Tahlil (15), Tasmia (14) and Rowza (5) are siblings who have remained quarantined at home since the outbreak of coronavirus in Bangladesh. In the last two months, the trio has not taken a step out of their home.
Schools have been shut, so have the tuitions. For the first two weeks, the siblings thought it was fun to wake up everyday to no school, no homework or tutors to attend to. But gradually, they began to feel suffocated.
Now, they have stopped communicating with their parents because they have nothing to talk about. What is there to talk about when nothing new is happening anywhere?
The effect of the nationwide shutdown is putting its mark on many aspects of our daily lives. During the days of the novel coronavirus when adults are psychologically stressed, children have their own sets of sufferings as well.
Recently, Save the Children has run a survey on the children of Bangladesh, focusing on various aspects of children's lives that are impacted by their family's income, food security, health risks, education, protection and psychological well-being.
The study, with a set of child-friendly questions, has reached out to 121 children from different marginalized communities including urban slums, tea gardens and deprived rural areas.
he sensus includes girls and boys, including children with disabilities, who are aged between 10 to 18. They were asked about their fears, worries and instances that saddened them.
The study revealed that these children are, indeed, possessing feelings of fear and worry. What is worse is that they cannot talk about these problems with anyone. Around 5.78 percent of children in Bangladesh are worried about their education or schools being closed. Students of higher secondary classes are stressed as their final exam has been suspended due to the shutdown.
The economy, education system, health system, and every other sector has been on the global decline and is going through a change. Is our social life exempt from this change?
No, it is not. The lives of millions in Bangladesh, and the world, have changed in a span of a few months - impacting the children in the process. Educational institutes are closed, with education on a pause and usage of technology at its peak.
According to the survey, the pandemic and its socioeconomic consequences have been impacting the children psychologically.
Almost 28 percent of children said that they are worried about the ongoing income and food insecurity. Around 23 percent are worried for people who are getting infected and dying from the virus. Part of their concerns surround what will happen if they get infected.
The child's retreat
A teenager, Sheikh Ahmad Shafin, is an expectant of SSC results. He has been in "forced" self-quarantine for over two months. Pre-pandemic, his life used to be hectic. Shafin used to long for having a few free hours to learn guitar, engage in physical exercise and other activities.
Shafin's parents complained that although he has enough free time, he does not engage himself in any work. Instead, staying at home 24/7 is making him prone to obesity and other diseases.
In Shafin's words, "Amid this shutdown, how can I start something new? I am not even allowed to go outside to help the needy people. How will I manage other things?"
Helal Uddin Ahmed, an associate professor of the Department of Child Adolescent & Family Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health, said, "Parents should be more understanding of their children now. This pandemic will have an everlasting impact on our children."
"We should behave with patience, act with love and set examples for them, only then will they grow as responsible citizens. Being cautious never should mean spreading hatred or belittling someone. It will not be pleasant to our society as well."
Marzia-al-Hakeem, an Assistant Clinical Psychologist and MPhil researcher at Department of Clinical Psychology of University of Dhaka; and Psychologist at Telepsychiatry Research and Innovation Network (TRIN) Ltd. spoke to The Business Standard about the issue.
According to Marzia, anybody can experience mental health issues, especially now. But this can be especially difficult for children, primarily the ones who have any mental illness diagnosis previously or suffered from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as physical and mental abuse, parental mental health problems, drug abuse or domestic violence.
"During shutdown, a number of parents are calling us saying that their children have become irritated and restless, nagging all the time, and cannot concentrate on their studies. Some of them having neurodevelopmental disorders are showing challenging behaviour traits," Marzia said, adding that teenagers and comparatively older children have resorted to silence. "They do not feel like talking to their parents or doing anything," the psychologist informed.
Most families are going through incidents of joblessness, pay cuts and other financial crises. The parents have already become mentally disturbed. This is impacting the children as well.
"In this situation, when the child is demanding more attention, the parents are either ignoring them or going down on them with rebuke. As a result, the child is not getting the mental support they need," Marzia said. If the parents are stressed, how are they going to take care of the children's mental health?
Generally, issues regarding mental health are overlooked in our country to a great extent. While adults can voice their condition and consult a therapist or a professional, the children are completely unaware. Their families are the only means of counselling and support for them.
Marzia stresses that parents need to be patient with the children. "A healthy interaction between the parents and children is very important now," she added.
On the other hand, parents who can 'afford' this lockdown are spending more time with their children and supporting them. Ensuring the parents' mental health in order to be that support system for their children is of utmost importance. Marzia suggests they seek psychological counselling or therapy to stay mentally healthy.
Some parents are focusing on keeping the body and mind aligned for a better society. To attain that goal, few families have erected rules and are taking care of themselves as much as possible.
Ashabul Yameen Aurjon, a sixth grader, works out for 30 minutes everyday to improve his immune system. His parents and two-year-old brother accompany him.
Aurjon's mother, Salma Shabnam, a resident pathologist at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, is happy with Aurjon's shutdown lifestyle and studies. She does not believe that putting a lot of pressure would bring fruitful results. Rather, she thinks that halted studies can be made up for, but children should be safe and sound.
And to be safe and sound, they need outlets of recreation - but not gadget based. As per Dr Helal's advice, it is important to make the children aware of technological abuse while making sure that they do not become dependent on devices.
