Where’s the PPE for parents?

Shining a spotlight on the challenges of parenting during COVID-19 lockdowns in Eastern and Southern Africa

Maniza Ntekim
A mother helps her daughter to study during COVID-19 school closures in Nairobi, Kenya
UNICEF ESAR0/Brian Otieno
28 May 2020

Health workers are at the forefront of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. All around the world they’re putting their lives at risk as they care and treat those of us severely affected by the virus. Many of these workers are not adequately protected against catching the virus themselves and so it has become a priority – in almost every country – to provide frontline health workers with quality Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Health workers deserve this equipment and a lot more. They deserve our applause; they deserve to be properly remunerated and respected for what they do, and we must do all we can to protect them.

Yet there’s another group of first line COVID-19 responders that need to be recognised and supported. Their plight hasn’t been much publicized. They’re struggling, often alone and in silence. You may be one and you certainly know some, but you are probably too busy to give yourself, or them, even a second thought. Those unsung heroes are parents. And the term ‘parent’ or ‘parenting’ here is not limited to biological parents but extends to any guardian or caregiver providing consistent care to a child.

Overnight, and often with very little warning, parents – regardless of circumstances – have been thrown into the deep end. They are expected to keep their children at home safe, healthy and well informed about COVID-19. They need to support their children to learn now that childcare centres and schools are closed. And they need to keep calm and maintain some sense of normality so that their children don’t become anxious. Parenting in normal times is hard but parenting now is exponentially more challenging. Yet where are the resources to support parents? Where is their personal protective equipment?

There are three main things that parents need urgently to help them through this current crisis. Firstly, they need support to take care of their families’ most basic survival needs. Approximately 82 per cent of the population in Eastern and Southern Africa lives in poverty and this figure masks significant differences both amongst and within countries. Even before COVID-19, 46 million people in the region were faced with severe food insecurity due to droughts, cyclones, floods and locust infestations. The COVID-19 measures that most governments have put in place in this region, including restricting movement and imposing physical distancing, will tip many vulnerable families over the edge. Those families will face increased food insecurity and increased stress on their limited finances and may have reduced access to vital services. Countries with social protections schemes in place, like cash transfer programmes, need to continue implementation of these schemes and expand them where possible. And those without need to think innovatively and quickly about how to get emergency income support to these families.

Secondly, parents need support to take care of their mental health. This is essential for them and their children. Parents and families are central to a child’s development especially in the early years which is when the human brain experiences its most rapid phase of growth and development. Our capacity to communicate, problem solve and be resilient is developed long before we set foot in a classroom. The stress and mental anxiety that parents and children are experiencing now cannot be overestimated. And as evidence keeps emerging on maternal depression and its lasting effect on child development, even during pregnancy, we have to prioritise support to parental mental health. Two immediate actions that could begin delivering relief for parents include raising awareness on the importance of mental health whilst tackling the associated stigma and making sure that key parts of the social sector workforce like health workers, teachers and social service workers are well trained and supported to provide mental health support to parents and children.

Thirdly, these parents need practical tips, guidance and materials to enable them to provide their children with the care and support they need during this challenging time. What parents don’t need is to be told what they know already and to be sent more information than is necessary. Ideas for activities to undertake with different aged children, examples of timetables and routines to follow and guidance on materials that can be easily made or resourced, would be a helpful first start. Countries have made commendable efforts to support continued learning for children via a range of media including TV, radio, internet and mobile phone technology. However, in Eastern and Southern Africa internet penetration is constrained – barely one in five (22 per cent) of households have internet access, while 84 per cent of the rural population, where the bulk of the learners reside, have no electricity.  There will be many families and children these media will not reach so considering alternative communication options like engaging community frontline workers to reach the most vulnerable households directly and, of course, safely will be important.

And this leads to a final important point – how to make sure that the parents and children who need the most help are prioritized. With every policy decision, resource allocation and on-the-ground action taken we need to ask ourselves how children with disabilities, families living in conflict situations and those affected by poverty and excluded from most activities within society will be reached in a practical and respectful way.

Across the world we’re relying on parents to keep over two billion children healthy, protected, well-nourished and learning. How well parents manage this now will have implications for the future. Supporting parents and parenting during this time may be one of smartest ways to offset both the short and long-term effects of COVID-19.

UNICEF recognizes and celebrates parents during Parenting Month in June. For more information visit www.unicef.org/parenting

Maniza Ntekim is the Regional Advisor for Early Childhood Development (ECD), UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa Office