Friday, November 13, 2020

The pandemic conundrum of childcare

Proper childcare is crucial to children's development but the Covid-19 pandemic which has shut down nurseries and centres before is not doing it any favours.

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Moon Leong, 33, was very satisfied with the childcare centre of her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Li Lee. But when the conditional movement control order (CMCO) forced the centre to close in early October, she soon discovered some serious issues.

The centre not only insisted that Leong and her husband pay 90% of the monthly RM1,300 fees throughout the CMCO even though Li Lee is at home, they also began sending them a video each morning with the instruction, “Let your daughter watch this and teach her from this video.”

Leong understands that the centre needs to survive financially, but she has still asked them for a 50% reduction of the fees.

Recently, the centre sent her a letter saying they would open next week but before they can accept Li Lee back, Leong must provide a letter from her employer stating that she is required to work at the office, not from home.

Leong is now at a loss as to whether she wants to continue paying or if she should give up her job to stay home and look after her daughter herself.

Azlan Malik, 49, a divorced, single father of children aged 4 and 7, cannot work from home because his banking job requires him to be at the bank’s treasury operations centre to monitor market movements in real-time.

For parents, finding childcare in the pandemic is a struggle.

His ex-wife is remarried to a foreigner and lives abroad. His female relatives are too old or live too far away to help. He leaves for work at 7am sharp. Trying to solve the logistics of childcare is exasperating. He has been forced to employ an informal worker from the neighbouring flats to be with his children from 7am till 7pm. He pays her RM500 a week.

Such situations are found in households throughout Malaysia, with some differences in lower-income households where the head may be a single working mother who earns less than RM3,000 a month.

For parents, finding childcare in the pandemic is a struggle, but at the heart of the immediate impact of the closure of childcare centres or the ending of services by qualified childcare providers is the well-being of the child.

Longer-term issues unfold, too. There is a negative impact on the participation of women in the labour force, and there are child developmental growth concerns. If the latter is left unchecked, the nation may see disparities in its labour force generations from now.

Yesterday, the women, family and community development ministry said that childcare centres and nurseries, previously closed under the CMCO, would be allowed to operate contingent on approval from the respective state social welfare departments.

Minister Rina Harun said the ministry understood that the economic sector must continue functioning, with parents leaving the house for work.

But with many employees now told to work from home, and parents concerned about the health of their children, the future of childcare centres is perhaps uncertain.

Importance of proper childcare

A Khazanah Research Institute report in October 2019 highlighted the importance of issues stemming from inadequate access to proper childcare even before the pandemic.

“Time to Care: Gender Inequality, Unpaid Care Work and Time Use Survey” says that unpaid domestic care work is a pressing issue for the nation as it is a burden predominantly shouldered by women.

The report highlights that “formal childcare services may be inaccessible and unaffordable in places, with some households in Kuala Lumpur spending 15% of their income on childcare fees alone”.

The 2021 budget proposed allocating RM50 million for the provision and upgrading of childcare and preschool centres in government premises, hospitals and private sector offices. Experts say this is a welcome step up from previous budget provisions that were limited to tax relief for employers who provided childcare facilities on their premises.

“This socialisation of children is an important investment for the future.”

Shanthi Thambiah, a professor at Universiti Malaya, has conducted research for the United Nations Development Programme on the participation of women in the Malaysian labour force. A national strategy for childcare was one of the study’s recommendations.

She urges everyone to focus on how being cooped up at home during the CMCO impacts children.

“The benefits for children of being in professional and certified childcare centres include learning how to socialise, which helps build their language skills,” she tells MalaysiaNow.

“The way that the day is structured between learning time, play time and rest time is also important for the child.”

A Unicef report backs up this assertion, Shanthi adds. Its findings convinced full-time housewives and mothers in Europe to send their children to childcare centres for several hours a day simply for the exposure to a social setting with other children.

“This socialisation of children is an important investment for the future,” she says.

Learning how to collaborate, being part of groups, learning respect for teachers and others in authority and other behaviours are learnt in schools and help children to develop better. Shanthi says, “In childcare centres, the sharing of toys, books and food begins these lessons at an early age.”

Being stuck at home with one parent for prolonged periods during the CMCO, such as in the case of many lower-income families with few options, may lead to the child having diminished social skills, Shanthi warns.

Relying on informal childcare arrangements where the child is confined to a small apartment with insufficient space for play, she says, may impair a child’s physical, cognitive and emotional development. “We need to have professional childcare centres,” she insists.

Ideally, Shanthi says, childcare burdens at home should be shared if both father and mother are working full-time, but she understands the reality.

“Many female staff attend to work matters only after the cooking, cleaning, and washing up are all done, and the husband and children are asleep. This means bosses will receive emails from their female staff late at night, and also because shared laptops are used during the day by the children for online classes.”

As more employees work from home during the CMCO, the need for childcare centres at work is reduced. This creates the danger that employers may not see the need for such facilities if remote working becomes an entrenched practice long after the pandemic is over.

Shanthi tells MalaysiaNow, “As the government has pledged its support for childcare facilities at work, employers should also pledge support for this initiative because if we get professionals working at these centres, there is job creation, too.”

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