In a matter of months, COVID-19 has held economies down, causing the kind of damage and loss that has not been witnessed by many countries for decades. Just a few weeks into the pandemic, workers were sent home, with no benefits and no salaries in some circumstances, while those who were lucky to remain, were forced to take pay cuts. Even my friend who was on sick leave, was forced to go back to work in a bid to protect her job. Economies are still reeling from this damage, with many experts unsure of where to start the process of recovery. While some countries have taken crucial steps towards recovery, including slowly reopening to allow industries to operate and workers to resume work, we cannot ignore the caution of a potential second-wave of Coronavirus infections, if the measures backfire on us.
Africa, where COVID-19 seems to still be taking its time to reveal its true face, finds itself in a tough decision-making place on whether to reopen or not, with many countries stretching to feed their citizens while keeping them on lock-down. While there have been speculations about Africa’s inability to test and track cases, it is reported that about 7,944 have so far succumbed to the virus according to data provided by the Africa Centre for Disease Control (https://africacdc.org/covid-19/). Still this cannot be compared to the rest of the world, where many cases of infection and fatalities were reported within a span of weeks. This trend among other issues, including competing needs and young, fragile economies, may be a bigger push for African countries to reopen their economies.
Reopening, however, largely entails allowing various sectors and industries to resume normal operations, with women mainly going back to the offices, industries, markets, and farms just as before. While an important step towards recovery, it is one that puts to question our preparedness, particularly, due to the dynamics of childcare giving presented by COVID-19.
First, allowing women to resume usual work routines means increasing demand for childcare services, either centre-based childcare or home-based care. In Kenya, for example, many child care spaces, often considered as private enterprises, were closed down and most children have been staying home with their parents and siblings. Similarly, prompted by parents, especially mothers being at home, some househelps were relieved from their duties and would have to be called back if at all the mothers are to resume work.
Childcare has never been crucial as now, bearing in mind the health risks paused by the pandemic on children, especially the vulnerable ones. While most children are not necessarily direct victims of Coronavirus, they continue to suffer indirectly from constrained livelihoods and healthcare services. Even with reopened childcare spaces or movements that allow nannies and househelps to come back to work, parents may not be in a position to pay for the services owing to loss of jobs and/or pay cuts suffered in the past months. On the other hand, childcare spaces, especially in low income urban settings would find it difficult to reopen due to inadequate financial resources that could enable them hire, purchase, and adequately prepare for reopening, by upgrading the health safety standards of their facilities. For instance, childcare spaces with constrained resources, may be unable to procure the necessary PPEs, retain childminders on mitigating against the risks of infections, while creating enough spaces with their facilities to allow for social distancing.
On the other hand, at-home based care would require incoming carers to be tested for COVID-19 and given an all clear, otherwise this would bring potential risk of infections spread to households and vice versa. Besides, children going back to childcare centres may expose them to infections, making them potential spreaders since they cannot live alone because they rely on the care and nurturing of adults and siblings. With this in mind, therefore, reopening the childcare sector demands careful strategies that ensure we do not trigger more infections as well as ensuring we protect children, especially the vulnerable ones, while enabling women and girls to resume work and schooling.
Despite the rapidly changing nature of childcare in Africa- from children being primarily taken care of by grandmothers and siblings, as their mothers went about work-most mothers are now being forced to make a hard choice of carrying their children to work or leaving them in the few available childcare centres or at home with househelps. This has further been necessitated by the fact that, unlike before, more women are getting into some form of employment while girls are joining formal schooling. The demand for quality childcare, therefore, has never been as high as now. Investment in Childcare in most African countries is largely underwhelming, with many countries mainly focusing on health, nutrition, and protection aspects of nurturing care for babies 0-3 yrs. For example, in Kenya the amount of government and donor funds committed to nutrition between 2013 and 2017 was around $830 million; over the same period, investment in childcare was less than $5 million (Child Care in developing countries: A scoping study, Fab Inc, November 2018.
Many countries, therefore, not only lack in provision of adequate child care spaces but also quality of standards of care and training of caregivers. In fact, most carers/househelps are brought to urban households, from rural-areas, in search of employment opportunities. Many do not even possess basic formal education, while others are pulled out of school to go seek employment, hence, create a livelihood for their families back in the countryside. To imagine that some of the young women working in childcare are bitter and exploited by employers, would not be far-fetched, if reported cases of abuse on children by carers are anything to go by.
A quick online search on some of the easiest businesses to implement in Kenya, for example, ranks childcare centres as one of the top 20! (https://www.tuko.co.ke/262931-small-scale-business-ideas-kenya.html). This not only speaks to the high need for childcare services but is a sell-out on the lack of standards and demand on quality in the sector, because it assumes that anyone with a “love” for care-giving to children can start and operate a childcare centre, as long as they have some financial resources to invest in establishing a childcare space. Licensing for child care centres is often the ordinary business licence, turning these spaces into lucrative business opportunities for enterprising women- albeit with poor regulatory and inspection processes which make them danger-zones for children.
The needs and challenges of childcare across Africa, are becoming more and more stark, just like the underwhelming investment in the sector is. As various countries, including Kenya, organise task forces to draft strategies for reopening of the economies, many might not remember childcare as being crucial to effective and successful reopening and recovery processes, enabling women and girls to resume work and schooling, while also preventing spread of Coronavirus. A quick look at the already formed committees on reopening the education sector, may show a lack of representation by early childhood development groups and experts, since the main focus is given to basic education for 4+ years old.
Ahead of reopening the economies, therefore, Africa must give a special attention to the childcare sector, incorporating experts to guide the drafting of re-opening and recovery strategies, as well as, directly committing to invest in childcare spaces, regular testing of workers and children, training, as well as stimulus packages to support child care-preneurs in high-density low income settings to re-open the childcare spaces, while being adequately equipped to mitigate against potential health risks.
Writer is a Youth & Women’s Empowerment Specialist|
Technical Lead on Workforce Development for Childcare sector at Uthabiti Africa|
Founder at TAP Africa|