In South Africa, the first stringent COVID-19 lockdown led to joblessness, poverty and isolation from protective social networks stripping many families of the resources they needed to care for children. Whilst widespread hardship was reported, this viewpoint teases out the range of experiences to support policy-making for future pandemics. The authors draw on the findings from the National Income Dynamics Study: Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey and projects that elicited children’s perspectives. These sources reveal that children living in socially and spatially diverse families and locations had different experiences. Vital safety nets include a strong civil society, a culture of ubuntu in rural and peri-urban communities, and the school feeding programme in low-income neighbourhoods. However, permanently raising the child support grant above the food poverty line would protect children during pandemics, mitigate against hunger and reduce the hidden inequalities that exist around access to food between urban and rural areas.