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.