A decision on this can be taken only when the pandemic begins to subside.
The disruption that this pandemic has achieved is historic. Can we look closely at the particular problems in the field of early child care and development in this context?
Maya Gaitonde: If you look at early childhood and you start literally from the time when mothers are pregnant, there are health, nutrition issues. We know the criticality of the first 1,000 days, which takes care of the child in the womb as well. And then, of course, I would say that whatever problems did exist in early childhood care seem to have now escalated because of the pandemic. And, this affects every segment of society; those accessing the anganwadis are a huge segment, but the issue has affected mothers across the board. The problem is one of care and development, providing the right stimulation at the right time to children. It is affecting institutions, wherever the child is. Everybody is in a quandary when it comes to questions on school education and early childhood care.
K. Shanmugavelayutham: The pandemic has affected all sections of the population and the ramifications will be across sectors — health, nutrition, support services, rehabilitation, even education. It is also true that this is a very peculiar disease that keeps evolving. However, it is not just a medical problem. If we open child care centres tomorrow, will people send their children? There is a great deal of fear and panic. It is essentially an issue that has definite social-political-economic angles.
Some private schools in the country are struggling to stay afloat; as far as anganwadis are concerned, workers are now distributing take-home rations and eggs [in Tamil Nadu]. Those who are able to use devices are managing to catch up with their lessons through the web, but in anganwadis, that is not possible. We have not been able to provide the stimulation that is necessary at this stage for children.
What is your recommendation? Can child care centres be opened early? Is it a pure medical decision? What factors should be considered?
Maya Gaitonde: We cannot say it is a pure medical decision because where early childhood is concerned, there are multiple inputs. Of course, there is the safety aspect — of the mother and the child. It is true that children do get the infection, and there is an aftermath too, which we need to consider. We are talking about social, physical distancing. But in early childhood, physical proximity, closeness is very, very important for the children. We are having that problem even in our orphanage where we are not able to tell the little ones to stay away [from each other]. Also, children with disabilities might have to access various therapies. There might be a need for contact there.
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K. Shanmugavelayutham: We have discussed this question with members in our network, anganwadi worker unions, and experts in early child care, the general answer is NO [the centres cannot be opened now]. First, infants are particularly vulnerable to the infection, and there is a possibility of contact and transmission in a public place. Second, it is very difficult to insist that young children (those below six years of age) follow the recommended precautions — wearing a mask, social distancing and other hygiene practices. It might be possible in older children, but we all agree that in the younger group, it will be very difficult to enforce. Third, what we do have to factor in is that it is not the case of just one individual child, the whole family will be involved.
Under the National Education Policy 2020, early child care has been made a part of the school system. Going by that logic, child care centres should be opened only around the time schools are opened. We can take a decision when the pandemic begins to subside and the numbers come down. But, before that, we need guidelines that will have to be communicated to parents, staff members and administrators of these centres. We need to be prepared for an opening. I agree that certain sections of the population have been affected by the closure, but we must remember safety is paramount.
Do you think that the decision, whenever it is taken, to open these institutions must be the result of a consultative process with all stakeholders?
K. Shanmugavelayutham: We need consultations, definitely. There is a lot of panic and fear in the minds of the people. There is a need for consultation, we can open up stage by stage. Various stakeholders have to be involved.
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Maya Gaitonde: I would agree with him that consultation is very important because people right on the ground can give you advice based on experience. You cannot take a decision based just on what the medical professionals tell you.
It was interesting to note what happened when we followed the Supreme Court directive of sending all children who live in institutions back home, or to their guardians… The children went home, but now the big problem is they [the guardians] are saying that they cannot continue to take care of the child. And we could not bring them back here, during the lockdown period, with the restrictions in place.
We hear that the very fulcrum of early child care — admission of children into homes and adoptions — are nearly at a standstill. How does this affect destitute babies, and those in foster care?
Maya Gaitonde: In adoption, maybe the total number is not so many. Children are continuing in the institution rather than being at the homes where they were placed. However, one area which we may need to really talk about is abuse and abandonment. Children are being abandoned. They are in distress, whether it is because of cyclones or any other natural calamity. This has a very strong, traumatic effect on the mental health of the child, quite apart from their physical health. The lack of nutrition, lack of health care, comes at a very vulnerable time, when it is very difficult for them to even seek out help.
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So, I think it is an enormous problem if you just see the number of children that are going are affected by this, globally. We are very lucky wherever these children are in safe places. But many children are not, they are just abandoned.
I don’t know if we have even researched this or whether we have any kind of statistics to know how awful the situation is.
K. Shanmugavelayutham: One side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that funding for a large number of institutions has been affected. Financial commitments have not been coming in, many institutions find it difficult to keep open their premises, pay their staff even. It is a major issue. The government should announce a special rescue package for child care institutions.
Another issue is that all statutory institutions — the Child Welfare Committee, the Juvenile Justice Board, and the Commission for the Protection of Child Rights — have been rendered inactive. They need to be revived, so that we can continue to help children in distress. We do have to factor in the situation of the workforce in the early child care sector. Have they been out of work? How have they sustained their families? What precautions must they take in future, to stay safe themselves and to make sure their wards stay safe?
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Maya Gaitonde: We, at Bala Mandir, have been very particular about following protocols. We have had some very good advice from epidemiologists — on topics like implementing some simple measures. So, we have very slowly opened up the institution. We are lucky that we are able to pay our staff, even those who are not able to come.
We have got our staff to wear full sleeves, just even a shirt on top of regular clothes because, at this age, children come running to you and you can’t keep them aside. Our children, interestingly, are getting used to masks, with the caregiver [also] wearing masks.
If the caregivers are coming from outside, then we measure temperature and do whatever is to be done as per the protocol. One issue that we continue to have is the lack of public transportation — not everyone can afford an auto, or taxis.
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Also, where the workforce is concerned, I do believe that there is a lot of fear, even if there are people who are willing to go forward and get on with it. Their families are apprehensive too, because it is not only what they do in the workplace, it is also what they might bring back into their respective homes.
K. Shanmugavelayutham: The staff are really very important functionaries in early child care; earlier they used to get their salaries, even if wages were low. Now, they have been deprived of that income also. Some of them will be forced to quit the sector, and this is a very unfortunate fallout of COVID-19.
Would a training module of sorts help before we open up?
Maya Gaitonde: We are doing some outreach programmes, through mobile phones, for children who need intervention, but also on the precautions that can be taken to keep safe.
We tell our staff, apart from the training on early childhood or what to talk to the parents, about how to follow the rules, how a mother can take care of her baby by following these protocols. We are sharing the modules we have developed with others.
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K. Shanmugavelayutham: Yes, there is a need for a model to be developed by experts in the field. At present, there is a division as far as we can see — in the well-off section, learning is going on. In the poorer sections, there is no education; instead, there is isolation, boredom, and lack of proper stimulus. What should the government do? As they do for children studying in the older classes, they can run a half hour slot of videos on television, that would help parents provide the right kind of stimulus to the children at that age.
Professor K. Shanmugavelayutham is the convenor of Tamil Nadu Forum for Creche and Child care Services; Maya Gaitonde is honorary general secretary of the Chennai-based Bala Mandir Kamaraj Trust.
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