Guest blog: Paed-Infectious Disease expert Dr Alasdair Munro on Kids & COVID-19

Dr Alasdair Munro is a Clinical Research Fellow in Paediatric Infectious Diseases at the South Hampton Clinical Research Facility. He is the review lead at the incredibly helpful Don’t Forget the Bubbles website which summarises the epidemiological evidence on COVID-19 as it comes out, especially as it relates to children. I have found their reviews to be the most up to date and helpful of the many that are popping up on the web. Yesterday Dr Munro went through a list of current questions people have on children and COVID-19 and posted their latest thinking on the research informing their views on children and COVID-19. I’m re-blogging that here because I found it so helpful!

Dr Munro: “With so much attention on COVID19 in children, it’s time for an updated Tweetorial on what we do and don’t know. We’ll talk impact, risk, hyperinflammation syndrome, transmission, schools and more. Firstly, children remain grossly underrepresented in all case numbers, hospital admissions and deaths worldwide. See the latest ISARIC report of more than 15,000 severe cases, or Public Health England UK deaths.

This report from Prof Sunil Bhopal and friends looks at child deaths from COVID19 compared to other causes to put them in perspective. Of about 37,000 child deaths, 43 were from COVID19. In the words of Prof David Spiegelhalter, children are “unbelievably low risk” 

Are some children higher risk? Small numbers, but children usually at risk from viral respiratory infections look equally at risk from #COVID19, including tech dependent, neurodisability, malignancy or chronic lung disease (see here and here). Important to note that outcomes are still pretty good for these groups, and there are a number of documented cases for some (e.g. oncology, immuno-suppressed) which had a predominantly mild clinical course. Even most of these children don’t get very sick. What about this hyper inflammatory syndrome? It’s called PIMS-TS (or MIS-C in the USA). It seems to be an immune reaction after COVID19 infection (approximately 2 – 4 weeks after). It usually starts with persistent fever, abdominal pain and diarrhoea and vomiting, then can present similar to Kawasaki Syndrome (+/- shock).

We currently have 3 published cohorts from London, Italy and France. Many kids get very sick, but most recover well. It seems to be dissipating (following trends in peaks of infection). Read more about it here. It can be serious, but is incredibly rare. In Europe there have been about 230 cases and very few deaths. There are more than 80-million children and the European Centre for Disease Control (CDC) considers it a low risk. Be reassured.

OK what about transmission? Let’s go step by step. How easily do children catch it? Five studies have looked at transmission to children (mainly household) and 4 out of 5 found significantly lower attack rates in children than adults.

How many children actually have or had COVID19? Well, less than 2% of known cases have been in children, but given symptoms are so mild have we just missed them all? Are they mainly asymptomatic? Are they silent assassins? This is harder to tell, but there is some evidence. Iceland tested those at risk and found half the rate of infection in children under 10 years compared to adults, and zero cases in asymptomatic screening. Vo, Italy screened more than 85% of their population and 2.6% had COVID19, but no children under the age of 10. 

Some say the UK Office of National Statistics data shows there’s no difference between children and adult infection rates. But they found about 30 positive cases in 10,000 people. The confidence intervals are too wide for inference about relative infection rates (compatible with 10x rates in any group).

The same principle applies for 2 sero-epidemiological studies from Switzerland & Germany. Despite lower rates of infection in children, numbers are too small to be statistically significant. This is not evidence for equal rates of infection.

What do we find if we do a proper sized sero-epidemiological study? Infection rates of 1-3% in children compared to 5% in adults in a Spanish study of more than 60,000 people.

How infectious are children when infected? Hard to say. Some examples of children not spreading at all despite multiple exposures (more than 100 other children) but spreading other respiratory viruses. A German study claimed to find similar viral loads in children as adults, stating they’re “just as infectious.” Amongst other issues, if analysed properly the data actually showed significantly lower viral loads in children.

National reports from the Netherlands, Iceland, Norway, Australia have found limited evidence of children contributing to spread of COVID19. Most transmission is adult to adult.​

What does it mean for schools? Children can get COVID19 so they can almost certainly spread it. But, they are barely affected by infection, and appear less likely to catch or spread it than adults (see here). Schools seem lower risk than adult work environments. Will outbreaks happen? Of course. But this is our new reality for the foreseeable future. We need to mitigate against the risks and ensure mechanisms for quick response (track, trace and isolate) are in place. Children suffer harm from lockdown (see here).

Now for why children seem so much less affected… Still no clear answers. Possible differences in ACE2 expression, but they seem small. Some suggest immune differences. This needs to be proven. More research needed!

Thanks for making it to the end! For our comprehensive review of all paediatric #COVID19 literature (cited by UK Research and Innovation and World Health Organisation) check it out here on Don’t Forget the Bubbles.

Follow Dr Alasdair Munro on Twitter at @apsmunro

Policy brief: Who should go back to school first in South Africa?

Spaull 2020 Schooling Policy Brief (10 May 2020) 1

Spaull, N. 2020. COVID-19 Policy Brief: Who should go back to school first? Research on Socioeconomic Policy (RESEP). Stellenbosch University.

For the full hyperlinked and formatted version of this policy brief please see HERE.

1. Overview

Risks, transmission rates and costs: The question of when and how children should return to school depends on three main points: (1) Risks to children of illness and death, (2) Transmission of the virus from children to adults and the need to ‘flatten the curve’, and (3) The social and economic costs of keeping children at home. The policy brief below presents evidence on these three issues and argues that when children go back to school the youngest should go back first.

Overview of research on children and COVID-19: The brief presents what appears to be a clear and emerging consensus in the international research literature across all countries[1]: Children aged 0-10 years old are considerably less likely than adults to get infected, either from each other or from adults. They are less likely to transmit the virus, even when they are infected. And it is extremely rare for them to get severely ill or die from COVID-19.

