Behind the Mask

The Covid-19 pandemic forced families around the world into isolation, and as the lockdowns rolled on and on, the impact on children, and their parents, is now being felt across South Africa.

Here we speak to ordinary South African families, as well as psychologists, pastors, teachers and professionals to find out what their experience has been, what the effect of isolation has been, and how we might recover in the years ahead...

'A normal response to unprecedented times'

An expert explains the fears and uncertainties of lockdown

On 23 March 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that South Africa was to enter a 21-day lockdown, not knowing the chain of events about to unfold.

Now, 20 months later, South Africa has recorded nearly 3 million positive cases of Covid-19, and the safety measures that stand in place have become a part of South Africa's 'new normal'.

The stress, anxiety, isolation, fear and uncertainty surrounding the lockdown became significant contributors to psychological distress, and mental healthcare became especially important.

However, as the rate of deaths escalated, so did anxiety about infection, death, isolation, disrupted care, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, job losses and fear of recession.

'I was fearful for my baby's life'

Three nurses tell us about being a mother and frontline worker

At the peak of the global Coronavirus pandemic, healthcare workers found themselves having to put their lives on the line to provide aid and care to the growing number of Covid-19 patients.

Many of these frontline workers, however, are mothers of young children and have been painfully traumatised by their experiences and crippled by their fears of infecting their children and loved ones.

News24 spoke to three local essential service workers and mothers, to hear about their experiences at the forefront during the earlier days of the pandemic.

'I felt helpless'

Local mom recalls her 'extremely traumatic' birth during SA's first lockdown

Aimee-Leigh was in her third trimester and it was a week before her baby shower when the very first Covid-19 lockdown was announced in March 2020.

Thinking back, she remembers feeling hopeful that the restrictions wouldn't last but, at the same time, uneasy about how the lockdown would impact her pregnancy.

"I was concerned about how long it would last, how it would affect my birthing plan and when I'd be able to see friends and family again. I felt quite emotional".

As her due date drew closer, Aimee-Leigh admits that she "freaked out numerous times," trying to confirm as much as possible about her looming lockdown birth.

'It was sad to see a motherless baby'

Dr Taheera Hassim recalls the earliest days of her work in a red zone maternity wing

Convinced that the novel coronavirus was nothing but "some kind of flu," frontline medical expert Dr Taheera Hassim approached the initial days of the pandemic with an "unphased" attitude.

"I was part of the initial Covid testing drive through with the Gift of Givers in the initial stages of the pandemic where I was involved in training the team of volunteers. I had no fear and volunteered to manage the Covid cases in my speciality," the obstetrician and gynaecologist from Netcare Sunninghill Hospital recalls.

However, the gravity of the situation quickly set in after her first personal encounter with the virus not long after SA's first lockdown began.

I asked my daughter what she wanted for her second birthday and she said 'people'

How Iva and her family found other ways to connect

While mom Iva* and her family are coping right now, she says: "Earlier this year, when I asked my daughter what she wanted for her second birthday, she said 'people'

"She was referring to having a party with friends, but it struck me how human connection was more important for her than presents, particularly because of the lack of 'people' that lockdown caused," she adds.

Her toddler is not alone.

International studies have shown that if children are not social enough at a young age, it can severely impact their development.

'Vulnerable to isolation'

The psychological impact of pandemic life on teens

As Covid-19 spread rapidly through the country, the first port of call was to stay at home, quarantine if necessary or go into social isolation to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus disease.

However, after weeks of not socialising with the outside world, the psychological impact of social isolation became clear.

According to a journal article by Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, even the perceived social isolation brought on by the hard lockdown in 2020 had significantly affected adults and children.

But there is an age group that may have been more vulnerable to the effects of continued Covid-19 isolation.

'Lockdown has made it harder for children to engage with spiritual truths'

Pastor Kyle Johnston worries about his children's spiritual and emotional development

"The Bible teaches us that people are made in the image of God, which means that we are made for relationships", says pastor Kyle Johnston of the Jubilee Community Church in Cape Town.

And because we are relational by nature, he says, we know socialisation is essential for all of us, including children.

It's no surprise then that isolation will have a negative impact on families, the father of three young children says. "I think parents intuitively know this, and the empirical research seems to be bearing this out," he adds.

So how does the negative impact of prolonged lockdown, necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, manifest, I ask him.

"As a parent, I've noticed how my kids have become more shy and reserved around others," he says, "and as a pastor, I am concerned about the impact of isolation in several ways."

'The most challenging years'

Lockdown was a drastic change that led to her daughter repeating Grade 10, shares Asanda Dubula

"2020 and 2021 have been the most challenging years I never thought I would come across," Asanda Dubula tells me. 

As a single mom raising a teen and a toddler, she has good reason to feel overwhelmed by the events of the last 20 months. 

Her teen also struggled at school because she has a chronic illness, which means she had to rely heavily on WhatsApp for school work. 

"This was a drastic change which we never expected to happen," Dubula says, adding that this led to her daughter repeating Grade 10.  

Increasing anxiety, new hurdles and bad habits

Looking back at the struggles of digital learning

If there's one phrase parents and their children came to know all too well during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, it's online learning.

Seen as a vital short-term solution to a problem no one had seen coming, digital learning is predicted to become a mainstay feature of education globally.

That's according to a global survey conducted by the Oxford University Press (OUP). The report includes data collected from educators in the UK, India, Pakistan, Spain, Turkey, Brazil, and South Africa.

For 98% of respondents, online learning is expected to become "embedded in education in the future".

However, like many realities exposed by pandemic life, the report also showed the vast difference between the haves and the have nots when it comes to digital learning.

