Covid-19, school closures likely to cause hunger levels to rise in children, researchers say

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Pupils at Monde Primary School in Ekhuruleni, during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Pupils at Monde Primary School in Ekhuruleni, during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Gallo Images/Laird Forbes
  • The pandemic resulted in increased child hunger, according to the Children's Institute.
  • The closure of schools and ECD programmes added to the risk of malnourishment.
  • Researchers worry that decreased reported cases mean malnourished children are going untreated. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on schooling and, by association, child nutrition.

A series of advocacy briefs, published by the Children's Institute at UCT, found that schooling was severely impacted by the pandemic, which increased food insecurity among children.

In South Africa, early childhood development (ECD) programmes play a critical role in providing safe care, adequate nutrition and early stimulation to young children, the institute found.

ECD schools were, however, hard hit by the pandemic.

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Even prior to Covid-19, this sector was fragile and underfunded, said Lizette Berry, a senior researcher at the institute.

"The mandatory closure of ECD programmes in 2020 intensified existing challenges. Prolonged lockdown, limited state support and the withdrawal of the ECD subsidy in most provinces led to the permanent closure of many ECD programmes and significant job losses."

And this, the institute said, would cause not only immediate but also long-term harm to the health, nutrition and education of young children.

When ECD facilities close, young children, who are fed at these facilities, lose this form of nutrition.

The nutrition of older pupils was also affected by school closures.

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Although fewer than 1% of learners (1 200) contracted Covid-19 in the Western Cape in 2020, schools faced repeated closures amid widespread fears of learner and educator safety.

Dr Patti Silbert, the project manager of the Schools Improvement Initiative in the Schools Development Unit at UCT, said: "The school closures have had a devastating impact on education, with the majority of primary school children losing close to a full year of learning and an estimated 750 000 learners dropping out of school," adding:

Closures also prevented children from accessing an important source of nutrition, healthcare and psychosocial support, with over nine million learners losing out on a daily school meal during lockdown.

This lack of access to nutrition programmes came at a time when one in seven households reported child hunger in April 2020, the institute said.

Food insecurity was likely to increase the already high levels of childhood stunting, overweight and obesity, and micro-nutrient deficiencies in the country.

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Covid-19 disrupted young children's access to routine healthcare services, which made it harder to identify and support children at risk of malnutrition. And the real danger was in the fact that there had been a decrease in the incidence of severe acute malnutrition cases, which could indicate that cases were not being seen, recorded or treated, the brief said.

These concerns over child malnutrition were exacerbated by the increase in the child support grant being lower than inflation. This could place additional strain on already cash-strapped homes, researchers warned.

Dr Katharine Hall, senior researcher at the institute, said: "The decrease in the real value of the Child Support Grant (valued at R460 a month, or R15 a day, in April 2021) is likely to intensify child hunger in the coming months as the cost of food continues to rise and the buying power of this small grant is eroded. There are worries of an increase in child malnutrition."

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