Why the youngest should go back first: In addition to the fact that children 10 years and younger are considerably less likely to get infected, they also present the highest child-care burden to their households. This prevents many parents and caregivers from going back to work and earning an income to support their families. Any response to mitigate the economic disaster from the lockdown and COVID-19 must take account of parent’s additional child-care responsibilities while schools are closed. Secondly, young children are also the least able to follow self-directed learning at home. This is partly because they have not yet learnt to read by themselves, but also because young children simply require higher levels of human interaction and “activity” for them to learn. For most children in South Africa all curricular learning has stopped while schools are closed leading to further inequalities in learning outcomes. Lastly children’s wellbeing increases when they can go to school. Children receive free school meals to supplement their diet, they can interact with their same-age peers, and it gives their caregivers a break from otherwise constant child-care. This improves parents’ mental health and allows them to work, plan and relax, making them better caregivers when children come back from school.

Young children being “locked-up” at home when there are few health benefits to themselves or society is bad for the well-being children, bad for parents and bad for the economy.

Using research to inform policy responses: Judgements about the national threat posed by COVID-19 and mitigation strategies should be informed primarily by advice from virologists and epidemiologists (the author is neither). However, the Department of Basic Education in South Africa, in consultation with these experts, has already decided that schools will now go back (from 1 June 2020), starting with Grade 7 and Grade 12. The current policy-brief argues for a different phasing-in approach to the current one, namely, at the same time that Grade 12 goes back, ECD sites should be opened and Grade R, 1, 2 and 3 should be allowed to return incrementally (rather than Grade 7) using a phased-in approach with special precautions for teachers. This should be combined with close monitoring of infection rates among a random sample of teachers and families of Grade R-3 children. There is a clear rationale for this that is informed by the best available research. Such an approach minimizes the risk to learners and teachers and also allows many parents to go back to work. In short, children should go back to school and the youngest should go back first.

2. International research on COVID-19 and children

The evidence emerging from countries around the world is clear and consistent: children are less likely to catch COVID-19 and almost never die from it. The graph below shows the fatality rates from COVID-19 by age group for China, Italy, Spain and South Korea. The data reflects all deaths up to 24 March 2020 (Our World in Data, 2020). The clear age bias is evident, with less than 0,3% of fatalities for those less than 40 years of age and “0%” for the 0-9 year-old category.

Screen Shot 2020-05-10 at 08.32.32

Included below is a short summary of authoritative research studies reviewing the COVID-19 outbreak in different countries with a special focus on children. To date the best available evidence on whether children can catch and transmit COVID-19 comes from Iceland since they have tested the largest percentage of their population.

Iceland: In their 14 April 2020 article in the New England Journal of Medicine Gudjartsson et al (2020) report that “In the population screening, no child under 10 years of age had a positive result, as compared with 0.8% of those 10 years of age or older.” Even amongst a pre-selected high-risk group that had likely exposure to the virus, children under the age of ten were half as likely to test positive compared to those older than 10.” Furthermore, in an interview with the CEO of the genetic sequencing company working with the Icelandic Directorate of Health to trace all COVID-19 infections they explain that: “Children under 10 are less likely to get infected than adults and if they get infected, they are less likely to get seriously ill. What is interesting is that even if children do get infected, they are less likely to transmit the disease to others than adults. We have not found a single instance of a child infecting parents.”

South Korea: The Korean experience is notable because they were one of the first countries to undertake widespread community testing. In a study looking at the first 7,755 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Korea, only 1% of cases were among the 0-9 age group (Choe et al 2020). There were no fatalities for any patient under 30 years of age.

Switzerland: In May 2020, the Swiss health ministry’s infectious diseases chief Daniel Koch reported that after wide consultation with clinicians and researchers, “Young children are not infected and do not transmit the virus,” he said. “They just don’t have the receptors to catch the disease.” And went on to say that children under the age of 10 in Switzerland can now hug their grandparents (BBC). This is now the official policy in Switzerland and has subsequently been supported by infectious-diseases paediatricians and the Swiss Pediatric Society (RTS, 1 May 2020).

America: On 1 May 2020 the CDC in America reported that of 37,308 deaths from COVID-19 in America, only 9 (0.02%) were among children aged 0-14 years.

Germany: One German study showed that the children who tested positive for COVID-19 harbour just as much of the virus as adults (Drosten et al. 2020). This has led to speculation that children are as infectious as adults. However, a number of other recently published studies refute this. Studies that look at this question specifically (i.e. tracing studies to identify index cases) show that this is not the case. Children are very rarely the source of infection in a household or a population. These tracing studies are consistent with each other and come from America, Australia, China, the Netherlands, Singapore, and South Korea, and all support the hypothesis that children are not the primary spreaders of the virus.

Italy: In the town of Vo in Italy they screened 86% of their population and found that “No infections were detected in either survey in 234 tested children ranging from 0 to 10 years, despite some of them living in the same household as infected people” (Lavezzo et al. 2020, p.5).

Japan: In a study that reviewed the 313 domestically acquired cases in Japan from January to March 2020, Mizumoto et al (2020) found that: “Children are less likely to be diagnosed as cases, and moreover, the risk of disease given exposure among children appears to be low.”

Netherlands: In April 2020, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment reported that “children play a small role in the spread of the novel coronavirus. The virus is mainly spread between adults and from adult family members to children. Cases of children infecting each other or children infecting adults are less common.”

There are also a range of synthesis studies which review evidence across a number of countries and studies. These help to draw out the similarities and differences across these studies. A review of 67 studies on COVID-19 and children concluded that “The role of children in transmission is unclear, but it seems likely they do not play a significant role” (DFTB, 2020: p.8). In a review of 31 household transmission clusters from China, Singapore, the USA, South Korea and Iran, only 3 households (10%) had a child as the index case (Zhu et al, 2020). To put this in perspective, in the H5N1 outbreak, children were the index case in 54% of cases (Zhu et al, 2020). The researchers conclude that “Whilst SARS-CoV-2 can cause mild disease in children, the data available to date suggests that children have not played a substantive role in the intra-household transmission of SARS-CoV-2.”

