COVID-19 holds lessons for the future of social protection

25 February 2021 | Story Katharine Hall. Photo Gerd Altmann, Pixabay Read time >10 min.

Food security experts in South Africa warned early on that the lockdown instituted to manage the spread of COVID-19 would threaten children’s nutrition. Before the arrival of the pandemic, a third of South Africa’s 20 million children were already living in households that were below the food poverty line.

The lockdown pushed many more into food insecurity and hunger. The food crisis wasn’t about a national food shortage or distribution failure – shops remained open and there was food on the shelves.

Instead it was a crisis of poverty, exacerbated by households losing employment income. It took a few months before the impact on households and children could be quantified.

The first round of a national income dynamics survey (NIDS-CRAM) showed massive job losses: approximately 3 million fewer people were employed in April than in February. Two million of those who lost employment were women.

Nearly half of the respondents said that their households ran out of money to buy food in April and 15% of those who lived in households with children reported child hunger. This was the case even though most of these households received at least one child support grant.

The food security of over 9 million children was further undermined when schools closed and school feeding programmes stopped operating. This placed more strain on the resources of caregivers who needed to replace the lost meals.


The child support grant is the most pro-poor of all the grants because of its low means test.

In a pernicious twist, food prices rose substantially too.

Inadequacy of the social protection programme

South Africa’s extensive social grants programme transfers close to 18 million grants to low income and vulnerable people each month. Analyses of the status quo before lockdown showed that the child support grant was well targeted to households that were most vulnerable to the effects of lockdown, including 80% of individuals in informal worker households.

The child support grant is the most pro-poor of all the grants because of its low means test. It also has the broadest reach, being paid to over 7 million caregivers to help support nearly 13 million children. But it was unable to protect children and their households against shocks.

COVID-19 amplified the inequalities and vulnerabilities that already existed and drew attention to gaping holes in the safety net. These included the fact that the child support grant – R440 per month in 2020, approximately $70 dollars in purchasing power parity – wasn’t enough to provide for a child’s nutritional needs.

The crisis also foregrounded the total absence of social grants for adults of working age (unless they have a disability), whatever the structural conditions that affected their lives.

There was some temporary relief in the form of a disaster relief package. It included a R300 top-up to the child support grant for just one month and R250 top-ups to other existing grants for six months. It also included a new caregiver grant of R500 for five months and a COVID-19 social relief of distress grant of R350 per month for working age adults who were unemployed and not receiving any other grant.


But there were gaps. The grant top-ups were not extended after October and neither was the caregiver grant.

The package of disaster relief grants was scheduled to last until October 2020. The October Medium Term Budget Policy Statement included provisions for the extension of the social relief of distress grant, and a further extension was announced by the president in February.

But there were gaps. The grant top-ups were not extended after October and neither was the caregiver grant. Caregivers who received the child support grant for their children were excluded from applying for the social relief of distress grant for themselves.

United Nations human rights bodies have advised that families with children should be prioritised in material relief programmes. Yet there is no disaster relief for caregivers. There’s no allowance for them in the child support grant and there’s no recourse to the COVID-19 grant if the caregiver is unemployed.

This is an impossible paradox and it’s punitive to working-age caregivers, the vast majority of whom are women.

Women were over-represented among those who lost jobs or were furloughed in 2020. They were also under-represented in support mechanisms in place for employees who lost work because they were less likely than men to be employed in the formal sector to start with.

Yet the social relief of distress grant was disproportionately received by men precisely because women who received child grants couldn’t apply for it.

The same rule doesn’t apply to elderly caregivers who receive the older person's grant. Nearly a million pensioners also receive a child support grant. The system recognises that the elderly caregiver and the child both need income support – they cannot be expected to share a single grant.

Child hunger and malnutrition

Authors of the South African Child Gauge 2020 describe the invisible, cumulative and devastating effects of chronic malnutrition as a form of “slow violence”. Poor nutrition stunts children’s growth and hollows out their life chances.

A quarter of children under five years are too short for their age due to chronic under-nutrition. This number has not shifted substantially in the last two decades. Despite its wide reach, the small child support grant has not been able to reduce the persistently high stunting rates.


It’s time to progress from piecemeal, temporary and insufficient disaster relief to adequate social protection for all.

The national income dynamics survey tracked measures of adult and child hunger over 2020. The pattern is clear: there was a dramatic rise in hunger in the early months of lockdown, which was relieved to some extent by July and August. But after cessation of the top-ups and caregiver grant, these improvements were reversed. Child hunger increased despite more relaxed lockdown regulations and some improvement in the employment figures.

What’s needed

Because grant adjustments over the past year have happened in the context of an urgent disaster response, there has been little time for a systematic process to explore policy options. There’s no indication that the proposed adjustments underwent any kind of gendered or child impact analysis before decisions were made.

It’s time to progress from piecemeal, temporary and insufficient disaster relief to adequate social protection for all.

A strength of the child support grant is that it’s legislated as a permanent grant during ordinary times, not only during disaster, and therefore it cannot be taken away. The COVID-19 social relief of distress grant is a temporary disaster relief grant. It can be reduced or discontinued at any time, as happened with the caregiver grant.

There are three recommendations that flow from this:

  • The government must invest in increasing the child support grant.

  • The COVID-19 social relief of distress grant must be changed into a permanent (legislated) income support grant for adults.

  • The income support grant must be made available to unemployed caregivers, including those who receive the child support grant.

From a child health and development perspective an increase in the value of the child support grant is key – if not to the level of the other grants, then at least to the food poverty line as a minimum benchmark. This needs to be complemented by programmes to support the nutrition and mental health of pregnant women, and service delivery improvements to ensure early uptake of the child support grant.

Tackling the persistent burden of malnutrition is an urgent imperative. It will be costly in the short term, but failure to do so will be too costly for children, their families and for the country in the long term.

The budget announcement will hold important clues about the direction of government’s investments. Children and the women who care for them can no longer be told to tighten their belts.

This article by Katharine Hall of the Children's Institute at the University of Cape Town was published by The Conversation on 24 February 2021, just prior to the Budget Speech 2021.

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