Covid derails child development in Nepal


The Covid-19 worsened the disparities in young children’s development and learning in Nepal. One out of five Nepali children between the ages of 2-4 years are not developing on track amidst the pandemic with noted impact on their health, learning and psychological well-being, a new UNICEF study has revealed.

The Early Childhood Development Index (ECDI) survey conducted in August among 2,853 households via phone conversation showed that children from lower income families, living in rural areas, with caregivers with no or low levels of education, and not attending early childhood education (ECE) programs were at higher risk.

Even among children who attended ECE, those who attended government ECE were at higher risk of being developmentally off track compared to those who attended private programs.

Early stimulation activities like reading books, telling stories, singing songs, going outside, naming objects, counting, or drawing things were found instrumental for young children’s development and learning. However, the data revealed an alarming plunge in parental engagement compared to pre-pandemic conditions.

As the country opened up with the decline in Covid cases in August 2021 and parents pursued livelihood options, only 31% of children received early stimulation at home by family members compared to 73% in 2019.

A follow up survey in October found that mothers’ engagement improved over the time after she got over the initial hectic schedule right of the pandemic. The same can’t be said for the fathers, whose parental engagement remained low at 6%, maintaining a social norm of men’s reduced role in raising children.

This is just the latest in the series of impacts that young children have been subjected to following the pandemic. Early in the coronavirus crisis, repeated lockdowns and travel restrictions meant that parents were unable to take their children for routine immunisation, also resulting in an outbreak of measles in the Dhading district. Similarly, the dramatic decline in institutional delivery led to increased infant mortality.

Reduced family income due to job losses during the pandemic also added to the problem of childhood malnutrition in Nepal. School closures also deprived many children of getting one decent meal a day while they also missed their lessons with over 80% of government school children not having attended classes – online or otherwise in the past two years.

Among children in the age group 2-4 years, half of those surveyed were found to have been enrolled in pre-primary level but 34% of them didn’t participate in learning through alternative learning modalities at all, most of the children only accessed home tuition. While low-tech solutions like educational radio and TV and tele-teaching were almost unused, high-tech solutions like online classes were used almost exclusively among children who attended private ECE.

Underused low-tech solutions and unequal access to high-tech solutions might have further contributed to the developmental gap observed between children who attended private ECE and other children and is the proof of the growing digital divide between private and public institutions.

Following the survey results, UNICEF has recommended remedial learning to target children at a higher risk. The government and aid agencies should also develop a system to support teachers and parents to understand their children and figure out their learning levels through user-friendly assessments.

In many ways, Covid-19 was a learning lesson for future disasters and being forced to adapt to online educational tools has helped teachers, students and parents prepare for school closures. But the alternative methods of learning remain largely underused, mostly in lack of infrastructure. School across Nepal has to be trained and well-equipped with Internet facilities and electronic devices.

Having said that, parenting education, in particular, involvement of fathers and learning at home is of utmost importance and should be communicated as much in the communities.