In their April 2020 paper paediatric infectious disease experts Munro & Faust (2020) summarise three recent studies: “A case study of a cluster in the French Alps included a child with COVID-19 who failed to transmit it to any other person, despite exposure to more than a hundred children in different schools and a ski resort (Danis et al., 2020).  In New South Wales Australia none of 735 students and 128 staff contracted COVID-19 from nine child and nine adult initial school cases despite close contact (NSW, 2020). In the Netherlands, separate data from primary care and household studies suggests SARS-CoV-2 is mainly spread between adults and from adult family members to children (RIVM, 2020).”

Research emerging across all countries seems to be highly consistent. In brief, children are less likely to get infected (either from each other or from adults) and they are less likely to transmit even where they are infected. The literature on COVID-19 is being rapidly updated as new papers come out. This helpful website summarizes new pediatric COVID-19 literature as it comes out. It is managed by pediatric infectious disease experts Alison Boast, Alasdair Munro and Henry Goldstein. See also this resource from Nature.

3. Are children less susceptible than adults?

Munro (2020) reports that there have been five studies looking specifically at whether children catch the disease at the same rate as adults after they are exposed to a confirmed positive case (an index case). The first study came from Shenzen in China looked at 1286 contacts exposed to 391 positive cases. They found that children caught the disease at the same rate as adults (7.4% for children < 10 years vs population average of 6.6%) (Bi et al, 2020). This finding caused a lot of concern, but four more studies have now been published and all show that children are significantly less likely to get infected compared to adults.

The next study came from Japan and looked at 2496 contacts exposed to 313 positive cases and found children were much less likely to get the disease after exposure. Among children aged 0-19 years who were exposed, 7.2% of boys were infected, and 3.8% of girls were infected compared to 22% of males and females aged 50-59 (Mizumoto et al., 2020).

The third study is from Guangzhou in China which looked at close contacts of 212 positive cases. They found that children were much less likely to get infected (5.3%) compared to adults (12.6%) after exposure (Jing et al., 2020).

The fourth study came from Wuhan in China and looked at 392 contacts exposed to 105 positive cases. They found that only 4% of children (<18) became infected compared to 17% among adults (Li et al., 2020).

The last study comes from Hunan in China which traced 7375 contacts exposed to 136 positive cases. They find that adults aged 15-64 are about four times as likely to get infected compared to those 14 and under (Zhang et al., 2020).

To quote Munro (2020) who summarizes these five studies “In conclusion, we have five studies assessing the secondary attack rate of COVID-19 across age groups, in which four report a considerably lower attack rate in children and one which reports the same in children as the general population. It appears fairly convincing that children are less likely to acquire the infection than adults, by a significant amount.” 

4. Infection rates by age in South Africa

While South Africa has a considerably smaller number of infections and fatalities compared to any of the countries reviewed above, the age-profile of infections and deaths is consistent with the international experience. As of 2 May 2020, 123 people had died of COVID-19 in South Africa but none of these deaths were among those under 20 years of age (NICD, 2020). Of the 3,144 positive cases of COVID-19 in South Africa as at 19 April 2020, only 0,3% were aged 0-10 and 4% were aged 11-20.  The two figures below present the full set of data.

Screen Shot 2020-05-10 at 08.32.48

5. Do school closures help?

In a widely cited study published in the Lancet Journal of Child and Adolescent Health, Viner et al (2020) conducted a rapid systematic review on the effectiveness of school closures in limiting the spread of COVID-19, They conclude as follows: “Data from the SARS outbreak in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Singapore suggest that school closures did not contribute to the control of the epidemic…Recent modelling studies of COVID-19 predict that school closures alone would prevent only 2–4% of deaths, much less than other social distancing interventions.” In another article, published in Science and also modeling the impacts of different interventions to limit the spread of COVID-19, Zhang et al (2020) use contact surveys of 136 confirmed index cases infected in Wuhan and Shanghai. They conclude that “social distancing alone, as implemented in China during the outbreak, is sufficient to control COVID-19.” Yet they also argue that school closures can help to flatten the curve: “While proactive school closures cannot interrupt transmission on their own, they can reduce peak incidence by 40-60% and delay the epidemic.” It should be noted that while Zhang et al. do consider age-specific susceptibility to infection (p.2), they do not consider age-specific transmissibility or infectiousness (i.e. whether transmission rates are different for different ages). See “Modelling SARS-CoV-2 transmission” in the supplementary materials (p.31) to Zhang (2020) where. A common transmission parameter applies to all ages. If it is true that children are less likely to transmit the virus when infected, which seems likely given the above findings from the literature (also RIVM, 2020) then the assumptions underlying the school closure analysis are incorrect and over-estimate the gains from school closures.

6. Are children continuing to learn at home during lockdown in South Africa?

It is difficult to answer this question definitively but given what we know about learning losses during holiday periods, the lack of access to technology and educational materials at home for the poorest 70% of South African children, and the lack of preparation for distance-learning before the lockdown started, the short answer to this question is no. If one is realistic, for the poorest 80% of learners in South Africa there is virtually no curricular learning that is taking place during lockdown.

Apart from the fact that parents and care-givers are not trained or equipped to teach their own children, the existing lockdown ‘plans’ for learning will not significantly mitigate the losses in learning for children that do not have proper technology-enabled learning at home. At most 5-10% of learners can continue learning at home given their access to computers and the internet. Data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS 2015 Grade 9) shows that for no-fee schools (the poorest 75%), less than half of children in a class have a computer with the internet. Only in the wealthiest 5% of schools do at least 90% of learners have access to a computer and the internet at school (Gustafsson, 2020).

The DBE’s partnership with the south African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) to provide “COVID-19 Learner Support” via television and radio (DBE, 2020), while admirable, is not a replacement for school. It targets only “Grade 10-12 and ECD” and is only available for 1.5 hours per day across three television channels. Given that these programs would need to be subject and grade specific for them to continue with curricular work, this still amounts to less than 5% of the ‘instruction’ time learners would be receiving if they were in school, assuming they watch all programs dedicated to their grade. It is also not clear what children in Grades R-9 are meant to do.

