Thursday, January 21, 2021

Pandemic hardship creating malnourished school dropouts

Unhealthy, listless children will not grow into adults capable of joining Malaysia’s digital economy, and this will be a long-term problem for the country.

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The lure of earning a quick RM200 dealing drugs on the street is always tempting to poor teenage boys who are already not interested in school.

Now, in the pandemic, criminal networks are recruiting boys who drop out early, meaning there is little hope of them ever returning to school, Universiti Malaya professor Shanthi Thambiah tells MalaysiaNow.

Since schools reopened in June, the number of upper secondary school dropouts from poor families has been rising. Many parents in urban poor households report that their children have lost interest in school, leading to nearly 10% of boys aged 15 to 17 dropping out, and 7% of girls.

One contributing factor is poor diet worsened by the pandemic, according to a new report.

When it comes to feeding their families at a time when jobs are disappearing rapidly, mothers with little cash have to make hard choices. They are forced to buy less fresh meat, vegetables and fruit, and instead put on the dinner table cheaper highly processed packaged food that is less nutritious but keeps hunger at bay.

The result is children in urban low-income families experiencing slower cognitive development due to poor nutrition.

This comes on the heels of warnings by a senior dietician from the health ministry that the closure of schools across the country could cut off much needed nutritious meals provided by the government for children from the lower income bracket.

“We must tackle these pandemic-specific issues of under-nourished children and school dropouts,” says Shanthi. “It’s very important we do not further disadvantage the already-disadvantaged as the negative impacts will be felt long after the pandemic has ended.”

Many parents in urban poor households report that their children have lost interest in school, leading to nearly 10% of boys aged 15 to 17 dropping out, and 7% of girls.

She says long-term economic and social instability will arise from the effects of these two Covid-related disadvantages affecting the urban poor.

“Even before the MCO, the number of boys dropping out of upper secondary was worrying. Many of them felt obliged to provide for their family if one or both parents was unable to provide two square meals a day,” she says, adding that now, with so many parents out of work, the situation is much worse.

But the pandemic school dropout numbers for boys is also worrying for other reasons.

“Unlike better-off families, low-income households often cannot afford a laptop for each child. During the MCO, these children often use their parents’ smartphones, not a computer, to do online learning,” says Shanthi, who is not surprised such factors contribute to a deepening disinterest in learning.

Although returning to school presents other financial hurdles for poor parents, such as being unable to buy enough face masks for their children, Shanthi says, “I am strongly advocating that children from B40 families get out of the house and back into the classroom because being stuck in the house is not conducive to their growth and development.”

She was commenting on data from a report released last week, “Families on the Edge, Part 2” which surveyed low-income households in Kuala Lumpur, and describes issues beyond the temporary hardships that may result from loss of income during the pandemic.

“The Malaysian economy is digitising rapidly and is going to need highly-skilled people,” she says. “And such disruptions to effective learning will result in many of this generation of Malaysian kids being ill-equipped to be part of it.”

This is not good for the country as disadvantaged youngsters being deprived of upward social mobility opportunities and being stuck in an intergenerational cycle of poverty will mean fewer consumers with any real purchasing power in the future, she tells MalaysiaNow.

“The benefits of the progress we have made as a country in establishing access to highly-subsidised education and universal healthcare will regress if we do not tackle these pandemic-specific issues of school dropouts and under-nourished children.”

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