Lockdown: Top researcher says younger children should return to school first

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The lockdown is bad for the wellbeing of young children, and they should be the first to return to school as they are the least at risk according to data, a respected researcher has argued.

This is a key recommendation from Dr Nic Spaull, an economist at the University of Stellenbosch's Research on Socio-Economic Policy Unit.

"In summary, young children being locked up at home - when there are few health benefits to themselves or society - is bad for the well-being of children, it's bad for parents and it's also bad for the economy," Spaull told News24.

"There are very large costs to locking up children at home."

Spaull explained why the research had been conducted: "The aim of this policy brief was to review the international evidence on whether or not children get infected as the same rate as adults; whether they die from Covid-19 at the same rate as adults; and to try and advise particularly education policy-makers about what are the options available to them - and what are the likely costs of the options."


The research had established: "If you review the international research from a number of countries - the evidence is quite strong that children are very unlikely to get infected. And even when children do get infected, they only show mild symptoms - they almost never get severely ill from Covid-19… They almost never die from Covid-19." 

There has been only a handful of deaths, around the world, among children aged 0 to 10 - and none in South Africa.

"If we look at the data coming out of the US, the Center for Disease Control [CDC] reports that of the 132 000 deaths from Covid-19 in America, only 20, or 0.015%, are kids aged 14 years old or younger. Between 1 February 2020 and 5 May 2020, kids in the US were seven more likely to die from pneumonia [0.1%] than Covid-19."

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In addition, in the cases in which children were infected, they were then "much less likely to transmit the virus to others - whether to other children or other adults", Spaull said.

The countries they studied included Iceland, Japan, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea and China.

"So, I make the argument that the youngest children should go back to school first."

Spaull added: "The economic and social cost of keeping these children at home is very high. If you have very young children at home, their parents and caregivers can't go back to work, so you can't re-open the economy. Because parents can't go to work and take care of their kids - and these kids can't take care of themselves.

Social impacts

"There are also a lot of social costs to keeping children locked down; both that they can't see their same-age peers, their friends, mental health costs, learning costs, nutrition costs. When schools are open, nine million kids get a free school meal every day."

This was informed by the unfolding catastrophic damage to the economy wrought by the lockdown, he said.

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"Some economists have estimated there are an additional four million South Africans who have moved into extreme poverty as a result of the lockdown," Spaull added.

"That means they are surviving on less than R10 a day. So even if they spent all their money on food, they wouldn't be able to buy enough calories to support a normal person."


This would include a severe impact on children at home, too - without the support of programmes like school feeding schemes.

In his practical recommendations, Spaull said: "It's more about managing the protective equipment available to teachers, transport workers, school feeding operators - all of the adults that are involved in schooling - making sure there are preparations available to ensure they don't catch the virus from each other. So, that the principal doesn't catch it from other teachers, for example.

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"If you have very old teachers - like older than 60 - or if you have people who have other risk factors like diabetes or heart conditions, the Department of Basic Education should plan to substitute these teachers."

This would present significant administrative, timetabling and logistical challenges, Spaull predicted.

"We know this virus is going to be with us for at least a year. Must we keep schools and the economy locked down for an entire year? We simply can't do that. The lockdown was meant to buy time to prepare the healthcare system - it wasn't meant as an ongoing measure to stop infections."

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