lifelong cognitive defects, educational and employment challenges, increased risk of chronic diseases in adulthood and ongoing cycles of intergenerational poverty”.

Today, about 27% of the country’s children under the age of five are stunted and the UN predicts Covid-19 could increase such percentages in many under-resourced countries.

Paula Proudlock, a senior researcher at the Children’s Institute (University of Cape Town) said before Covid-19 there was “already sufficient evidence that South Africa had alarmingly high rates of poverty, unemployment and child stunting”.

Then came the pandemic.

At that stage, “government only considered the evidence of the potential impact of the virus on society and did not also model the potential negative impact of the lockdown”.

She said: “The decision to close down the school feeding scheme during lockdown and hope that a new food-parcel programme would reach over nine million children was not based on evidence.”

The lack of an impact assessment beforehand is a lesson that should be borne in mind, she said.

Also, “the decision to top up all the existing social grants by R250, except for the already very low-valued child-support grant” did not consider the “disproportionately negative impact of the lockdown on poor children” or their predominantly women caregivers.

The lessons to take forward are: “Don’t close down well-established and successful programmes during a time of crisis” and “use the established and successful programmes, such as the child-feeding scheme and the child support grant, to reach children and women during a time of crisis.

In other words, “before making decisions to close down services during a disaster or crisis, assess what the likely impact will be for children”.

The Unicef study, based on data on access to education, health care, housing, nutrition, sanitation and water from more than 70 countries, found that about 45% of children were already “severely deprived” of at least one of the critical needs in the countries analysed before the pandemic and the situation had deteriorated since Covid-19 struck.

By Tanya Farber

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