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Citation Information

Type Working Paper - NIDS-CRAM Working Paper
Title The COVID-19 pandemic, hunger, and depressed mood among South Africans
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected people’s mental health. There are the immediate effects that include fear, anxiety, loneliness, and uncertainty about the future. But there are also secondary
impacts flowing from national responses to the pandemic such as lockdowns, including school closures, halting of school feeding, as well as more distal economic impacts such as global trade
slowdowns and massive increases in unemployment. We have evidence, from previous waves of NIDS-CRAM data, that rates of depressive symptoms have been consistently higher than before the pandemic. The risk of screening positive for depressive symptoms had increased from 24% to 29% between waves 2 and 3 of NIDS-CRAM. In 2017, before the pandemic, this risk was 21%. The risk of screening positive for “severe” depressive symptoms increased from 5.2% to 7.1% between waves 2 and 3 of NIDS-CRAM. Our findings from wave 5, collected between 6 April and 11 May 2021, indicate that the risk of screening positive for depressive symptoms has remained stable between wave 3 and 5 at around 29%. The risk of screening positive for “severe” depressive symptoms, at wave 5, was 4.9%.

While depressive symptoms have been and continue to be prevalent in the context of the pandemic, it is not clear what is accounting for this. Mental health is impacted by an array of factors. Many of these are internal to the individual – for instance genetics, disposition, and developmental history. But a significant amount of the variation is explained by environmental factors. Further, our analysis of all 5 panels of NIDS-CRAM data show that, while the percentage of people with high levels of depressive symptoms at each cross-section of NIDS-CRAM are in the region of 24-29%, the percentage of people who have experienced significant levels of depressive symptoms ever since the start of the pandemic, is much higher, at 52%. This indicates that it is not the same individuals who are experiencing depression across all time points, but, rather, different individuals, moving in and out of the depressed mood category. One possible conclusion to be drawn from this phenomenon – of a changing population of people experiencing low mood – is that while some of the risk for depressive symptomatology resides within the individual, the major drivers, perhaps particularly in the pandemic, are structural and based on changing circumstances. As the pandemic drags on, and people cycle in and out of employment, and between shifting states of hunger, people move in and out of a low mood state – what we would call ‘churning’.

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