COVID-19: The hidden impact of lockdown on children

COVID-19: The hidden impact of lockdown on childrenPHOTO: Black Star/Spotlight
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After two months in lockdown, issues like food insecurity and economic hardship have become more and more obvious, but underneath these realities of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on South Africa, lies the fears and anxieties of some younger voices in society.

Spotlight spoke to experts in child health and child rights about the lockdown’s effects on children, and highlights some testimonies of at-risk children and their parents.

Children still being abused

 In Cape Town, the Red Cross Children’s Hospital (RCH) has continued to see similar numbers of child abuse cases during the lockdown compared to before. Although the hospital has seen a decrease in motor-vehicle related accidents, preventable injuries and intentional violence towards children has continued.

Manager of Social Services for the hospital, Carla Brown, is concerned that the lockdown may hide the realities of child violence.

“If everybody is home, then there’s vigilance and supervision for children, so on the one hand I hope that children are correctly supervised. But, we are still seeing the same numbers that we saw before which means that children are still being raped, physically beaten, abused, neglected, [and] emotionally abused,” she says.

According to Brown, the hospital sees roughly between 45 and 60 child abuse cases per month.

“[RCH] sees the worst [abuse] cases from our drainage areas; it’s the rapes where children need to go to theatre for [reparative surgery], the head injuries where neurosurgeons need to be involved, and the children who come in with multiple fractures, the very young children who [other hospitals] can’t deal with.”

Since the lockdown period, Brown said there’s been a correlation between gender-based violence and child abuse. “When we do our investigations, we’ve been finding that gender-based violence issues exist in these cases as well. There’s been violent acts against the caretaker, the mother, and the child has gotten injured in that domestic violence,” she says.

Brown adds that drug-related abuse was another common thread in children’s injuries during the lockdown. “The fact that we went through this rapid change, we’ve underestimated how much children have been affected by that,” says Brown. “I don’t know what the cloak of lockdown has hidden, and I hope in my heart that children who have needed help that have been exposed to violence have been able to receive the help that they need, and it’s not post-lockdown or as we change from one [level] to the next that we’re going to find a lot of children presenting at schools, hospitals and clinics having been injured and abused while this lockdown was happening.”

Acting Chief Director of Child, Youth and School Health at the National Department of Health, Dr Lesley Bamford tells Spotlight that the department is very concerned by the potential for an increase in household violence, particularly violence against women and children. “Currently we do not have any evidence as to whether or not this occurred, and whether banning alcohol mitigated this risk in any way,” she says.

The COVID-19 pandemic and measures to prevent its spread have impacted children in some predictable and some less predictable ways. PHOTO: Black Star/Spotlight

Are children being isolated?

At RCH, Brown says that the hospital had managed cases of children and families with COVID-19. “As a social work department we immediately provide daily support to such a child and family.”

This included daily phone calls to check in with the family, intensive counselling to adults, and assisting families to link to resources through the Department of Social Development, Community Action Networks and faith-based groups. “As far as I know, children don’t isolate away from their families,” says Brown.

Bamford confirms this, adding that if a child does not need to be isolated, then where possible they would be cared for by another household member, family or friends. If this was not possible, Bamford says the Department of Social Development would need to provide temporary accommodation and care for the child.

“Generally if a child [tests positive], the adult is likely to have it too,” says Brown. “All of the cases that I can speak of have always been where both the child and the caretaker has had it.”

In isolation facilities, Bamford says that families are kept together, and no children are admitted to these facilities unaccompanied. Should a child be alone, they should be admitted to a hospital ward where staff can look after them, she says.

Adding to this, Bamford says that some isolation facilities are not as child-friendly as they should be, but guidelines are currently under revision to ensure this changes.

Children’s feelings towards the lockdown

A recent study conducted by the National Planning Commission (NPC) looked at how children were affected by the lockdown. Child’s Rights Specialist at the NPC and incoming Children’s Commissioner for the Western Cape, Christina Nomdo, spoke to Spotlight about the results of the study, and her plans to incorporate children’s voices in her future role.

Nomdo says that the study was a third iteration of the NPC’s Children’s National Development Plan Programme, which focussed on children’s participation in governance.

“I thought the project was finished until we had [this] pandemic, and then we decided let’s do a special edition about reaching out to children during lockdown,” she says.

Nomdo explains that the NPC worked with different organisations across the country to connect with parents and their children. Through these organisations, parents were sent consent forms digitally through platforms like WhatsApp, after which they would serve as the primary interviewers of their children, she says.

“It was magnificent for us because through some of the reflection interviews with parents, some were blown away by their children’s responses, the maturity of them, how much information they really had about the virus and the lockdown, and also the fact that they had capabilities to understand the value of the lockdown.”

Nomdo says the study asked children about their feelings and understanding of the pandemic and the lockdown. “Children have mulled over the same kinds of concerns that adults mull over,” she says.

