A study conducted by the University of Hong Kong has found that children from underprivileged families suffered from worse health during the Covid-19 pandemic, because of poor food, lack of sleep, and being confined in small homes for long hours.

children sport class education school student
Photo: GovHK.

The study conducted by the university’s department of paediatrics and adolescent medicine tracked 1,600 young children between three and six years old, who attended kindergarten in Sham Shui Po and Tin Shui Wai between 2018 and 2021. It assessed their health conditions between when they first began schooling and when they graduated, research leader Patrick Ip told an RTHK programme on Tuesday.

Around 12 per cent of the children surveyed lived in subdivided flats or temporary housing, and 30 per cent of the children’s parents had an education level of junior secondary or below.

“The changes were drastic in the past two to three years in Hong Kong, not limited to children from low income families but overall including those in the middle class,” Ip said. “They demonstrated severe nutritional imbalance.”

Lung Mei beach summer sand children
A boy plays with sand on the Tai Po Lung Mei Beach. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Over three quarters of the children were found to have excessive sodium intake, which may affect kidney development in young children and lead to elevated risks of heart disease, high blood pressure and other metabolic abnormalities later in life, Ip said.

About 12 per cent of the children lacked vitamin D as a result of insufficient time spent outdoors, which may hamper skeletal and mental development. Children who have insufficient vitamin D may also be more likely develop allergies.

Cooped up

“Children couldn’t go to school during the epidemic, and had to eat all three meals at home. Many children who live in Sham Shui Po may live in small environments in homes no more than dozens of square foot in size,” the expert said. “Their choice of food and space for movement became very limited.” Some families may rely on feeding young kids with canned food, which may be heavy in sodium, he said.

children play mask
Photo: GovHK.

More children became overweight or even obese, an existing trend that was accelerated during the pandemic – around 25 per cent of those surveyed were affected. This was related to dining habits but also to sleep deprivation: the survey showed over 80 per cent of the children slept less than 10 hours a day, below the 10 to 13 hours recommended for toddlers.

The pre-schoolers also exercised 19 minutes a day on average, less than the 60 minutes a day recommended by the World Health Organisation, Ip said.

As of Tuesday, Hong Kong has registered 12,388 Covid-19 infections while the death toll stands at 213. The 40 new cases recorded over the past two weeks were all imported. Around 66.6 per cent of the city’s population has been inoculated with two doses of vaccine, with 56,146 people having received their booster jab.

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.