Access to computers and the internet in South African homes is very low. The General Household Survey of 2018 shows that only 22% of households have a computer in them (StatsSA, 2019: p.63), and only 10% have an internet connection in their home (p.57). While it is true that 90%+ of South African households report access to a mobile phone (p.56), only 60% report access to the internet via their mobile phone. It should further be emphasised that these rates are for adults in the household. One cannot assume that during lockdown children in a household would have exclusive or unlimited access to the cell phone to access educational content. There is also the issue of multiple children in the same household needing to share a mobile-phone, and the high cost of data, although there are now some zero-rated educational sites (Duncan-Williams, 2020).

Given the practical impossibility of continuing with meaningful learning from home – at least for the poorest 80% of learners, the emphasis for the Department of Basic Education should be making schools safe for learners and teachers to return.

7. Conclusion

South Africa’s choice to re-open schools is in-keeping with a number of other countries that have far greater COVID-19 outbreaks and some with shorter lockdown periods. These countries include China, Denmark, Israel, Finland, France, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands. In all cases governments are introducing precautionary measures such as temperature checks, reduced class-sizes, holding classes outside and spacing desks further apart.

Deciding to re-open schools and bring children back in a phased-in approach will involve a number of administrative complexities. These include how to manage the infection risks for adults that facilitate schooling including teachers, principals, administrative staff, transport workers and school feeding employees. Temporarily replacing high-risk individuals such as those older than 60, those with diabetes and other pre-existing conditions etc., will not be simple or easy. Yet this should be held in tension with the severe limitations imposed by school closures; to children’s ability to learn, to care-giver’s ability to earn an income, and to the economy’s ability to function. The economy cannot properly ‘re-open’ while schools are closed. This is especially true for schooling for those 10 years of age and younger who require the most care when at home.

The aim of this policy brief has been to summarize some of the emerging international evidence. The latest evidence suggests that by allowing the youngest children to go back first, policymakers are putting teachers and parents at lower risk than if high-school learners went back to school first. As two pediatric infectious disease experts explain “Severe COVID-19 is as rare as many other serious infection syndromes in children that do not cause schools to be closed” (Munro & Faust: 2020, p.2).

As the Department of Basic Education considers when and how to bring children and teachers back to school, it would be wise to heed the epidemiological evidence emerging from around the world. Younger children are far less likely to catch or transmit the COVID-19 virus and therefore bringing them back to school first is the safest approach – for them, for their teachers, and for the health of our economy and society as a whole.

8. References

Although all references in this brief have been hyperlinked, the full reference list is also provided below.

BBC News. 29 April 2020. Coronavirus: Switzerland says young children can hug grandparents [Online]. Available:

Bi, Q., et al. 2020. Epidemiology and transmission of COVID-19 in 391 cases and 1286 of their close contacts in Shenzen, China: a retrospective cohort study. Lancet Infect Dis 2020 April 27.

Boast, A., Munroe, A., Goldstein, H. 2020. An evidence summary of Paediatric COVID-19 literature [Online]. Available:

Children and Covid-19. 6 May 2020. National Institute for Public Health
and the Environment,
[Online]. Available:

Danis, K., Epaulard, O. Bénet, T., Gaymard, A., Campoy, S., Bothelo-Nevers, E., Bouscambert-Duchamp, M., Spaccaferri, G., Ader, F., Mailles, A., Boudalaa, Z., Tolsma, Julien Berra, V., Vaux, S., Forestier, E., Landelle, C., Fougere, E., Thabuis, A., Berthelot, P., Veil, R., Levy-Bruhl, D., Chidiac, C., Lina, B., Coignard, B., Saura, C. 2020. Cluster of coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) in the French Alps, 2020, Clinical Infectious Diseases, dio:

DBE. 2020. Basic Education and SABC launch Coronavirus COVID-19 TV and radio curriculum support programmes for learners. (Online). Available: [Accessed 7 May 2020]

DFTB. 21 April 2020. DFTB Covid-19 Evidence review [Online]. Available:

DoH. 2020. Statistics of COVID19 by age and gender. Department of Health. Online. Available: [Accessed 7 May 2020]

Duncan-Williams, K. 2020. South Africa’s digital divide detrimental to the youth. Mail & Guardian 19 April 2020 (Online): [Accessed 7 May 2020]

Faulconbridge, G. 2020, May 2. UK Could Allow Primary Schools to Reopen as Soon as June 1: Telegraph. New York Times [Online]. Available:

Gudbjartsson, D.F., Helgason, A., Jonsson, H., Magnusson, O.T., Melsted, P., Norddahl, G.L., Saemundsdottir, J., Sigurdsson, A., Sulem, P., Agustsdottir, A.B. and Eiriksdottir, B., 2020. Spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the Icelandic population. New England Journal of Medicine. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa2006100.

Gustafsson, M. 2020 Basic Education the Coronavirus. Department of Basic Education. Pretoria.

Highfield, R. 27 April 2020. Coronavirus: Hunting down Covid-19, Science Museum Group [Online]. Available:

Jing, Q et al. 2020. Household Secondary Attack Rate of COVID-19 and Associated Determinants. medRxiv preprint doi:

Li et al., 2020. The characteristics of household transmission of COVID-19. Clinical Infectious Diseases, ciaa450. (Online). Available:

Lavezzo, E., Franchin, E., Ciavarella, C., Cuomo-Dannenburg, G., Barzon, L. and Del Vecchio, C., 2020. Suppression of COVID-19 outbreak in the municipality of Vo’. Italy. medRxiv preprint. doi: https://doi. org/10.1101/2020.04, 17.

Mandavilli, A. 2020, May 5. New Studies Add to Evidence that Children May Transmit the Coronavirus. New York Times [Online]. Available:

Mizumoto, K., Omori, R. and Nishiura, H., 2020. Age specificity of cases and attack rate of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). medRxiv. doi:

Munro, A. 2020. The missing link? Children and transmission of SARS-CoV-2, Don’t Forget the Bubbles, 2020. Available at:

Munro, A. P. S., Faust, S. N. 2020, May 5. Children are not COVID-19 super spreaders: time to go back to school. Archives of Disease in Childhood Published Online. doi: 10.1136/archdischild-2020-319474

National Centre for Immunisation Research and Survailance. 26 April 2020. Covid-19 in schools – the experience in NSW [Online]. Available:

NICD. 2020 COVID-19 Update 2 May 2020. National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). Online. Available:  [7 May 2020]

Our World in Data. 2020. Case fatality rate for COVID-19 by age. Online. Available:  [7 May 2020]

Provisional Death Counts for Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19). 1 May 2020. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention [Online]. Available:

RTS News. 1 May 2020. Daniel Koch: “Je suis sûr de notre analyse concernant les enfants” [Online]. Available:

StatsSA. 2019. General Household Survey 2018. Statistics South Africa. (Online). Available: [Accessed: 1 May 2020].

