Covid-19: Policy Priorities Should Focus on Supporting Families

/ 20 Apr 2020

Covid-19: Policy Priorities Should Focus on Supporting Families

Like other parts of the world, the novel coronavirus pandemic has become the largest near-term challenge facing the Arab region. For many families, the shutdowns designed to halt the spread of Covid-19 mean disrupted education and childcare, possible health problems, potential loss of household income, food insecurity and poverty.

Our immediate policy priorities should be to protect the well-being of families coming under these added strains. Policymakers should spare no expense to ensure that social safety nets are adequately prepared to meet the needs of families.

The stakes are particularly high for women and children. The Covid-19 situation can have negative consequences for the development and well-being of children. Restrictions on free movement and the socio-economic fallout of the crisis put children at heightened risk of abuse, neglect and violence, not to mention poorer mental health and social exclusion.

A high-stress family environment increases the likelihood of domestic violence and abuse that children either experience or observe, in the home or online. Spending more time at home inevitably leads to increased screen time for children. This increases the likelihood of exposure to child abuse material online.

Women and Girls at Risk

In addition, recent anecdotal evidence from China’s Hubei Province, for instance, points to a significant rise in cases of domestic violence against women and girls during the Covid-19 crisis. According to statistics from an anti-domestic violence organization there, 90 percent of domestic violence incidents between January and March 2020 were attributed to the pandemic.

Some of the potential risks to children 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; and lack of access to child protection services.

A pandemic 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 closings and restrictions on movements disrupt routines and social support while also placing new stress 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, andan intense feeling of anxiety brought about by social distancing.

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.

Children whose schooling has been canceled are likely to feel more unsettled. That’s because children thrive on stability and routine, and parents must provide alternative coping mechanisms.

New Meaning for Work/Life Balance

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 the quality of family life. 

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 grow.

Low-income families will be disproportionately affected as they struggle to navigate the health-care system, school closures, and a possible reduction in employability. The pandemic brings additional economic risks for low-income workers.

Governments Supporting Families 

The top goal for governments and policymakers during the Covid-19 crisis should be to protect the well-being of families. By providing families with the time, information, services and resources they need to cope with the crisis, we can circumvent innumerable problems.

Where policy space is available, governments should be able to achieve this goal with a hybrid approach. Timely and targeted family policies should be adopted, including paid sick leave 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.

Employment and income protection, paid leave to care for family members, flexible working arrangements and access to quality, emergency childcare are important measures that will give families the chance to protect and care for their children, relatives and themselves.

Creating Access to Services and Counseling

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 the Middle East and North Africa 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.

Anis Ben Brik is an associate professor in the College of Public Policy at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Qatar.




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