24 Oct 2020


Shape Of Life Under COVID-19 Now And Tomorrow

"Will this life of isolation, juggling work and childcare and keeping grandparents away from the children become the new normal?"

Will this life of isolation, juggling work and childcare and keeping grandparents away from the children become the new normal? 

By Jik Madut Jok
When the pandemic Covid-19 violently thrust itself into our lives, and despite its late descend on Africa, we quickly understood what a threat to our physical and psychological well-being this disease was. But that was not all. It was unmistakable that this disease would also become a source of change to work life, the social order, family dynamics, love life, childcare and other fundamentals of life.

Under the weight of government response measures to the pandemic and public health advice to limit contact to the bare minimum, life as we knew it started to break down. As Coronavirus has laid bare the frailties of African health systems, the ugly underbelly of its equity-starved socio-economic structures, massive corruption and the diminished trust between the political elite and the masses of people, Africans have had limited options in their war against the disease.

So far, the only tool against this disease available to Africans has been social distancing. But we have seen how difficult it has been to maintain it for the past three months, let alone imagining the possibility of doing so indefinitely.

Majority of Africans do not have opportunities to “work from home”, indeed, a concept foreign to millions of urban Africans who eke a living in the informal economy! They have had to choose between adhering to lockdown measures and staying at home, to the detriment of their livelihoods or brave it onto the urban streets, risking their health and that of their loved ones.

But for the few of us who are fortunate to have jobs that have surely been affected by the lockdown but might not be entirely lost because of the pandemic, we have had other serious challenges wrought by anti-Covid-19 actions. One such challenge is how to combine childcare at work from home, especially if the kids are very young. I can only imagine how much more difficult it must be for families whose breadwinners have to make difficult decisions about who would look after their children as the parents struggle to make ends meet.

I have three little angels myself, all under the age of five, and my wife and I work and try to take turns caring for them, with me taking more responsibilities during daytime and her for the evening. While it was a consolation for people with small children to learn that children do not develop severe symptoms from this disease as do older people, children can still be vectors of sort, shedding the virus to people who are more at risk of greater harm, hence the decision to limit childcare to ourselves when daycare closed. This did not solve the problem of keeping children entertained, home-schooled, preventing them from hurting themselves or one another when the parent looks away for a few minutes to answer work email or phone call.

And then there is the challenge of keeping myself from becoming insane as I watch myself fail at everything every day. Being with these extremely active small people around the clock, feeding and educating them during the pandemic is not going well. Two months on, I am really starting to wonder how anyone could think this is sustainable. I imagine I am not alone in this colossal failure.

In many African communities, especially in the rural settings, childcare is a relatively collective responsibility of the whole family, including older children looking after their younger siblings. This is slightly different for urban settings, where families are disconnected from one another and space is limited, such that working parents have to either place their children in daycare centres or hire caregivers, options that can be out of reach for many families.

But schools and childcare centres closed down as part of lockdown and social distancing necessary for containment of the disease. In a pandemic, whatever still exists in cities by way of family networks that can assist in minding the children has also been taken out and grandparents are no longer readily available to care for children, as elderly people are at heightened risk of dying from the disease. This became the beginning of real struggle for working families with small children.

Now, as governments around the world begin to consider easing some of the Covid-19 response measures, many families with school-age children are thrown into uncertainty once more. If we send our little people back into the crowd in schools and daycare centres, the risks of contracting the disease and bringing it back home to older people are unmistakable. Or to keep them at home for the time being we the parents will not be able to return to work if we are required by our employers to end work-from-home and resume physical presence, assuming work from home was tenable to begin with.

If you feel lost and conflicted about school versus home in the immediate sense, the choice between these two is the only one there is, as there are no third or fourth options. If you are weighing these options and cannot find a workable solution, you are not alone. Any other options that you might find, apart from being expensive, may still be considered unsafe.

Will this life of isolation, juggling work and childcare and keeping grandparents away from the children become the new normal? Will the talk of “easing” or “opening” the economy really take place? If you live in Nairobi or Kampala, where there is a tradition of live-in maids and nannies, the reopening of the economy could mean that parents with small children who are considering rehiring their maids have a chance to first test and isolate them for some time before they resume work. These domestic workers will need work and income now that they have been sent home and have lost income since late February.

But even among people with decent income levels, the pandemic has diminished many of the support systems that Africans usually rely on to manage raising children while working. I can’t imagine how one-parent households, health-worker parents and parents who have lost their jobs due to Covid-19 are coping.

It will be an extremely difficult road back to normal. Which of the new behaviours we have acquired in the struggle against Covid-19 will stay with us and become our new culture? Which of them will we drop very quickly as soon as the pandemic is brought under control? Whatever we will keep or drop, it seems to me that children’s return to school will most likely become the determining factor.

*The author is a professor of anthropology at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.

*Apart from the title, this article was first published by Nairobi-based 'Dily Nation' 

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