Like other parts of the world, the coronavirus pandemic has become the largest near-term challenge facing the Arab region. For many families, the fast-evolving situation means disrupted education and childcare, possible health problems, potential loss of household income, food insecurity and poverty.
COVID-19 can also have negative consequences for the development and wellbeing of children. Restrictions on free movement and the socio-economic fallout of the crisis puts children at heightened risk of abuse, neglect and violence, not to mention poorer mental health and social exclusion. A high-stress family environment also increases the likelihood of domestic violence and abuse that children either experience or observe.
Spending more time at home inevitably leads to increased screen time for children. This compounds the likelihood of exposure to child abuse material. Recent anecdotal evidence from China, for instance, points to a significant rise in cases of domestic violence against women and little girls. According to statistics, 90 percent of domestic violence incidents between January and March 2020 were attributed to the COVID-19 epidemic.
Some of the potential child protection risks observed in previous infectious disease outbreaks include physical and emotional maltreatment, which can take on the form of reduced supervision and neglect; increased child abuse and interpersonal violence; or lack of access to child protection services.
A pandemic situation is also likely to lead to mental and psychosocial distress. One form of distress is increased anxiety among children caused by death, illness, or separation from a loved one, as well as fear of contracting the disease. Children with pre-existing mental health conditions might also experience a worsening of symptoms.
COVID-19 can quickly transform the context in which children live. School closures and restrictions on movements disrupt routine and social support while also placing new stressors on parents who may have to find new childcare options, or forgo work altogether.
Beyond the immediate threat of contracting or spreading the virus, many parents are wary of its potential to disrupt routines. There is ever-growing uncertainty about how the current situation will play out. Parents are grappling with home-schooling, online learning, and an intense feeling of anxiety brought about by social distancing.
Children whose schooling has been canceled are likely to be feeling more unsettled. That’s because children thrive on stability and routine, and parents must provide alternative coping mechanisms.
Meanwhile, parents are struggling to balance work and childcare while keeping their own worries at bay. Many parents across the region misinterpret anxiety as a form of mental illness.
Supporting parents in this framework is critical. For example, positive online parenting and education programs – as well as evidence-based training options - can help to bolster skills needed to manage children’s behavior and improve quality of family life.
Nearly all programs have a common ground -- they teach parents how to use praise (or positive reinforcement) more effectively to encourage good behaviors. They also teach parents how to effectively discipline children who misbehave. Children ultimately learn to modulate their behavior to meet expectations and enjoy better interactions with their parents.
It is important to understand and reflect on how COVID-19 will continue to widen inequities and further marginalize vulnerable groups across the Arab region. Disparities such as food insecurity, insufficient digital access, and lack of critical social services will persist if not amplify.
Low-income families will be disproportionately affected as they struggle to navigate the healthcare system, school closures, and a possible reduction in employability. The pandemic brings additional economic risks for low-income workers.
Our immediate policy priorities should be to protect the wellbeing of families amid COVID-19. To assist, policymakers should spare no expense to ensure that social safety nets are adequately prepared to meet the needs of families.
Where policy space is available, governments should be able to achieve this goal with a hybrid approach. Timely and targeted family policies should also be adopted, including: paid sick and annual leave; food and nutrition assistance; health insurance; social-housing programs; unemployment benefits; temporary tax relief; cash transfers; and maternal and mental health allowances.
By providing families with the time, information, services and resources they need to cope with the crisis, through public policies such as financial and material assistance, we can circumvent innumerable problems. Employment and income protection, paid leave to care for family members, flexible working arrangements and access to quality, emergency childcare are important measures. Families will again be given the chance to protect and care for their children, relatives and themselves.
Women face increased risk of domestic violence and sexual exploitation in times of crisis as households and families are subject to increased strain. Supporting families in their quest to help children cope with stress during the pandemic is of utmost importance. In addition, governments and societies should provide support services for parents and children witnessing a variety of difficult situations, including parental violence, poor educational background, poverty and substance abuse.
How much will this cost? Can countries in our region afford it? The answers will partly depend on how governments balance the risks and costs of the pandemic against an economic depression. We need a new Marshall Plan for families to fight back. Governments across the region must lead a whole-of-society solidarity approach, linking short-term measures with longer-term policies that strengthen families and mitigate the impact of COVID-19.
Dr. Anis Ben Brik is an associate professor at the College of Public Policy, part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University.
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