The effects of the pandemic on children.

March 2022

By Dr M.

I recently attended an excellent workshop put together by Jelly Beanz Child trauma training, presented by two incredible women: clinical  psychologist: Marita Rademeyer, and social worker and play therapist: Edith Kriel.

According to Marita, South African children were already extremely vulnerable pre covid with 60% of SA children living in poverty; 1 in 3 experienced some form of sexual abuse; 1 in 3 experienced physical abuse and exposure to violence. Over 9 million learners received 2 meals per day through the NSNP at school, a place very often, which served as an escape and refuge from home life.

The pandemic and its lockdown rules, especially the cancellation of school, left children isolated in small spaces with family members that were not always trustworthy or having the child’s best interest at heart. Children found themselves with no access to food/education/medical care, some experiencing exposure to extremes of cold/heat, poor sanitation and fire hazards. Exposure to physical and sexual abuse increased dramatically and new forms of abuse emerged such as cyberbullying and sadly, children being exploited to pornography. Not only are children being exploited by adults and older teenagers, but younger and younger children are exploiting children in pornography, realising that an avenue for earning dollars is a viable “business”.

No surprise then, that the incidences of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse is extremely prevalent. In the 15-24 age group, suicide is the second leading and fastest growing cause of death in our South African children.

Research from across the world supported South Africa’s findings as to the negative impact of the pandemic on our children. Radesky (2020) reported research from China where 22.6% of learners grade 2-6 reported symptoms of depression during school closures.  When children are away from school they are physically less active, have much longer screen time – hence more emf exposure and consequently irregular sleep patterns. In addition, their diets become less favourable, resulting in weight gain and loss of cardiorespiratory fitness. Research in Ethiopia by Khodr (2020) reported that one third of respondents feared that they would run out of food within a week and nearly half of those who were on medication said they would run out in less than a week.

Although respondents understood the necessity for isolation of covid suspects, two thirds reported that they did not have a separate room in which this could be done.

On an emotional/mental perspective, children reported fears of infection, frustration, boredom, loneliness and lack of personal space in their home environment. For many South African children, school is a source of education as well as safety and support. Cognitive and social development do not take place in isolation – according to Soudien: it is embedded within relationships.

Unicef records indicate that nearly 95 000 South African children have lost parents and guardians – the highest number of covid orphans on the continent. According to Wans et al (2020) the mean posttraumatic stress scores were 4 times higher in those children who had been quarantined. There is only one psychiatrist in the whole of Ethiopia.

How do we rebuild what has been lost? How do we heal the fragmentation of our children? I think you will agree that extended lockdown and an ongoing State of Disaster is not the solution. We need more incredible humans like Marita and Erika to continue reaching out to our children. We need to assist our teachers on how to support our children at school and to empower them with the tools to enable group healing. And as individuals, we need to stand together to protect our children, to secure their future and rekindle hope in their minds and spirits.