Viner, R.M., Russell, S.J., Croker, H., Packer, J., Ward, J., Stansfield, C., Mytton, O., Bonell, C. and Booy, R., 2020. School closure and management practices during coronavirus outbreaks including COVID-19: a rapid systematic review. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 4(5). DOI:

Vogel, G., Couzin-Frankel, J. 2020, May 4. Should schools reopen? Kids’ role in pandemic still a mystery. Science [Online]. Available:

Williams, D. 2020, May 3. Hope and Havoc as Some Israeli Schools Reopen Under Coronavirus Curbs. New York Times [Online]. Available:

Zhanget, J. et al., 2020. Changes in contact patterns shape the dynamics of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. Science. Science10.1126/science. Available:

Zhu, Y., Bloxham, C.J., Hulme, K.D., Sinclair, J.E., Tong, Z.W.M., Steele, L.E., Noye, E.C., Lu, J., Chew, K.Y., Pickering, J. and Gilks, C., 2020. Children are unlikely to have been the primary source of household SARS-CoV-2 infections. medRxiv. doi:

[1] The majority of the current research comes from high-income countries (with the exception of China and Iran), mostly because high income countries experienced the outbreak first and the research response has been largest in these countries. They have also conducted the most screening and testing and therefore have the most reliable indicators of transmission.

COVID-19 tunnel vision


Six weeks ago I walked into a grocery store in Cape Town and started crying. I didn’t really know why I was crying, but there I was picking up onions and garlic and doing my best to (unsuccessfully) hide my overt emotion. Maybe it was all the masks, or that everyone was anxious, but I think it was that we all knew something was coming but we didn’t know how bad it would be. In any event, it’s my first memory of noticing that the virus was affecting me, even if I wasn’t infected.

Normally I numb the guilt of being rich in an unequal country by throwing myself at  meaningful work that I think helps make things right. It’s kind of like karma and emotional bargaining all wrapped up into one coping strategy. Whatever it is, it usually does the job. Yet here was a virus that would go on to devastate the lives of the poor and there was nothing that I could do about it. Like the drought before it, and the financial crisis before that, the real costs of this virus will land on the people who are already on the wrong end of the scale in South Africa. Maybe it takes a virus to remind me of how genuinely fucked up the South African social contract is. That some of us get to live in comfort and pleasure and follow our dreams, while others face the daily injustices of living in a place where you are denied the most basic things to live a dignified life. To have running water in your home, a job to provide for your family and enough food to eat so that you don’t go hungry. And all of this because we can’t find politically feasible ways of sharing the wealth we have.

It’s horrible to realise not only that the world is unfair, but that it is unfair in your favour. And now we have the latest instalment of it: a virus that has stopped us in our tracks. We cannot travel, we cannot work, we cannot touch each other. Sometimes it seems that all we can do is wait and trust that the government knows what it’s doing, and that we have the people and the resources to fix the problem and limit the suffering.

Listening to the President’s speeches announcing how our country will tackle the coming challenges I was initially filled with pride and hope. Hope that the competent part of the ANC had prevailed, and that this was Ramaphosa’s finest hour. He showed leadership and vision as he unveiled his plans with clarity and resolve. All of us were taken into his confidence and we prepared a place for him in our national mythology.  He would be the leader who listened to the science in a way that Mbeki never did, and  the one who could spend R500-billion with moral integrity, something Zuma always lacked. His speeches harked back to Mandela’s era where bold policy reforms were coupled with competent and mostly ethical leaders. There was hope that things were improving steadily, even if they weren’t improving as fast as we would like.

The optimist in me wants to hold on to this belief and trust that the “good guys” can pull through and steer our ship away from the rocks and keep the crew clothed and fed. But the realist in me is starting to doubt. How did it happen that the discussion on ‘flattening the curve’ changed to avoiding COVID-deaths at all costs? As a fellow economist recently said to me “I worry that public health experts are luring us into this unsustainably conservative “But-is-it-worth-the-risk?” way of thinking. We do allow risk into our lives all the time and with COVID-19 we have always been navigating trade-offs from the start. The real question is whether the benefits are worth these massive costs?

I now also wonder whether the benefits to the wholesale closing of  the economy, closing schools and shutting down all forms of public life are worth the costs, especially if they are prolonged beyond their initial duration. Well respected economists have estimated that an additional 4-million people have moved into “extreme poverty” in South Africa as a result of the lockdown, i.e. they have moved below the food poverty line. While some of this will be alleviated by the increased grants, in the month of April during the lockdown there were no increased grants. Extreme poverty is essentially surviving on less than R10 per person per day (R337/month) which means that you no longer have “the minimum expenditure needed for sufficient calories if people spend their money only on food.” So, in order to “flatten the curve”, for as long as we keep the economy locked down, an additional 4-million people will no longer have enough food to eat, even if they spend all their money on food.

Already 1.6-million children under the age of five are stunted in South Africa, a number that has almost certainly risen as a result of the extended lockdown. These millions of children are now at further risk of other non-COVID diseases because their immune systems are compromised. To quote a  2017 overview of stunting in South Africa: “Undernourished children are at risk of infectious diseases, especially diarrhoea and pneumonia. They also take longer to recover.” Given the long-term effects of child-stunting, how should we be balancing these extra-ordinary measures for preventing the deaths of some of the elderly and infirm with their impact on children and poor households?

