Child hunger on rise in SA due to new Covid-19 variant
Johannesburg - As the new variant of the Covid-19 virus spreads across South Africa, child hunger is on the rise, and it is up to the government to stop its spread.
Social grants, school meals and Early Childhood Development subsidies are what researchers at the Stellenbosch university believe will stop an epidemic of hunger, that until last year had fallen drastically across the nation over the last two decades.
"Things were starting to improve with the slackening of the lockdown, but of course, with the reintroduction of a more strict lockdown, it has probably affected a lot of people, particularly in the informal sector," said Professor Servaas van der Berg, of the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University.
Between 2002 and 2018, child hunger was more than halved when it fell from 35% of households to 16%, according to the General House Survey. This fall was attributed to the introduction of social grants.
But during the lockdown period, a NIDS-CRAM survey, run by the University of Stellenbosch, found that 15% of children had gone hungry in the last week. Adults admitted to having gone hungry 22% of the time.
The study further found that child hunger had been limited, despite 47% of households reporting that they had run out of money in the last month.
The survey was run between May 7 and June 27, 2020, and asked 7041 adult participants multiple questions about child and adult hunger.
The researchers found that the figures weren’t higher, because households were still able to draw on several mechanisms to source money. These included utilising their savings and borrowing.
The problem, explained van der Berg, is that these are short term solutions, and as economic hardship continues, hunger within these households is set to get worse.
A new survey which the research unit has just completed is likely to reveal more, and van der Berg expects that it will show a further deterioration in the fortunes of many South Africans.
“The stricter lockdown has probably affected a lot of people, particularly in the informal sector. If people aren’t working and they can't move around, their opportunities have been reduced,” he explained.
In a working paper that was released by the department of economics and the bureau for economic research at the University of Stellenbosch, the researchers provided recommendations that could help alleviate child hunger.
They called for continued and added government relief.
This at a time when they report that a third of all households are now dependent on grants.
They also called for the improved implementation of new government relief packages for the poor.
School feeding schemes also need to be reopened and not necessarily linked.
They did, however, welcome the recent news that the Department of Basic Education now plans to provide food to all learners, even if they are not in school.
The call for the government to assist in hunger relief comes as the private sector finds it increasingly difficult to provide assistance to the poor.
“Companies that were giving money have collapsed, and some of those who were giving donations have now become recipients,” explained Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, the founder of the humanitarian organisation Gift of the Givers.
“And this causes a hell of a knock on effect. NGOs that were supported by big corporations have now collapsed because they can't support them any more.”
Gift of the Givers was providing food to needy South Africans at the height of the first wave of the pandemic. Sooliman has first-hand experience of the poverty caused by the pandemic.
“We saw thousands and thousands of children going hungry, children eating plants to survive, cats and dogs, tortoises, even lizards,” he recalled.
“Initially, it was the kids in the queues, and then the adults and the queues just got bigger and bigger. Children would just take one bowl of food and not come back, so as to allow other people to come in. There was a discipline because they knew they had to share so many other people.”
Merwyn Abrahams, the project co-ordinator of Pietermaritzburg Economic and Dignity, said his organisation had also seen increased incidents of child hunger over the pandemic period.
“What women tell us is that all kinds of credit have been exhausted, so that option is now gone. The issue is that they can't afford food, so all they can do is cut back on what they eat, and we are seeing that in Pietermaritzburg, Johannesburg, Cape Town, everywhere,” said Abrahams.
Another problem, explained Abrahams, is that social grants are not enough.
“From our research, in December 2020, the average cost to feed a child of between 10 and 13 years of age was R678,09. The child support grant was R440.”
Abrahams said to reduce hunger goes beyond just government relief.
"We need to find more sources of income for households, and we need to find ways of making food more affordable," he said.