Even before the lockdown, the nutritional status of a large proportion of South African families was very fragile. A quarter of South Africa’s children under five suffer from stunting as a result of chronic malnutrition, which is an underlying contributory factor in at least two-thirds of child deaths in South Africa. A quarter of pregnant women report going hungry and 25% of households live below the food poverty line. Quite literally, a vast number of families have been living on the edge.

Our people have no reserves and the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown will result in a spike in acute malnutrition if we do not act swiftly to protect food and nutrition security for the most vulnerable.

Worsening nutrition will increase the number of low birth-weight babies and increase their susceptibility to infections, firstly to Covid-19 and then to childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea and measles. This could result in secondary epidemics, especially if the health services are already overwhelmed.

Two immediate things can be done to mitigate the economic and nutritional effect on South Africans: first, increase the child support grant and expand its beneficiary base and, second, make affordable a basic basket of highly nutritional foodstuffs.

Increase the child support grant and expand its beneficiaries

South Africa’s child support grant is a helpful intervention for providing some support for the nutritional needs of South Africa’s children on an ordinary day. These, however, are not ordinary days. With more than nine-million school-going children unable to access the daily nutritious meal they received through the country’s national school nutrition programme and 1.2-million under fives likewise unable to access a meal through early childhood development centres, the R445 per month child support grant will be insufficient to protect South Africa’s children from acute and chronic malnutrition and its devastating long-term effects on their future health and well-being.

In addition, the grant does not cover pregnancy, a time when a child’s growth and brain development relies mostly on adequate nutrition. So, to avoid this impending malnutrition crisis, and its long-term social and economic effects, the government should top up the grant for the next three months and extend the beneficiary base to include pregnant women.

Groups, such as the Children’s Institute and South Africa Labour and Development Research Unit  argue that temporarily increasing the child support grant would be among the most efficient ways to strengthen household food security.

Affordable basic basket of highly nutritious food items  

At a time where a significant proportion of the South Africa population will experience cash constraints, retailers and food manufacturers could play an important role in cushioning the blow by waiving their retail mark-ups on essential food items. Five items have been identified by the Grow Great Campaign as essential.

These foods items include eggs, maize meal, legumes (beans and lentils), tinned fish and full-cream milk powder and have been identified because of their high nutritional value and wide use across South Africa’s cultural groups.

As South Africans we can and will overcome this pandemic and triumph over its far-reaching ramifications on our economy, health systems and the well-being of our people. Victory over the pandemic will, however, take us coming together as non-governmental organisations, government and business to ensure the most vulnerable are protected and that hard-won gains in health and development are fiercely defended during this time.

As has been repeatedly emphasised by others: “We will never know if we did too much, but it will be immediately apparent if we do not do enough.”

Dr Kopano Matlwa Mabaso is executive director of Grow Great, which seeks to mobilise South Africa towards a national commitment to zero stunting by 2030