Fearful, hungry, sleepless, confused, bored, lonely—these are just a few words that describe what children have been feeling since India went into lockdown on 25th March to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. Our entire society is facing difficulties because of the lockdown, governments, citizens, and civil society are putting great effort to address these, in whatever capacity they can. But the impact of the lockdown on children, especially those from low-income families, is something state governments must prioritize otherwise history might not be very kind to us.
With more than 15 lakh schools closed, learning has come to a halt for the poor children who lack access to resources required for online learning. Other than learning, schools are also responsible for providing nutritious mid-day meals and a safe space where children spend time with their teachers and friends, engaging in all sorts of activities away from the difficult conditions they may face at their homes.
The number of school dropouts as of 2016 was more than 47 million children and given the shock the economy has faced, it is bound to increase. Around 12 crore people have already lost employment since the lockdown started. This poses a huge risk of dropout for children who have been studying in low fee private schools as their parents won’t be able to afford their fees any longer.
Poor familial economic conditions can also push children into hazardous labour and increase incidents of child trafficking. Most states have further made no provisions to ensure the poor have access to nutritious food, increasing the risk of malnutrition amongst children. Additionally, preexisting health risks, such as lack of clean water and unsanitary living conditions, make children more vulnerable to disease and infection.
Schools are struggling to find ways to continue education during the lockdown. Many private schools have turned to online learning but this excludes the millions of children who do not have access to smartphones or the internet. This will widen the preexisting learning gap between students of different economic backgrounds. Teachers are also finding it difficult to engage with students because of the lockdown, leaving the sole responsibility of the child’s learning and well being on the parents.
In low-income families, likely, many parents may not have the capacity to address the problems that concern children, especially problems concerning their learning and physical emotional well being. The situation is worsened by the fact that economically vulnerable families are struggling to ensure the basic survival of their families, making education a secondary concern.
The number of children asking for protection from abuse and violence has also drastically increased since they have been stuck at homes for more than a month now, many with their abusive parents/guardians. The child helpline (1098) received 92000 calls in 2 weeks after the lockdown started, an increase of more than 50%. The cases of abuse could be much higher since in most cases these problems are not reported due to fear or lack of awareness.
The virus has made existing economic inequalities more visible and underscored the need for state departments to function in tandem rather than as independent units. The primary question is- how can states address this crisis? With the pool of resources they have, here are some of the interventions which can be carried out to address the grass root challenges that children face due to the extended lockdown:
1) TV and radio programs (Doordarshan/Aakashwaani) should be started so that children in remote areas without any access to online learning could stay connected to different learning activities
2) Textbooks and notebooks are home delivered to the children so that they can immediately start learning the content for the new academic year. If that is unfeasible, parents can be asked to collect the same from their respective schools.
3) States should also look at partnering with telecom companies to support children having smartphones by providing internet packs so that they can access online learning facilities.
3) The raw material for mid-day meals should be delivered to homes of all children studying in government schools along with the transfer of cooking costs to their bank accounts immediately. There has to be a special focus to address the nutritional needs of children by adding items like milk, fruits to the meal as soon as possible.
4) SCPCRs should start child helplines in states to provide counselling services to address the fears and anxieties of children. States like Haryana and Delhi have already started this.
5) Since the responsibilities of parents have increased, they require constant support and advice on how to effectively deal with the concerns of children. This can be done through means like regular phone calls from teachers, text messages, and voice notes.
6) To ensure that children do not fall ill, the distribution of soaps, iron pills, and deworming pills should be looked into. These can be delivered along with the mid-day meal to the homes of children.
7) Many children studying in private schools have already dropped out and are waiting for the lockdown to end so that they can get admission in government schools. Governments should start an admission helpline where children can get themselves registered without any requirement of documents and start learning from teachers of their nearby school immediately.
8) The pressure to pay school fees can lead to children dropping out of government schools. So, if states are serious about ensuring that children stay in school, they should immediately make education till 12th class completely free in government schools.
Children are looking at us with great expectations, and how we handle this crisis tells them a lot about how much we care about them. Here’s hoping that we don’t let them down.