Mandy Wiener | The forgotten children of lockdown

A child holds their hand up in classroom
A child holds their hand up in classroom
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Young children can't be placed in circumstances which make them even more vulnerable. We simply cannot allow them to be left unattended and uncared for as their parents are faced with no choice but to go out and earn a living to sustain them.

With President Cyril Ramaphosa's announcement last week another sector of industry - restaurants and beauty and care - will be reopened, a forgotten sector now seems more left behind than ever before.

Concerned parents who need to return to work are grappling with the problem of who will look after their small children as ECD (Early Childhood Development) centres remain closed with little clarity on their futures.

Many of those in the workforce are single parents with few alternative options for childcare. Faced with the awful dilemma of having to choose between earning an income to sustain their families and looking after their children, what choice do they really have? They have to return to work to earn money after months of staying at home.

Education Minister Angie Motshekga has issued directives around those nursery schools or ECDs that are affiliated with schools - these are set to open on 6 July as things currently stand. But the bulk of nursery schools and aftercare facilities fall under the Department of Social Development and its minister, Lindiwe Zulu, has been largely absent, providing little leadership and direction throughout the lockdown period. She has refused to commit to a timeline for the reopening.

Zulu also muddled around the regulations for sharing of custody of children during the early days of Level 5, leading to much distress and confusion, and most recently said in an interview she had underestimated the crippling impact of Covid-19. She has appeared utterly unprepared and slow to action.

As a result of this leadership vacuum, I have received many emails, messages and phone calls from ECD owners desperate for answers. It certainly appears as though this crucial sector, responsible for looking after some of the most vulnerable in our society, is just not being given adequate attention.

According to reports, the department is conducting workshops and set up work teams and talking a lot about what should happen. Reports suggest this process only started towards the end of May, two months after the country first went into lockdown. While there appears to have been much talking, there is little action.

The latest development seems to be a "self-assessment form" sent out to ECD operators which is essentially an online questionnaire and a "circular regarding preparation and planning for reopening" in which the director-general clearly states ECDs may not reopen until regulations are published, but no date has yet been set for this.

As one nursery school owner aptly put it in an email to me, there is finally some light on the topic, but no switch yet.

Last week, Professor Servaas van der Berg and Dr Nic Spaull of Stellenbosch University's Department of Economics completed their report, Counting the Cost: Covid-19 school closures in South Africa and its impact on children

Frighteningly, it found an estimated one million children under the age of six have been left "home alone" as the South African economy reopens, while crèches and ECD centres remain closed. These children have no other adult caregiver in the house, except for a working parent.

"One of the least appreciated costs of reopening the economy while keeping schools closed for 90% of learners [as is currently the case in South Africa] is that children are at higher risk of being left home alone.

"Our analysis of the Quarterly Labour Force Survey [QLFS] data of 2019 shows that if all employed workers return to work, there would be more than two million children aged 0 to 15 years without an older sibling [15 years+] or an adult caregiver to look after them.

"Of highest concern are the almost one million children [974 000] below the age of six who have no other adult caregiver in the household, except a working parent.

"It is highly plausible that hundreds of thousands of these children would be left home alone in households without an adult caretaker if their employed caregiver was forced to return to work to earn an income and sustain her family. Even though most sectors of the economy have reopened, ECD centres or crèches remain closed," says the report.

Their finding is that keeping children out of school is not in the best interests of the child. "Consequently, all children should return to schools, crèches and ECD centres without any further delay. The profound costs borne by small children and families as a result of the ongoing nationwide lockdown and school closures will be felt for at least the next 10 years," they add in the report.  

Nearly three months into the lockdown and many of these crèches and aftercare facilities are already dead and will not even be able to open up again when the government says they can. Parents have stopped paying fees which means caregivers have not been paid. Because the majority of these facilities operate in a quasi-informal manner in poor communities, it also makes it difficult to apply for UIF or other government funding during this time.

In April, several organisations published a report entitled The Plight of the ECD Workforce.

Two months down the line, the situation made for scary reading. It described the "severe and detrimental impact" the pandemic might have on ECD providers.

According to a rapid survey of nearly 4 000 operators, 99% reported caregivers have stopped paying fees owing to the lockdown. In addition, 83% have not been able to pay the full salaries of staff over the lockdown period. Ninety-six percent said their income was not enough to pay their operating costs and 68% were worried they would not be able to reopen. That was two months ago.  

There is no doubt the Department of Social Development has to take every precaution and ensure measures are put in place to keep small children safe. Centres cannot be opened at the expense of lives. However, officials need to prioritise this sector and ensure it gets the necessary attention it deserves.

Young children have to be properly cared for particularly at a time when so much focus is being placed on violence against women and children. They cannot be placed in circumstances which make them even more vulnerable. We simply cannot allow them to be left unattended and uncared for as their parents are faced with no choice but to go out and earn a living to sustain them.

- Mandy Wiener is a specialist reporter for News24.

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