The lockdown is also likely to be highly costly to the elderly as well, many of whom will not seek medical attention for other illnesses that can also kill them. In 2018 alone a total of 63,000 people in South Africa died of tuberculosis, a completely treatable disease, yet one that requires uninterrupted medication and adherence. Last month the UN announced that it was concerned that COVID-19 was putting routine childhood immunisations in danger given that schools are closed and countries are locked-down.

I think in hindsight the 21-day lockdown will have been necessary, but extending the lockdown indefinitely is not sustainable. It is not clear that the epidemiologists advising the president are taking into account all the non-COVID impacts of these mitigation strategies. Surely there are ways of offering reasonable protections to the elderly and infirm while not drastically exacerbating other equally-serious problems in South Africa.

It feels that we have now moved into a space of COVID-19 tunnel vision, with a single-minded focus on infections and deaths specifically from COVID-19.  What about all the other causes of death and long-term suffering introduced by these ongoing lockdowns? Perhaps what we are winning on the swings we are more than losing on the roundabout?


PS: In order to try and measure the impact of COVID-19 on income, employment, hunger and welfare in South Africa, I – together with over 30 researchers – am heading up the Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (CRAM). It is a nationally-representative telephone survey of 10,000 South Africans surveyed monthly for six months. the aim is to provide rapid, reliable research to policy-makers so that they can make evidence-based decisions. More info here:  

With schools shut, kids go hungry (BD Article)


(The article first appeared in the Business Day on the 23rd of March 2020 under the title “Government needs to come up with a plan to help poor families now that schools are shut“)

The coronavirus pandemic working its way through South African society will have many knock-on effects, one of them will be hunger and malnutrition as 9-million children no longer receive free school meals while their schools are shut.

The population of South Africa today is 59-million people, and nearly a quarter are school-going children enrolled in Grades R-12 (13-million kids). One of the under-celebrated achievements of the ANC government over the last ten years has been the mass rollout of a successful school-feeding scheme to all no-fee schools in the country (Quintile 1-3 schools) – The National School Nutrition Programme. To give you a sense of just how vast that network is, of the 13-million kids in school, 9-million receive a free school meal every day they are at school. Put differently, of all the weekday ‘lunches’ eaten in South Africa, one in six are provided in schools under this program.

In order to fund this the government spends R36-million a day to feed these 9-million kids, amounting to R7.2-billion for 2020 according to the most recent budget. The big question now is what happens to those meals and those kids while their schools are shut because of the coronavirus? I’d like to point to what we know about hunger in South Africa, whether the NSNP program is effective, what other countries are doing and what we should be thinking about.

Firstly, South African schools were going to shut for the first term holidays anyway – we just closed them three days early. The Minister announced that schools will be closed until 14 April 2020, and if you count the school holidays and public holidays in that period there are only 11 school days (even though schools are closed for a whole month). While that might not sound like a lot, any extension of school closures (which seem almost inevitable now) will materially start to affect children’s nutrition, and for some kids, also their immune systems.

The nationally-representative 2018 General Household Survey can help shine some light on the extent of hunger in South Africa. Three stats are telling: (1) When asked “Did your household run out of money to buy food during the past 12 months?”, 22% of households answered “yes.” (2) For households where was at least one child (17 years or younger), 16% reported that in the last year a child went hungry in that household “because there wasn’t enough food.” And (3) according to the StatsSA 2018 GHS report of 2018, 20% of households had “inadequate” or “severely inadequate” food access (p.67). So, even with the NSNP in full-swing, and 9-million kids getting their meals Monday to Friday, the GHS shows that about one in six South African households with kids experience hunger or food insecurity. Similarly, the National Development Plan (NDP) states that “stunting affects almost one in five children (18%), and…about one in 10 children are underweight” (p.299).

There is also corroborating evidence from a 2016 evaluation of the National School Nutrition Programme by JET Education Services. They surveyed 267 schools in 2015 and found that 4% of learners “did not eat at home last night” and 23% “did not eat breakfast.” (JET, 2016: p.58). Encouragingly, 96% of schools did actually serve the main meal indicating that the program is working very well.

South Africa is not the only country experiencing this problem. According to UNESCO over 100 countries have shut all schools as a result of the coronavirus. Most have some form of school feeding system for selected learners and now all are scrambling to find ways of providing meals to those that rely on them. In the US a number of cities have implemented a “grab and go” system, including in New York, Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee and Washington D.C. where distribution points and catchment zones dictate who can collect from where.

There are still no reliable projections as to how the coronavirus outbreak in South Africa will unfold but one thing is certain: there is no world in which the situation in South Africa is less severe in three weeks’ time (when schools are scheduled to re-open) than it is now. If schools are going to be shut for months, then provincial governments need to come up with contingency plans for how they will help poor families provide food for their children. Currently there are no plans in place for sustained school closures. Minister Motshekga has been quoted as saying “We are not going to run special programmes … We won’t be able to do it, so parents must take that responsibility and communities must assist.” If the Department of Basic Education is reneging on its responsibility it should give the school nutrition money to a department that is willing and able to come up with a solution. When one in five children are hungry and rely on these meals for their basic needs, it is clear that free school meals have become part of the social infrastructure that millions of South African children rely on. We cannot simply ignore that because of the logistical complexities involved. The money has already been budgeted and allocated, now provinces need to find innovative ways of getting meals to kids while schools are closed.

Staff briefing: Coronavirus


(The letter below was sent to all Funda Wande staff yesterday. A number of people have said it’s been very helpful and might be worthwhile sharing here. Hopefully it’s helpful to others as we enter uncharted territory)

Dear Funda Wande staff,

As many of you will have already seen, on the 11th of March 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Coronavirus (COVID-19) as an international ‘pandemic’.

  1. What is a “pandemic”?

A pandemic is the most serious classification of a disease epidemic and is declared by the WHO. Less severe outbreaks of diseases are classified as “outbreaks” or “epidemics.” Only once a disease outbreak has spread across multiple countries and is deemed ‘out of control’ is it classified as a pandemic (for example Ebola and Zika virus were not pandemics).  According to the WHO, since 1900 there have been four pandemics (1) Spanish Flu (H1N1-1918), (2) Asian Flu (H2N2-1957), (3) Hong Kong Flu (H3N32-1968) and (4) Swine Flu (H1N1-2009). All of these were strains of the influenza virus. The current pandemic is the first pandemic of a coronavirus.

