National Network for Children’s members have supported more than 6500 children living in 3200 families with 4404 food packages since the beginning of the crisis caused by the spread of COVID-19. The monetary equivalence of the donations is BGN 135 454. These donations include food, medicines, formula milk for newborns, disinfectants, masks, gloves, protective clothing, helmets and more and they are distributed to families, social services and 17 neonatologies. More than 400 electronic devices have been distributed to children in poor families as part of the “Old technique for a new beginning” campaign.
The issue of survival of the most vulnerable groups of Bulgarian society – children and families living in poverty, single parents, unemployed, children and young people with disabilities is on the agenda again in the context of the current unprecedented global crisis. In the end of March the National Network for Children drew the attention of the Government to the necessity of urgent measures aiming to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe that will affect hundreds of people.
Our efforts didn’t end with alarming about the risks but we started real actions with initiatives and campaigns in support for vulnerable children and families. However, the major problems are spread in many different areas and their solution is yet to be resolved.
Human trafficking, exploitation and domestic violence
Increasing violence is one of the most pronounced effects of the crisis, which effects are already beginning to emerge.
“Lack of regular school classes is dangerous for children with risky behavior. This is especially valid for those who do not have internet access. School is essential for children to be socialized and to feel visible and meaningful. Now those of them with no internet access are excluded not only from educational system but from their usual social environment and therefore they feel isolated. Thus, they become vulnerable to domestic violence, human trafficking and exploitation”, said Vessela Banova, Therapeutic director of the Child and Space Association.
“Currently, domestic violence is emerging as one of the most serious problems”, added Dr. Sabina Sabeva, Executive director of the International Social Service Bulgaria Foundation.
The lack of access to the Internet is partly addressed by teachers who provide educational materials to the educational mediators.
Isolation of children with disabilities
Children and young people with disabilities and accompanying diseases, as well as the people who care for them, are no less threatened. “Many of the children and young people we care for have intellectual and physical disabilities and a range of accompanying illnesses, which puts them at high risk. The caregivers staff at the facilities are also at risk”, added Alexandrina Dimitrova, Executive director of Cedar Foundation.
Children with disabilities are particularly sensitive to the isolation which may provoke aggravation of their illness. An additional problem is the fact that virtual learning is not always tailored to children with special educational needs.
“During the online counselling some parents share their serious worries because they observe a setback in the physical and mental development of their children with disabilities. The break in the rehabilitation process proves to be very harmful. At the same time, there is no prohibition on working with children with disabilities under the appropriate precautionary conditions. In this regard, we are considering a letter to the Agency for Social Assistance and the municipalities to allow some high-risk children to resume live meetings by setting up a special regime”, Vessela Banova commented.
“Children with autism, especially in single-parent families, can barely handle in this situation. Measures should be adapted for these children and to allow them to for a walk once a day”, Vessela Banova adds. In her opinion, the learning environment in general is not adapted for children with special needs, whether concerning online or conventional education.
“We have difficulties explaining to children and young people why they do not go to school or to a day care center and why they cannot go for a walk or to the shop. Staying “locked” at home often leads to behavioral crises. Therefore our social workers and therapists are constantly planning and inventing new interesting home activities and for now we have gain control over the situation”, commented Alexandrina Dimitrova.
Poverty and physical survival
Undoubtedly, the economic crisis that will follow the epidemic one will put families and children living in poverty at greatest risk, because for them the issue consernes their physical survival. “Among the most vulnerable groups are children from poor families (almost 40% of children in Bulgaria) and children of parents who have lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 crisis”, For Our Children Foundation commented.
“It is still too early to assess the magnitude of the crisis. For example, the contagion and forced closure of certain communities would create a huge problem”, commented Dr. Sabina Sabeva.
The crisis has put all economic sectors on financial test. “The costs of our residential social facilities are increasing as more food is needed (children and young people usually have one or two meals a day at school or at day care center from Monday to Friday, but now they are at home all day), more disinfectants and protective equipment, thermometers and so on”, said Alexandrina Dimitrova.
“The care we are able to provide in our facilities is directly linked to the ability to fundraise at least BGN 600 000 per year. Unfortunately, despite the great efforts we are currently making, many fundraising projects and events have been canceled. We hope that things will quickly normalize because the needs of young people and children at risk are daily and remain during the crisis”, she adds.
Deepening disparities in access to education
The coronavirus threat and the state of emergency have set an important task for educational system in Bulgaria – to make a huge leap into the 21st century. The catalyst was the introduction of distance learning. The unprecedented situation has posed a major challenge for the Bulgarian education system – to modernize so as not to deepen the distance in education and not to deepen the disparities even further between schools with children from vulnerable groups and schools with children whose parents have relatively high education and social status.
One of the major obstacles to the introduction of online learning is that many students don’t have adequate or any electronic devices. The Center for Interethnic Dialogue and Tolerance “Amalipe” conducted a research in 200 schools which showed that at only 22.34% of the schools over 90% of the students have adequate devices. In 11.68% of the schools over 75% of the students do not have any devices and therefore don’t have opportunity to participate in online learning. In two-thirds of schools students without adequate or any devices are form 10% to 75%. Even more serious is the inability of some families to afford the cost of a proper Internet access for the online education. Dozens of teachers, principals, mediators and NGOs have made efforts to compensate at least partially for these shortcomings.
“The Ministry of Education and Science and the Council of Ministers have decided that schools can pay the Internet fees for families who cannot afford to pay themselves, but the issue of provision with tablets and other supplies remains open”, said Teodora Krumova from “Amalipe”.
Lack of information and guidance
“The main problem we face is the lack of guidance on what to do in case of suspected contamination of a child, youth or an employee in any of our resident facilities, because the facilities’ organization and operational structure and the number of rooms they have do not allow isolation and placement under quarantine. We believe that quarantining a full resident facility would be inappropriate because of the vulnerability of the users accommodated there (often with illnesses) and the inability of the employee to care for them around the clock throughout the quarantine. Guidance from the Ministry of Health and the Agency for Social Assistance is needed in this regard”, the Cedar Foundation commented.