UNICEF calls for averting a lost generation as COVID-19 presents a child rights crisis and changes childhood in South Africa

The pandemic threatens to cause irreversible harm to children’s education, nutrition and well-being according to a new UNICEF South Africa report released ahead of World Children’s Day.

19 November 2020

Commemoration this year includes a young South African’s online chat with UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham

 PRETORIA, 19 November 2020: Children and young people must not be the forgotten and unseen casualties of COVID-19, warned UNICEF South Africa today. Released ahead of World Children’s Day on 20 November, a new report shows how COVID-19 has presented multiple challenges for children in the country as their safety, nutrition and health have been compromised, while their education has been disrupted.

The report, titled How COVID-19 is changing childhood in South Africa: Responding and reimagining for every child notes that the longer the crisis persists, the deeper its impact on children’s education, health, nutrition and well-being. Achieving the Government’s National Development Plan and the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 has been made that much harder and requires a concerted effort to get back on track.

“The lives and futures of children across South Africa are being threatened by the COVID-19 crisis,” said UNICEF South Africa Representative, Christine Muhigana. “We need to collectively respond to the immediate issues affecting children, whilst tackling the deep-rooted problems in the country, only then can we reimagine and realise a better future, for every child,” Muhigana added.

The statistics in the report are sobering and a clear call to action:

  • The public health impact of the virus in the country has been severe, children make up 8% of the more than 750,000 COVID-19 confirmed cases. Adolescents are affected at higher rates and evidence indicates that adolescent girls are impacted worse than boys.
  • A reported 2.2 million jobs were lost between April and June in South Africa – lost livelihoods that have a direct impact on children.
  • Remote learning exposed the digital divide, only 11% of young people reported access to a laptop and internet according to a UNICEF SMS U-Report survey.
  • During lockdown, routine immunisation coverage dropped to a worrying low of 61%.
  • Childline SA reported a 67% rise in calls for help during lockdown, compared to the same period last year. 

UNICEF South Africa’s response is aligned to the UN’s emergency COVID-19 response plan and works across the sectors of health and nutrition; water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH); education; child protection; and risk communication and community engagement.

  • Some 7 million people have been reached with COVID-19 prevention messaging and work goes on to scale up this communication to prevent a potential resurgence.
  • Some 164,000 children are receiving healthcare services, including immunisation, prenatal, postnatal, HIV & GBV care in facilities supported by UNICEF.
  • Child friendly safe standard operating procedures, videos and mass media work on staying safe at school reached some 21 million people, through school distribution, public service broadcast announcements and via the Children’s Radio Foundation.
  • Through the Tshwaragano ka Bana: Let’s play, learn and grow together series, early childhood development learning materials reached more than 683,000 parents and an estimated 940,000 children under five. 
  • Some 20,000 children have been assisted with online counselling, referrals and information for their physical, emotional and psychological health.
  • The Child Support Grant (CSG) was increased by R300 for each of the 12.5 million children receiving it in May and R500 for 7 million caregivers thereafter.
  • To improve hand hygiene for all, 130 handwashing stations with soap have been erected across 9 provinces, alongside the distribution of 10,000 WASH kits.

To respond to this crisis, UNICEF is calling on the government and partners, including the private sector to:

  • Guarantee access to nutrition and health services and make vaccines affordable and available to every child.
  • Increase access to safe water and hand hygiene for all.
  • Reverse the rise in child poverty and ensure an inclusive recovery for all.
  • Ensure all children learn, including by closing the digital divide.
  • Support and protect the mental health of children and young people and bring an end to abuse, gender-based violence and neglect in childhood.
  • Redouble efforts to protect children on the move and their families.

On World Children’s Day – a day for and by children – UNICEF is also bringing together children and young people to ask them how they ‘reimagine’ a safer, fairer and better South Africa.  The first in a series of ‘reimagining the future’ workshops will take young participants on a journey as they discuss and ultimately present their own declaration and call to action for a better a more equal South Africa with opportunities for all.

Rounding off the World Children’s Day commemoration was a one-on-one online conversation between UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, David Beckham and Sebabatso Nchepe, an 18-year-old South African who has a keen interest in science, gender equality and human rights. Speaking about their discussion Beckham noted that “Sebabatso is such an impressive young woman. I loved speaking to her about her life in South Africa and her dreams for the future. This day is an important reminder that we all have a duty to protect children everywhere.”



Report: How COVID-19 is changing childhood in South Africa

Survey: Protecting Children from violence in the time of COVID-19: Disruptions in prevention and response services (survey of disruptions to child services due to COVID-19 across 148 countries from 17 August to 17 September 2020)

Media contacts

Sudeshan Reddy
Communication Specialist
UNICEF South Africa
Tel: +27 82 561 3970
Toby Fricker
Chief of Communication & Partnerships
UNICEF South Africa
Tel: +27 61 418 7486


UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in over 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special efforts on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children everywhere.

Working with a range of partners, UNICEF has had a presence in South Africa since the end of apartheid and continues to work towards bettering the lives of all children in the country.

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