  1. What is a “coronavirus”?

Coronaviruses are usually found in animals (not humans) and only appear in humans when they are transmitted from animals to us. Previous coronaviruses have come from civet cats (SARS-CoV) and camels (MERS-CoV). The current “novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)” has not been previously identified in humans and the animal source of COVID-19 is still being debated, although many think it came from pangolins.

  1. What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

From WHO: “The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness, and dry cough. Some patients may have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea. These symptoms are usually mild and begin gradually. Some people become infected but don’t develop any symptoms and don’t feel unwell. Most people (about 80%) recover from the disease without needing special treatment. Around 1 out of every 6 people who gets COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing. Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes, are more likely to develop serious illness. People with fever, cough and difficulty breathing should seek medical attention.”

  1. Guidelines from the WHO

The WHO is the highest medical authority on diseases. These are their guidelines and here is their Q&A page.

  1. South African Dept of Health guidance on Coronavirus

This is the South African Health Department’s website on Coronavirus. Which has all the details on South Africa’s response, contact numbers etc. Mediclinic also has a useful interactive portal about screening and testing.

  1. What is happening in SA and around the world?

As of 15 March 2020 there were 61 confirmed cases of Coronavirus. It should be noted that the first confirmed case in South Africa was only discovered 10 days ago (5 March 2020). The rate of infection is growing exponentially as the graph below indicates.

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In China they asked people when they started showing symptoms and reported those numbers and dates, not only official diagnoses. That shows that the total number of infections is 5-10 times higher than current official diagnoses. Thus, there are most likely 250-500 infections in South Africa as of today (15 March 2020).

To give you a sense of how the rest of the world is reacting here are some indications:

  • All flights are banned from 26 European countries into America (BBC)
  • All schools are closed in 30 countries around the world, including in Belgium, France, Germany and Spain (Metro). Nine schools in Cape Town are currently closed after a student at Herzlia tested positive for Coronavirus
  • Italy, France and Spain have virtually shut down their entire countries and asked everyone to stay at home (NYT)
  • As of Wednesday this week all schools will close until (at least) Easter. All large public gatherings (100+ people) are prohibited and flights into South Africa are now banned from the EU, the US, the UK, South Korea and Iran. See President Ramaphosa’s speech here.


What are we doing about this at Funda Wande?

There are two principles that are influencing our decisions of what to do in light of the pandemic (1) the health and safety of our staff and the people we work with, and (2) our ability to slow the spread of coronavirus in SA. Our decision to act early and decisively is informed by the fact that it is almost guaranteed that within 2 weeks South Africa will also be fully aware of and engaged in efforts to limit the spread of the Coronavirus. Our healthcare system is not equipped to deal with the large numbers of people who will be flooding into it and we need to delay the spread as much as we can.  See this article for more information about the rapid spread.

  • Cancelling all local and international flights (No FW/BW flights from 15 March – 30 June 2020)

All local and international flights booked from 15 March 2020 to 30 June 2020 should be cancelled, irrespective of whether they have already been booked. We will also not be booking any flights paid for by FW over this period unless personally approved by Nic. As more information becomes available on the extent of the spread these dates may be extended at some point in the future. (This is in keeping with policies of the Endowment, as well as Stellenbosch University and UCT).

  • Special precautions for those who are older or have pre-existing medical conditions.

One thing that we do know about the coronavirus is that it disproportionately affects people who are older (60yrs+), have pre-existing medical conditions (diabetes, hypertension, cancer etc. [1]). If any of these apply to you then you are eligible to work from home for the full duration of Corona pandemic – speak to your line manager.

  • Washing hands regularly, don’t touch your face

It seems old-fashioned but the best method of preventing coronavirus is by washing your hands for 20-seconds with soap and water. Soap essentially dissolves the fatty-membrane holding it together so it just falls apart when it comes into contact with soap and water. The way the virus gets into your system is through your nose, your mouth or your eyes. Respiratory droplets (from a cough or a sneeze) that get into your mouth/eye/nose are what infect you. For that reason don’t touch your face, cough into your elbow and wash your hands often.

  • Social distancing

One of the most effective ways of preventing the spread of the disease is to minimize unnecessary physical contact with others. Stop shaking people’s hands and don’t hug. If people put out their hand to shake your hand or come in for a hug just smile and say “we shouldn’t be shaking hands” There are many alternatives like the foot-tap, the sup, the hip-bump or the bow.  Keep at least one meter away from people who show any symptoms of having flu (still smile and be friendly though J). 

  • If you or a family-member are even a little sick, stay home

If you are feeling even slightly unwell or if a family-member in your household is unwell then please let your line-manager know and stay home and do not come into the office. Either work from home if you feel well enough to work from home or take sick leave. Everyone will be given an additional 5 days of discretionary sick leave from 15 March 2020 to 30 July 2020 (“Special leave” on BambooHR). This is if you are feeling even slightly ill.

  • Moving meetings to Zoom

We will try and move as many of our meetings to Zoom rather than in-person. This includes FW-FW meetings and FW-external meetings. Try and utilize the functionality of screen-sharing, annotating on your screen etc. on Zoom. Everyone can create their own Zoom account (see FW Handbook). As a norm we will use video (not just audio) and all try and be as responsive to the person speaking as possible (body language is a big part of communication).

  • Working from home and spacing out desks

Some FW jobs are possible to do from home. We are encouraging people to work from home where possible. Please confirm with your line manager. For people who cannot work from home (most of the media team) we will space out our desks at the office so you are more than 1m apart.

  • Communal medicine and FW-sponsored 2020 flu vaccine

We will make flu medication available in the Cape Town office (anyone can take and use this for themselves). We will also set up an arrangement with Zettlers Pharmacy (12 Mill St Gardens) for anyone who would like to get the “2020 flu shot” and FW will pay for this. (For people in the LP, EC and Wits offices please speak to your line manager to see how they are arranging this in their province). This is not a vaccine against Coronavirus, but it will help you not to get the “normal flu.” That’s helpful because you’re less likely to get sick.

