Improvement in child well-being since Covid-19 but many remain fragile, UJ research shows   

The Covid-19 pandemic increased the vulnerability of children and their families across the world.  In South Africa, researchers tracked child and family well-being over the course of the pandemic. Despite some positive improvements in reducing child hunger and caregiver depression levels; child well-being remains fragile as families continue to face economic safety and protection risks.  

This is among the findings of a research study by the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA), at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). The longitudinal study, titled “How well are children faring?” assessed child well-being and tracked 123 children in their foundation years (Grade R – 3) from five schools in disadvantaged areas in Johannesburg. The study covered three years from the start of Covid-19 in 2020 until the end of the pandemic in 2022.  

The research reveals that children and their caregivers have made significant recoveries since the start of the pandemic. “There has been significant progress in reducing child hunger and caregiver depression levels, improved responsiveness to children’s health needs and better school participation since 2020,” explains lead researcher, Leila Patel, Distinguished Professor at the CSDA.

However, challenges remain, 60% of children still face economic risks to their well-being and 62% face risks to their safety, protection and care, the research found.

The study is novel because it generates data that doesn’t exist elsewhere. It gives a complete picture of child well-being across five areas critical to their development that could guide social interventions such as accessing support from social workers, health and nutrition screenings and school feeding programmes. It brought together leading researchers, practitioners and organisations in a Community of Practice (CoP). The aim is to find breakthrough solutions that could improve their well-being by bolstering the social support systems around them and providing tailored and integrated health, education, mental health and welfare services to children and families at risk.

“What is notable about the study is that it tracks the impact of the pandemic on children and families. Although we have come far since 2020, we have also observed that many of the problems they face have ‘hardened’ over time. In some cases, the gains made before the pandemic were reversed and in the recovery period, these have not been fully regained. We see a ‘stickiness’ to these challenges that will be difficult to shift,” explains Prof Patel.

The study was built on a large body of research that shows that dedicated investments in children and their families in the early years of schooling are crucial to a long, productive, and happy life. The research provides a window into the lives of children and their families in South Africa and the difficulties they face.

The data speaks for itself. It shows how they are affected by multiple and overlapping crises with lasting consequences if not addressed. These issues need to be uppermost in the minds of policymakers as they make policy choices, especially in a constrained fiscal environment,” says Prof Patel.      

Gains made since the pandemic

Although the research is sobering, highlighting the various areas in which children are vulnerable, there have been some positive developments. Researchers found that children’s psychosocial well-being improved dramatically over the three years, with far fewer children experiencing emotional, peer and social difficulties. Caregiver depression rates dropped from 52,6% in 2020 to 23,5% in 2022.

Caregivers were also more responsive to children’s health needs resulting in higher vaccination rates, increases in health screenings and more children engaging in physical activity.

There were also marked improvements in the support that parents and caregivers receive from family and social networks, jumping from 30% in 2020 to 80% in 2022. Parents also reported spending more time with their children reading, singing and playing.

Child hunger dropped significantly during the study:

·       In 2020 14% of children went to bed hungry and this dropped to 5% in 2022.

·       In 2020 14% of children didn’t have enough food to eat, this dropped to 5% in 2022.

·       Children who didn’t eat three meals a day dropped from 12% in 2020 to 5% in 2022.

This improvement is possibly due to the restarting of school feeding schemes, but the research highlighted that a third of children showed at least one sign of malnutrition.  

On the education front, there were mixed results with caregivers reporting improved school attendance, and progress with schoolwork and homework, while teachers reported increases in school absenteeism (up from 4% to 10%). Children not progressing to the next grade dropped from 18% in 2021 to 5% in 2022.

High levels of violence and financial risks

However, one of the study’s most worrying findings is that 60% of children continue to be exposed to hostile and violent behaviour at home and in the community. “This number remained consistent over time and breaking these behavioural patterns requires dedicated interventions such as improving the knowledge and skills of caregivers, family members and the broader community. We also need to see greater responsiveness from the South African Police Service,” says Prof Patel.         

But most concerning was that children’s material well-being was compromised during the pandemic and it has not recovered. Only 16% of caregivers were employed full-time in 2022, compared with 20% in 2020. Unemployment remained stubbornly high at 63% in 2022. As a result, 60% of families are unable to save, 42% of families struggle to pay their debts and 33% don’t have money to buy things they need.

What are the implications of this research?

Young children who lived through the pandemic are more vulnerable to the interlocking challenges of hunger, poverty, unemployment, and poor mental health. Their well-being and educational outcomes have suffered as a result of the pandemic.

In South Africa family support systems are fragile and many face financial instability. The research shows that social grants play a crucial role in mitigating the financial constraints facing these households and 85% of the participants received the Child Support Grant and 40% received the Social Relief of Distress Grant (SRD).

“There is much debate currently about the phasing out of the SRD due to the fiscal crisis facing the government. But the data speaks for itself, phasing out the SRD will be a major economic shock for families living in extremely precarious conditions. It will have negative knock-on effects on child hunger, child malnutrition levels will worsen as will caregiver depression rates. As more caregivers struggle to cope under greater economic strain, we are likely to see larger numbers of children presenting with social, emotional and conduct difficulties. If this occurs alongside reductions in grants and school-based services, the overall well-being of children and families will be further compromised.                              

Taking these factors together, children’s learning will be further compromised. This, in turn, will jeopardise their life chances in later life. This cohort of children who lived through the COVID-19 pandemic need more from society, not less. They need additional and tangible support to help pull them over the line,” Prof Patel explains.

“Our research shows that if we want to protect the well-being of our children and enable them to thrive, we need to provide both social grants and social support services. South Africa is facing a deepening economic and social crisis. I believe our research provides important pointers to help make informed and carefully considered decisions that can help to improve child and family well-being so that young children don’t fall further behind,” says Prof Patel.

The full report can be found here.

The research is funded by the National Research Foundation.  

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