According to Gawhar Nayeem Wahra, a child rights activist and faculty at the Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies in the University of Dhaka thinks that the mental condition of children pre and post coronavirus will be very different. Children who are going through the crisis are going to become very matured, yet disturbed.
The department of Clinical Psychology of Dhaka University and Telepsychiatry Research and Innovation Network (TRIN) Ltd has started an initiative amid the shutdown and they are providing an online platform called "MonerDaktar" for free psychological services. Anyone with mental instability or stress can call and get a free service from the initiative. However, this service will only be available until the shutdown lasts.
Is education in peril?
A Unesco report revealed that over 850 million children and youth could not attend classes due to the pandemic. Almost 5 crore students in schools and colleges have been affected as schools in Bangladesh have remained closed. However, since April, the state-run Sangsad Bangladesh Television has been broadcasting lessons for grades one to ten every day from 2pm to 4pm via a program titled "Ghore Bose Shikhi".
But to avail these classes, families must have a television set at their home with regular power supply as well. Are these opportunities available to every student in the country?
According to a research by Media Landscape, television viewership in Bangladesh was nearly 80 percent of the total population in 2017 - with the numbers prevailing in the bigger cities.
The Energy Progress Report 2019 by the World Bank says 93 percent of people in Bangladesh are under power coverage now, but power cuts and the low reliability of the power supply still pose a threat.
In response to school closures, Unesco recommended distance learning programmes, like online education, in a bid to limit the disruption of education. But how effective can distant learning be for the school students in Bangladesh ?
Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) data from March states that the amount of mobile phone subscribers is more than 16 crores in Bangladesh. But the total number of mobile internet users is nine crores, and eight crore people use the internet through broadband networks - mostly in offices and larger cities. This means that not everyone has access to the internet to continue online studies, let alone participate in online exams.
Another concern is that student's grades could deteriorate compared to the previous years after returning to school. Consequently, some could even drop out. The impact could be much more severe for disadvantaged children and their families, due to interrupted learning, compromised nutrition, childcare and economic problems of families who have been unable to work.
Gawhar proposed solutions that can be adapted to lessen the stress. One of his suggestions pointed out the importance of complying with the students' rearranged mental structure once schools repone and classes are resumed.
"But are we prepared for that? No. Our main concern revolves around covering lessons in the shortest time possible. This can be very harmful for the children," Gawhar remarked.
Gawhar also suggested that the education sector should come up with a proper strategy and planning to properly approach the students post-shutdown. Besides regular classes, schools can opt for special therapeutic counseling classes for the students.
Although the state has aided to conduct classes on national media, many have forgotten about special needs institutions who provide education to the differently abled children. Suchinstituitions have remained closed and the state-run distant education bodies have not moved forward with a plan for ensuring education for these children.
"Since the special institutes are closed, parents and older members of the family need to be very patient with the differently abled children. Regular activities and studies should be continued at home," Marzia suggested.
Abuse and violence against children
Children have been cooped up at home due to the nationwide general holidays for more months. Hence, it is expected that there should not be any case of violence and abuse against children as they are at their homes, with their parents and family. But the real scenario is rather frightening.
Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) recently ran a survey on domestic violence on women and children around the country during the coronavirus shutdown. The survey said 456 children have fallen victim to domestic violence by their parents or relatives amid the shutdown. Among them, 424 children - around 92 percent - had not been subjected to domestic abuse prior to the pandemic. 33 children fell victim to child marriage.
An Ain O Salish Kendro (ASK) report says that from January to April this year, 237 children were raped. Last year, the number stood at 234. It was found that more than four percent of children are scared and worried as they are suffering from domestic violence. The study from Save the Children highlighted factors such as household concerns from loss of livelihoods, anxiety from the shutdown and staying home 24/7, paired with health risks have created significant stress for the adults, leading to increased cases of violence against children.
Punishments, both physical and mental, have increased at home. Of those who endure domestic cases of mental punishment, 21 percent mentioned that such punishments have increased after the virus shutdown. On the flip side, the percentage is as high as 47 when it comes to physical punishment; although the percentage of children who usually face physical punishment is lower.
In a virtual press conference on "Domestic Violence during lockdown in Bangladesh" Shaheen Anam, CEO of Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), recommended speedy presidential approval of the 'Virtual Court Ordinance'.
She stressed on the necessity to expedite the arrest and prosecution of perpetrators, and urged the launching of virtual court hearings to ensure the perpetrator's punishment amid the current condition. In the conference, she also recommended the continuation of the tribunal for ensuring safety of women and children in the shutdown.
MJF compelled the government to put emphasis on domestic violence while focusing on other necessities like food assistance and income opportunities. The organization called for authorities concerned including the Ministry of Home Affairs; Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs; Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, and the inspector general of police to give directives to field-level officials for increasing activities to curb domestic violence.
As this article began with the story of the three siblings, let us get back to them.
Tahlil is waiting to wear his snickers again to get back to the playground. Tasmia is hoping to participate in the school's badminton tournament, while Rowza is just happy to have her parents at home by her side, although she misses art classes at school.
Yes, we all are eagerly waiting for this shutdown to finally be lifted. Yes, our economy is a mess and we have bigger things to sort out. But we must not forget about the little ones - the nation builders. Have we prepared them enough to face the post-pandemic world?