  • Occupation-specific measures

The guidelines and procedures here are applicable to all FW/BW staff. Where there are specifics that relate to only one group (like coaches visiting schools), your line manager will set up a meeting to discuss the protocols and the best way forward.  

  • Timeframes

Given that we are only sending this out on Sunday (15 March 2020) and that some people will only see this email on Monday (16 March 2020). Everything in here is effective from 5pm 16 March 2020.

  • Don’t lose our humanity and collaborative spirit in the process

Working from home, not hugging or hand-shaking, keeping a distance from others – all of these sound like ways of isolating ourselves from others. While physical distance is necessary to prevent the spread of this virus, that doesn’t mean we can’t make sure we are extra friendly, warm, supportive and encouraging to each other. Watch this short video of Italians in Sienna singing to each other from their balconies to keep their community spirit up while they are forced to stay home while their country is shut down. If you find other examples like this please share them on Slack! Also see here

  • From Nic and the FW ExCo



Also see here:

[1] WHO: “Most people infected with COVID-19 virus have mild disease and recover. Approximately 80% of laboratory confirmed patients have had mild to moderate disease, which includes non-pneumonia and pneumonia cases, 13.8% have severe disease (dyspnea, respiratory frequency ≥30/minute, blood oxygen saturation ≤93%, PaO2/FiO2 ratio 50% of the lung field within 24-48 hours) and 6.1% are critical (respiratory failure, septic shock, and/or multiple organ dysfunction/failure). Asymptomatic infection has been reported, but the majority of the relatively rare cases who are asymptomatic on the date of identification/report went on to develop disease. The proportion of truly asymptomatic infections is unclear but appears to be relatively rare and does not appear to be a major driver of transmission. Individuals at highest risk for severe disease and death include people aged over 60 years and those with underlying conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease and cancer. Disease in children appears to be relatively rare and mild with approximately 2.4% of the total reported cases reported amongst individuals aged under 19 years. A very small proportion of those aged under 19 years have developed severe (2.5%) or critical disease (0.2%).”

Funda Wande Annual Report 2019 :)

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We’re really proud to launch our 2019 Funda Wande Annual Report. I’ve included a few screenshots below but read the full report for all the details!

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“Tito’s business unusual” – Our FM article on #Budget2020


  • by Nic Spaull & David Carel

In the SONA it’s easy for the President to promise everything to everyone. A Sovereign Wealth Fund for you, a State Bank for you. You get a car, you also get a car, everyone gets a car. The budget speech is different because you now have to pay for all those cars. If you can’t find the money, you can’t spend it. And in this year’s budget the message came across loud and clear: we have reached the end of the road.

Minister Mboweni showed the courage to wake us up from the political twilight zone we have been in for too long: “We cannot go on like this. Classroom sizes are growing, hospitals are getting fuller and our communities are becoming increasingly unsafe.” We are close to a recession (economic growth in 2019 was 0,3%), debt is spiralling, and there are serious unresolved existential risks, such as Eskom. There is no more business as usual.

Government has finally decided to confront what it has been speaking about for a decade: reducing public sector wages. Mboweni announced that over the next three years government will cut the public sector wage bill by a colossal R160-billion. For the last ten years the public sector wage bill has been increasing much faster than inflation, much faster than economic growth and much faster than government’s ability to collect new revenue to pay for it. Those chickens have now come home to roost.

The 2020 allocation to Basic Education has decreased from R250,2-billion to R248,6-billion, falling R12-billion short of what was needed just to keep up with inflation. Because Basic Education is still the largest single line item in the budget and is also the largest employer in the country (with over 400,000 teachers on payroll), it provides the perfect case study of rising public sector wages and the crowding out of other essential expenditures. Over the last ten years teacher salaries have risen 45% faster than inflation, outstripping increases in budget allocations and hobbling provinces.

The two biggest consequences have been rising class sizes and the imposition of hiring freezes across provinces. The government’s own analysis shows that Learner:Teacher ratios have been consistently rising since 2010. Nationally representative independent studies (PIRLS) show that between 2011 and 2016 average class sizes at the Grade 4 level increased from 40 to 45 learners per class. For the poorest 60% of learners, who feel these increases most acutely, the increase was from 41 to 48 learners per class over the same period.

This is the outcome of above-inflation wage increases since there is always a trade-off between head-counts (the number of teachers employed) and salaries (what you pay them). That means larger class sizes and fewer personnel when wages rise in the face of capped budgets. The way provinces hire fewer teachers and save costs is by implementing hiring freezes, which virtually all have had to resort to (see KZNDoE circular 3 of 2018). Government payroll data from 2012 and 2016 shows that there was a 16% decline in school managers employed countrywide despite there only being 2% fewer schools (school managers are more expensive than teachers). There were double digit declines in the number of principals employed in the North West (-12%), Limpopo (-13%), and the Free State (-14%). In Limpopo alone there were 2,996 principals employed on payroll, yet there are 3,867 schools in the province. That is to say 23% of schools in Limpopo have no employed principal.

What’s clear is that this budget has drawn the lines along which factional battles will be fought over the coming year, both within the ANC, and between the ANC and COSATU. It is wrong and simplistic to see confining public sector wages as anti-poor. As we’ve seen with rising class sizes and withering school leadership teams, large wage increases in a time of almost no economic growth has real consequences for schools — especially for the poorest government schools.

We will soon see if the last decade’s crisis in political leadership will continue unabated or if the President has the leadership and backing to broker the needed compromises and new social compacts to move us forward. Minister Mboweni claims support from Cabinet and the President in confronting the wage bill. The big question now is whether the ANC will actually implement these policies, renegotiate already-signed wage agreements, and withstand the considerable heat that will be coming from COSATU. This will be the President’s biggest test to date and we should throw the full weight of our support behind him.


Dr Nic Spaull and David Carel are researchers in the Research on Socioeconomic Policy (RESEP) group at Stellenbosch University.

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail on the 27th of February 2020 with the title “Tito’s business unusual”