'Mimicking what was happening in their homes'

Why bullying increased during lockdown according to local teacher, Machel Sikhakhane

The recorded bullying incident of Lufuno Mavhunga, which took a fatal turn, did not end bullying at school or even knock some sense into the minds of bullies, instead bullying incidents increased at an alarming rate during the lockdown.

Machel Sikhakhane, Head of the Department of Pre-primary, and Chairperson of the School-Based Support Team (SBST) at Nokuphila Primary School, says schools being closed for three months during the hard lockdown, proved a traumatic time.

She says that most parents were under pressure after losing their jobs, businesses closed and vendors were not selling their goods.

During this time children may have been emotionally, verbally, or physically abused.

"Most families who live in one-room dwellings have experienced more problems of not being able to move around freely during the lockdown. Everyone in the family had to be home, and some families have strained relationships, with continuous fights and verbal abuse."

How can we help our children?

Children's mental health suffered during lockdown - here's how to help them

Children are as traumatised as we are as parents by what is happening in the world right now.

They've witnessed their families face unimaginable pain due to loss, and have been exposed to increasing crime in our country, from gender-based violence to kidnappings and hijackings.

Their education has been disrupted and according to statistics at least 1 in 3 children of school-going age could not access remote learning due to many factors, including lack of access to technology and expensive data costs.

How can we help our children knowing very well what they're being exposed to?

'A tough journey'

Desiree Mogale's shares her family's struggle to adjust to the new normal

Desiree Mogale, a married mom of three, tells me that her family loves outings and that she and her husband also love date weekends.

"I am the social butterfly in the family. My husband is really a homebody.

"The kids love being outdoors but do not mind being cuddled up at home watching movies," she says, adding, "my kids are easy."

But thanks to the Covid-19 lockdown, her family experienced "a drastic change." 

"Our usual outings stopped and we had to find alternative ways to entertain the kids."

'Most difficult thing I've ever gone through'

Mom shares common pandemic-induced isolation struggles

Like many new parents who welcomed their little ones during lockdown, Casey* dove into parenting without much support from family and friends.

"It was the most difficult thing I've ever gone through having my son in lockdown… we were so scared of this virus to have anyone come over to help us," the first-time mom says of the months following her son's birth.

Casey's mental health, which she had struggled with before becoming a mom, also took a beating.

Her relationship with her husband also came under pressure, thanks to the isolation of lockdown.

"It has caused a lot of strain within our relationship because we are constantly in each other's spaces and stressing about finances… [we've] had moments with depression and just being unhappy in general, but we try our best to make it work for our son because him growing up in a happy home is very important to us," she shared.

'Depressing and scary'

She waiting for the last minute to give birth alone during Level 5 lockdown says Pamela Madonsela

With her third trimester at hand and her mind fixed on a natural birth, Pamela Madonsela approached the first few months of pandemic life with an easy mind.

However, as the months went by, the soon-to-be mom of two realised lockdown was here to stay, her thoughts focused on how it would all impact her impending birth.

"At first, I thought it was something passing, but over the months it became intense and created a lot of anxiety," Madonsela said.

With three more months to go, Pamela says her fears started getting the best of her.

When the time came to give birth, Madonsela said she waited until the very last moment to go to hospital.

'Having Covid taught all of us that life can be short'

Clare says lockdown gave her family time to stop and rest

Clare, her husband and their two children, aged 15 and 11, tell me that they are very social.

But life changed after the Covid-19 lockdown.

"We missed seeing friends but at the same, it gave us some amazing quality family time and it did bring us closer as a family," she admits.

Clare says she thinks it was a good change, to some degree. Since she and her husband have jobs that are people-focused, it gave them time to stop and rest and be with their children.

However, the ongoing isolation made them a little more introverted.

'There I was, left without an income'

Single mom Kim Mouton needed to move across the country to find employment when the pandemic hit

"In January 2020, I started a new job as a virtual account administrator with a company based in Ireland," Mouton said.

"Three months later, Ireland went into a very heavy lockdown. The company started losing clients, and as a result, so did I. We went into lockdown Level 5 around the same time as Ireland, and with the schools closed, I had to navigate working from home with my 3-year-old daughter present 24/7," Mouton added.

She told the company she was struggling to get her tasks completed during the day. But she told them she would assist her clients with their accounts in the evenings. Not an ideal situation, but they were very understanding, she said.

However, things became worse for her by May 2020. Mouton had to give up another client account, which meant she was no longer earning enough to pay her rent in Johannesburg.  

'It starts with a plan'

Robyn Edwards shares top saving tips to help single parents save during the pandemic

At least 2.8 million people lost their jobs in South Africa during the hard lockdown, revealed the National Income Dynamics Coronavirus Rapid Mobile survey.

And with the pandemic being an ongoing uncertainty, there's no telling when many people will bounce back from the financial setbacks.

But there are ways to cope says Robyn Edwards, a single parent and marketing manager at Metropolitan.

Edwards spoke with News24 about ways in which single parents can take back control of their money.  

'Right now, I can't see the wood for the trees'

Dragon Mama, Covid Cake, burnout and other things Elizabeth Mamacos says she's learned so far

There is no happy ending to this story, not yet. For me, medical professionals have ordered extended sick leave, going for a daily run and seeing my friends. They agree that socialising is critical to one's mental health.

My first thought at leave was "Great! Now I can catch up on work." 

Obviously, right now, I can't see the wood for the trees, but I'll follow the steps and see where I am in a few weeks time. 

I know I'm not alone in this, as friends confide that they feel the same now, or have experienced this in the past. 

If you, too, are not coping, if everything feels overwhelming, every day, know you are also not alone. And ask for help. Ask your spouse, a friend, a professional, and find … no, make some space for yourself too.