She categorised the main feelings expressed by children in the study as fear, anxiety, sadness and anger. “Fear or anxiety of losing someone you love. Sadness; I’m sad because it’s a very difficult time for me [and] I’m separated from my friends,” Nomdo explains. “Anger, almost like a sense of hopelessness about the effects of an external hazard, that nobody has any control over. [The children] understood [this] very well and felt a bit powerless in the face of this hazard.”

One limitation of the study, however, was that the children and families involved were often well-supported and stable, perhaps because of their relationship with an organisation.

Children from more vulnerable and marginalised communities could not be reached, says Nomdo. “The children bearing the worst brunt of this pandemic, we will only hear about and from them when they reconnect with other members of care, and their care network in society. We will only hear the realities of [what] children experienced at that time, and that’s very worrisome to professionals in the children’s rights network.”

A recent study on how children are affected by the lockdown shows the main feelings children express is fear, anxiety, sadness and anger. PHOTO: Black Star/Spotlight

The children are listening, Mr President

While adults might be the usual suspects eagerly listening to each of President Ramaphosa’s lockdown addresses, Nomdo says that children have also been watching. “This is very interesting because [Ramaphosa] has a lot of trust amongst them,” she says.  “Children trust that he’s made the right decision for the sake of their safety and he’s somebody that they’re willing to listen to.”

Nomdo adds that it would be useful for the President to host information sessions directly aimed at children, “but we are not at that level of maturity in our governance,” she says. “Part of the motivation for our study is to bring this insight that children should be involved in governance, and they have a valuable role to play.”

Nomdo says the study was a rewarding experience, but it highlighted the need to involve children in decision-making processes. She emphasises that studies like these will be a characteristic of her time as Children’s Commissioner. “Children’s involvement in governance is a strong conviction that I have, so I’m definitely going to help build processes where children can be involved in governance.”

 Nomdo officially takes office on 1 June.

Tuning in to children on RX Radio

And what does the children say about all this? Spotlight tuned in.

“My listeners, apologies for the background noise,” says 18-year-old Luzuko Sonkapu as he speaks into his phone at his home in rural Queenstown, Eastern Cape. “I’m at home and I can’t find a quiet place because I can’t go outside.”

Sonkapu is a reporter for RCH’s Radio station, otherwise known as RX Radio, “by and for children”. He is also a patient at the hospital, with a chronic illness called Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Since the beginning of the lockdown, RX Radio has featured the voices of their young reporters from across the country and within the hospital describing their experiences of the lockdown and their thoughts on the pandemic.

Through the muffled background noise Sonkapu says, “it’s getting loud, it’s getting loud,” describing his family’s discussions about COVID-19. On a positive note, Sonkapu says he’s been able to stay inside and spend time with his family. “The negative side is that everything that I’ve planned to do is now on hold.”

For 2020, in between finishing matric and writing songs for the school choir, Sonkapu was planning to do bigger things in RX Radio and release more of his own music. He says that the lockdown is affecting him mentally, socially and physically, and feared the virus’ interaction with his chronic illness. “Coronavirus and my illness, if they can click together they can basically kill me,” he says. “I have a fear of that, and I’m scared,” he says. “I’m feeling a bit shaky because it can affect my lungs and affect my breathing issues.”

Sonkapu says that as soon as he heard about COVID-19, he moved out of the city back to a rural village. “In the city it’s more dangerous than a rural area,” he says, even though there may not always be fresh water.

Before signing off, Sonkapu calls for people to follow the infection control measures put in place by the Department of Health. “Stay safe, be humble, be patient and pray to God that everything will be fine,” he says.

Lockdown is often more difficult for parents and caregivers of chronically ill children. PHOTO: Black Star/Spotlight

Concerns for chronically ill children

In Khayelitsha, Babalwa Dlakavu, the mother of one of RX Radio’s reporters, shared her insights earlier this month, which, like Sonkapu, included serious concerns for her child’s health. Dlakavu tells listeners that she is unemployed and that it’s very hard to care for a child that is chronically ill during this time. Her daughter, Lindokuhle, has a lung condition called bronchiolitis, and pneumonia. She has only one functioning lung and depends on oxygen.

“The challenge is that my street is very busy,” she says, speaking in isiXhosa. “People are going up and down, they are not taking the lockdown seriously, even the kids are playing outside.” She says it’s stressful for her daughter, watching the other children play, knowing she can’t join them.

Dlakavu says she wishes the government could help her family by delivering Lindokuhle’s medicines. Because of the lockdown, Lindokuhle’s treatment has to be collected from the closest hospital to her home, instead of RCH. “It takes a long time to fall asleep at night because you are thinking about this virus that does not yet have a vaccine,” says Dlakavu.

“We are really scared,” she says. “We [have] come a long way with our chronically ill children and it’s hard.”

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