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The new normal for Filipino children

The Philippines is one of the poorest and most unequal societies in Asia. Elite-dominated policymaking and governance positions the poor at a perennial structural disadvantage, as political scientist David Timberman has pointed out. Those of us who live in this country know all too well that poor living conditions deeply affect the lives of Filipino children. These young people — vulnerable economically, socially, and politically — generally live in poverty-stricken rural areas or urban informal settlements.

What’s missing for them? Decent schooling opportunities and access to public services like clean water, sanitation, hygiene, safety, and working cell sites. What else is missing? Social protection, and having their voices heard in governance circles. Income inequality, weak political institutions, and inadequate safety nets sustain the poverty that denies them the well-being and freedom to aspire due them.

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Now comes COVID-19. Although young children are less likely to be infected by the virus, its impact on their family worsens the situation. Global leaders need to address this pandemic as also a child-rights crisis. In the Philippines, faltering policies have most vividly reduced children’s rights to education and health care.

Lockdown restrictions intended to contain the spread of COVID-19 have simultaneously led to family livelihood and employment losses. The 2020 report of the international watchdog Save the Children reports that about 77 percent of households experienced some income decline, while 30 percent lost most of their income. This implies that thousands of children are going hungry despite sporadic food and money contributions from government, the private sector, and civil society. Faltering education and health care, amplified by lockdown conditions conducive to abuse, magnify the anxieties of children and their families.

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With many lower-income households facing financial disaster, structural distortions add to the sufferings of children. Urban poor families point out that even before the pandemic, they were earning meager wages; now even that marginal support is gone. Pre-pandemic living already meant cramped and densely packed informal settlements lacking sanitation and access to clean water. Children who in “normal” times suffered from diarrhea, dengue, and respiratory illnesses now add hunger and insecurity to their woes. Living in such precarious conditions, with limited access to resources for mitigating the effects of COVID-19, make disability and death loom large.

The Department of Education has reported that 25 percent of children dropped out of school, while around 300,000 private school students transferred to public schools. The transition from person-to-person classes to online learning has proven traumatic for many lower-income households. Despite the government’s effort to make education accessible to all, the setup of distance learning poses enormous difficulties, especially for students living in rural areas or urban informal settlements. Their situation — crowded houses and noisy environments, one e-tablet shared by several siblings at different grade levels, poor internet connectivity, a lack of money for load and cellular data — offers far from ideal learning setups. Mental health difficulties rise as the module-by-module learning format comes into play. Confused parent-tutors’ frustrations rise exponentially when their Grade 3 education is insufficient to help their Grade 6 child. And with increased household chores and younger sibling care, how can children have the time or peace of mind to focus on studies?

Typhoons “Quinta,” “Rolly,” and “Ulysses” have further underscored the vulnerabilities of children amid disasters, as they face challenges such as strong flooding, frequent brownouts and blackouts, and relocation to crowded evacuation centers.

The grave situation demands that national and local governments prioritize the concerns of kids in poor families grappling with the consequences of the virus. Concretely, this means social protection for improved child well-being in the form of food security, education, health, shelter, potable water, sanitation, hygiene, information, and more.

At the same time, adults in authority have to start listening to the children themselves. This entails organizing programs with children’s participation at their core, aimed at highlighting their needs and encouraging them to know and assert their rights. Enhancing such rights and the kids’ capacity to aspire—that is what the new normal for children must be all about.

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Nina D. Resurreccion is a junior at Ateneo de Manila University majoring in sociology.

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TAGS: blended learning, children’s welfare, Commentary, coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus philippines, COVID-9, new normal, Nina D. Resurreccion
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